Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

What Technology Wants

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Here is an interesting review of Kevin Kelly’s new book, but the reviewer seems to have problems with technology “wanting” anything. I don’t see the problem. Humanity has given rise to an emergent phenomenon, the study of which is called mimetics. Memes are idea entities, expressed in physical creations (buildings, machines, weapons, etc.) or foods (selection and preparation) or words or music or dance—basically, memes are cultural units that people can learn and mimic.

What happens then is familiar: faithful reproduction with some random variation, with all memes struggling for the limited available resources they need to “live”—from the memes’ point of view, these resources are human mindshare and human effort and time. When you have that situation—reproduction with some variation and limited resources—we know from evolution (another example of such a situation) what happens: variations that better exploit the resources available prosper, and those less efficient are driven to the wall and eventually drop out.

In other words, memes evolve. They evolve in a way that makes them more appealing and/or important to humans—technology memes tend to evolve in the direction of being more important, and memes in the arts in the direction of being more appealing. The collection of memes that are most in use for a particular people is their “culture”, and the collection all memes is “human culture.”

The evolution of memes is evident and on-going, to the point now that a human can be considered  combination of the animal part and the meme part—the cultural part. Not only is it hard to consider someone who lacks all culture and memes as “human” (no language, no tools, no clothes, no music, no cultivation… nothing beyond what, say, a wolf or orangutan has), but in fact human evolution has for thousands of millennia been shaped by memes.

I was thinking the other night about how difficult it is to look at a human as we look, say, at a dog or a cat: simply as an animal. When you look at the dog or cat, you see simply the animal. And perhaps, in cage fighting, the two opponents look at each other and see only the animal in the cage with them. But generally when we look at a person, we focus only on the memes—the cultural artifacts. Even if we dress an animal in human clothing—a chimpanzee, for example—we still see it as an animal, and even if we strip the human of clothing, we still view him or her through a lens of culture.

When we see a person, we pick up (see, or look for) information from the attire—quality, cut, age, cleanliness, fit, appropriateness to social context along various dimensions (including time of day, ritual being observed, relative social importance or significance of the event/situation, social class, economic class, and so on).

We see the actual person beyond the attire, of course, but look how much information we get from the attire (which of course could be specialized clothing or uniforms, all of which convey even more information—indeed, uniforms are often designed to carry cultural information such as rank, experience, specialty, and the like).

But even when we look at a person apart from the clothing, we look for and take in cultural (meme) information: grooming and grooming choices (cut and length of hair, the treatment of male facial hair, tattoos, piercings, condition and treatment of nails (finger and toe) and teeth, perfumes, oils, and unguents, and so on. All of those are cultural artifacts and convey information.

The actual person-animal at the core of the cultural overburden—the sub-cultural animal core—is almost insignificant compared to the totality of what we look for and see. Our focus is on the memes the person uses/carries/references, and we look mostly at the cultural rather than the animal aspects. (Try this yourself: look at a random photograph and see how much you get from cultural memes vs. the physical person—and, of course, the photograph and how it is posed and composed, etc., is also shaped by memes and thus carries mimetic information.)

Even when we look at the actual physical person—the animal core, apart from acquired social signifiers mentioned above (the treatment of nails, piercings and tattoos, perfumes, and the like), we find cultural information in the body itself: the condition of the teeth and muscles, any callosities, the posture and bearing, the weathering of the skin—all these are shaped by culture and thus convey cultural meaning. These are the physical results of memes. In fact, looking for such memes is a familiar part of crime dramas in which detectives examine an anonymous body: the culture significance and meaning of the body’s location and dress, and so on. CSI spends a lot of time sifting cultural artifacts and reasoning from the information thus conveyed.

To take a simple example, look at how Sherlock Holmes deduces so much about a stranger from the cultural clues—the memes the stranger has adopted or under whose influence he has grown.

The emergence prior to memes was the emergence of life. At the outset, life wasn’t all that impressive, but evolution combined with a few billion years makes an enormous difference. Memes are not yet conscious, but some are already starting to show signs of intelligence (theorem proving-programs, for example, and various expert systems that can now do a better job than human experts in the field).

Written by Leisureguy

28 June 2011 at 11:12 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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