The Power of Memes: Graffiti Kids Sparked the Syrian War.
A graffito is almost the ideal of a meme: an image (style, words, letters) that specifically is intended to be imitated: to propagate, in other words. And that meme was quite successful as a meme, and also showed that what is good for a meme can be bad for the host, just as what is good for the virus may be (and generally is) bad for the cell (and host).
Read the article, watching for memes and their evolution. The blurb:
It started as simple teenage rebellion but ended up tearing Syria apart, setting in motion events that continue to rock the Middle East — and the world. The boys behind the graffiti would become unlikely revolutionaries and reluctant refugees. Not all of them would survive the upheaval they helped unleash. This is their story
Briefly, a meme is anything you learn—i.e., is not nature but nurture. Ability to learn a language is nature: you’re born with it. The particular language(s) you learn, that’s culture-dependent as are all expressions of culture: images, music, values, ideals, and so on. All are memes (units of cultural inheritance, proposed in The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (chapter 11)) or combinations of memes: memeplexes. (Some memes seem to cluster (two examples of meme clusters: pick-up truck, rifle rack, Confederate flag; and, having an expensive car, often wearing a tuxedo, and season tickets at the Met. Obviously, life is complex and memes cluster in different ways for different people.
Since memes are subject to Darwinian rules—competition for resources (mindshare) and minor variations in offspring (as when a song varies slightly from singer to singer), then evolution is inevitable. Memes, unlike lifeforms, evolve at a tremendous rate, getting ever-better at survival (as a meme, regardless of what it does to the persons hosting the meme).
In a way, it’s very like the Synchronicity—cf. some of Charles Stross’s science fiction, such as Accelerando—when AI finally gets enough liftoff that it can control and direct its own evolution/learning/improvements. And in sf novels that usually means its own goals, which may or may not coincide with our goals as humans, an animal species particularly adapted for hosting memes, whose evolution in that direction was pretty much caused by memes, and for the benefit of memes.
And to some extent it benefits ourselves, of course, or at least some of us: enough food, great art, freedom, born into privilege (memes again), and so on. That gets back to this earlier post on The Cost of Consciousness, since consciousness is itself meme-based. The animals who lack memes lack also consciousness, and we define ourselves—our “who we are”—totally by memes: the who identity thing consists of memes. Who you are, how you fit into society, and the cultural knowledge (stories, songs, cookery, rituals, knowledge) that defines “you”—that totally consists of memes.
When I mentioned the cost of consciousness, I was initially thinking of the physical costs—the energy demands of a brain. But, in an interesting example of positive feedback and starts the acceleration to the Synchronicity, the brain helps us make things better on the food front (using fire to cook food to better extract nutrients, domesticating herds of animals and then plants, gathering into cities so specialized knowledge—wheelwright, for example—can be supported. Read The Horse, the Wheel and Language, by David Anthony, for a wonderful history of the evolution of these memes if you read it with memes in mind.
So the brain helped support us and memes more or less took over: all our work lives are spent, in effect, in service to memes. That’s the cost of consciousness. And memes evolve quickly and (necessarily) for their own benefit. That’s what evolution does and how it works. The book in which memes were first described is The Selfish Gene (worth reading), and the analogy holds: the meme also is selfish and in the same way.
So at the rate memes now evolve, can the Synchronicity be far away?
Note how our meme capabilities—our ability to create, copy, and communicate memes—has improved almost as though that were the goal of our species. The first big step was, I think, the invention of language. It’s definitely something one learns, it has definite survival value, and it provides a rich environment in which memes can flourish: ideas defined and taught, values instilled, and all the things we learn through language. But we kept working to provide richer and better environments for memes, developing written language, printed language, books, newspapers, radio, movies, television, and now the internet. Things just get better and better for memes.
UPDATE: From the article:
But he still wonders out loud whether a teenager from a devoutly Muslim and conservative province of Syria can ever fit into the sexually liberal, pork- and alcohol-consuming society around him.
Memes really have a hold on a person—it’s hard to just switch to a new set of memes that are quite normal to another memeplex/culture—and that’s in part because the person’s identity—who s/she is—consists of memes.