A meme is an idea- the word "meme" was chosen to because of its similarity to "gene", among other reasons. Richard Dawkins popularized the term to emphasize the similarity between ideas and genes. In most discussions of memes I've seen, the external aspects of memes spreading from person to person are considered. The meme is often considered to be an irreducible atom within any one person. It is my intention to highlight the internal aspects of the meme with this story. As the combination of all genes within an organism expresses itself as a phenotype, so does the combination of all memes within a mind express itself in its intentions and actions. This is a little long, and a little meandering. Like every one in a set of genes, every paragraph here adds to and changes the multifaceted interpretation of the whole. Hopefully you'll enjoy it in the meantime, as you read.
Whether or not I am a "night person", I find myself out
and about at night most of the time. Most of the jobs I
have ever held have been third shift. I play with
Photoshop during my spare time. I have for the last few
years tended to colorize my abstract images with a
certain shade of amber- hue 30 degrees, saturation 33
percent. My monitor makes it by mixing some red light and
some green light- a little more red than green.
A digital computer has some special things about it that make its circuits easier to follow. If a voltage
signal is above a certain threshold value, it doesn't matter what that specific voltage signal is- in the
context of the circuit, it acts just like any other time it is above that threshold value. If a voltage signal
is below that threshold, it acts just like any other time it is below the threshold. There are even
special circuits in there that take signals and force them to specific voltages, depending on whether the
signal was above or below the threshold. This is what they're talking about when they say that a computer
only "thinks in zeros and ones"- in reality, the voltages in there are free to vary continuously until they
are forced back to their discretized levels, and they will always be acted on or "interpreted" as if the only
significant information they contained was "above threshold" or "below threshold".
What you think of as yourself is actually a grouping of
an unthinkably huge number of atoms, each communicating
with the others. Actually, those atoms are themselves
groupings of electrons, protons, and neutrons, each
quickly communicating with the others. Actually, those
protons and neutrons are themselves groupings of quarks,
each very, very quickly communicating with the others.
The word is still out on those electrons. But it seems
often the case that what is perceived to be unity may
actually be formed by communication.
Control is the destruction of information. If some thing A has control over another thing B, then A can make B
do what A wants. That is another way of saying that no matter what B wants, B will do what A wants instead. The
information contained in B's intention is destroyed, replaced by a copy of A's intention. Modern digital
computers are, by all appearances, miracles of control. They take these funky, nonlinear things like
transistors and diodes, and with them make square waves and step transitions. It doesn't matter how infinitely
complex the noise on your signal line is- when the digital circuit is done with them, at any one time, the
only information extracted will be "above threshold" or "below threshold".
The most successful video game players do not, while actually in game-play, admire the pretty graphics or
amusing animations. Any graphic element is reduced to the specific meaning it may have relevant to the player's
next action. There was an old game called "SuperQuest" I used to play on my Apple II. A zombie was represented by
an ascii 'Z'. A giant spider was represented by a '#' sign. No one seemed to care- the zombie could have been a
beautifully polygonized and textured 3d monstrosity, but it would have the essentially the same effect to the
player. Turn and shoot.
Modern-day programmers are encouraged to follow certain practices. To allow one part of the program to change and
other parts of the program to be re-used or remain constant, the different parts of the program are supposed
to depend on each other's specifics as little as possible. There are certain dependable things that are
never supposed to change- conventions that govern how the different parts of the program talk to each other.
They are called "interfaces". As long as a part of the program depends only on these unchanging "interfaces", that
part of the program will continue to execute properly, no matter what other changes are made.
An interface is much like an agreement between two
people to always meet at 6:30 at the South Bus Transfer
Point. It is not important how the two people get
there, so long as they get there at the right place at
the right time.
These interfaces are supported by hidden code that is free to change at any time- the "implementation" of that
interface. Programmers are discouraged from making code that depends on these potentially
changeable "implementations", because when these implementations change, the dependent code will no longer
work in the same way.
An implementation is much like someone's specific methods
to get to the South Bus Transfer Point by 6:30.
If a programmer hides their implementations well and presents elegant interfaces, control has been acheived.
The implementation becomes irrelevant to the rest of the world- its entire action culminates in the realization
of the interface. Any other information about it is destroyed as the program's execution passes through the
interfaces and the program "cleans up after itself."
There must have been a lot of thinking that went into the selection of the specific streetlights that line the
streets of America to show us the way at night. There are three different color-sensitive tissues in your eye-
one for red light, one for green, and one for blue. The green one is most sensitive- it has the most say in how
bright you perceive light to be. But for any given amount of intensity of light, it's always less costly to
produce red light. There were also probably other economic factors at play- there are millions of
streetlights in America, and with so many necessary I'm sure it was desired that their manufacture be with cheap
materials. Some compromise had to be reached between redness and greenness, with only cheap, readily-available
It is implicit in the name "genetic code" that the
process of gene expression is somehow analogous to
the execution of a computer program. This is in some
respects useful, so long as we remember that genetic
code is the messiest, hairiest, ugliest code ever
Genes are molecules. Nothing tells them to do the right thing except the laws of physics, which happen to
naturally compel molecules of those shapes in that environment to do this crazy and beautiful thing. Without
the aid of a future-thinking programming team leader, our genes have evolved to work with kludge after kludge and
hack after hack. There is no way to hide the implementation of one part of genetic expression from
another. The results of gene expression- proteins- get broadcast everywhere, knocked into every last nook and
cranny of the nucleus by the relentless assault of colliding water molecules. A piece of genetic code does
not request information the way a program might- the information automatically chemically reacts with the genes
and their byproducts. The information goes everywhere and gets into everything, whether anything wants it to or
Because of this lack of information hiding- this lack
of control- a change to a single gene has the potential
to affect the expression of every other gene in the
organism. Sexual reproduction, by allowing different
combinations of genes to be created, allows great
variation in the phenotypes of the offspring, even
without much variation in the available genes.
I had never considered any one piece of knowledge to be somehow different from any other piece of knowledge. They
were all just the tiniest parts of the universal whole, and it was my mission to learn what I could about that
universal whole. When my teachers reprimanded me for working on my science homework during English class, a time
allotted for English, I thought it was ridiculous. Time itself did not know about my teacher's desire for
English to be studied during this interval; it remained indifferent. To say that this class, this span of time was
somehow "English" in nature was nonsensical to me. An English poet writes about the satisfying blue color of the
sky because the blue light of the sun bounces off the dust in the sky and into his eyes; the rest of the
frequencies pass through, unknowing and indifferent, to light some faraway sunset. English and Science were all just
facets of the same universe; the names given to the discretized classes we studied were for convenience's sake
I was walking one night to work, as I have done for
years. I noticed for the first time that the night
world was colorized to a certain shade of amber by the
economical sodium-vapor lamps that dotted the streets.
I may not have consciously reacted to that special hue
for these years, but the information had not been
destroyed- it had bled into so many of my drawings,
saved on my hard drive for posterity.
I haven't been really happy in a few years. I never
understood the generalized dissatisfaction that I felt
under the surface of the half-smiles and inane jokes I
put on for the sake of others. To deal effectively
with the external environment, those internal
sensations had to be controlled. Their information had
to be hidden or destroyed.
Genetic expression does not happen just once, or all at once. It is a dynamical process. The visible result of
gene expression- called the "phenotype"- changes over time, because the genes react to the proteins attached to
them, which themselves react to the environment and vice versa, and vice versa. The information from
everything goes everywhere- but like all information transmission over physical channels, it takes time. There
are echoes and reflections of the information forming harmonic and resonant frequencies between the organism's
physical manifestation, its genes, and its environment. I don't mean to sound overly "New-Agey" about
this- I'm 100% serious and practical and real when I say they exist. They're hard to see, and they don't look
like conventional frequencies because they get thrashed to hell with all of the nonlinearities and distortions
present in the channels.
Sometimes I tinker with sounds on my computer. I use two interesting programs to convert mathematical
expressions into sounds- Goldwave and Matlab. I'd seen Jurassic Park. I'd heard the hype about chaos theory. So
I start throwing in some nonlinear feedback- one of the basic building blocks of chaos- into my equations, hoping
to generate chaotic, unpredictable fun. Distorted echoes, bouncing into and through each other- and all I got
was periodic waveforms. Yeah, there were some cool transient sounds at the beginning of each calculation, but
after a short while all the fun died down and this miraculous chaos shit was giving me steady, boring,
repeating waveforms, no matter what parameters I plugged in. I'd been had.
You could've taken essentially any day of the year 2002, replaced it with any other day, and I wouldn't have
known the difference. This is despite the fact that my observations of my external world could theoretically
change my beliefs, and my beliefs could theoretically change my actions, which could theoretically change my
external world, and vice versa, and vice versa. All of that chaos that those chains of feedback implied had
degenerated into a quasiperiodic waveform. In certain circumstances, there will be stability, where observation
will have no tendency to affect belief, and belief, no tendency to change action.
There is no such thing as the perfect organism, the perfect phenotype, the perfect set of genes. To say that
one organism is better than another is purely arbitrary. All organisms live and die embedded in a
certain historical context. Some last longer than others. That's really all there is to natural selection.
In a sense, natural selection itself is intelligent, because it optimizes genes (and by extension organisms) to
last as long as possible. In another sense, it is not intelligent, because it cannot choose its goal. It
inevitably marches towards stability, interrupted only by the uncontrollable impinging forces of a changing
One of the chief difficulties of logical reasoning using abstract concepts is the set of preconceptions that people carry with them regarding these concepts. We might believe some number of things about, say, "truth". These conceptions are formed on the basis of the total impression we receive when we take in that word. The meaning of the word is in the reaction it causes in us, which not only varies from person to person and from context to context, but also includes diffuse components which are never fully captured by a "definition" of the word. We may proceed to define "truth" or any other such word, and use that definition to reason about "truth", but we will be reasoning about the definition and the symbol we chose to represent that definition, not the total diffuse reaction caused by the word as it is used. Therefore, none of the conceptions the reasoner has about the concept of truth will be usable when reasoning about the symbol "truth" and its rigorous definitions. Even if every term used in those conceptions is defined and the word-propositions generated by this process are proven, we have not proven the conceptions themselves, which were left behind with the ineffable aspects of their components. This fundamental disjoint between the total diffuse reaction caused by a word as it is used and the "rigorous definition" of that word places certain limits on the power of logical reasoning in communication. It is possible to rely on the total diffuse reaction generated by a definition; however, that is also outside of the bounds of rigorous logic.
In what way can we say that a belief is true? If I believe in some proposition A, how could it be determined
whether that proposition is "true"? The proposition has some real-world representation in the state of my
brain, and if that representation could be decoded in a way that somehow corresponds to how the universe is, then
the proposition could be considered true. The problem is that any choice of how you might decode a brain state
into somehow representing the universe is arbitrary, and forms part of the definition of what a true belief is.
This arbitrariness flies in the face of the conventional notion of truth, and may not allow people to
usefully apply their pre-existing ideas about truth. In addition, because of the personal way that experience
shapes the brain, it would be necessary to develop different decodings for different brains.
That arbitrariness can be avoided by not even considering ideas on the basis of their truth. To ask
whether a belief is true is like asking whether a mouse is a good organism. Beliefs are part of a literally
evolving system, formed by each other, the believer, and the environment. The meaning of a belief is
how it changes itself, us, and the universe over time. This does not imply truth or falsehood. It exists. Some
sets of beliefs, believers, and circumstances produce stability. The natural selection that occurs at all times
to all things will purposelessly guide you toward these.
Sound data as it sits on your computer is just data. Image data as it sits on your computer is just data.
Applications are just data. It just so happens that the motherboard that your processor is sitting in gives the
processor instructions from its own semi-permanent memory, which then tell the computer to look at the first
few portions of your hard drive. These portions of your hard drive, called the "boot sector", are interpreted
as code that loads a master program called the operating system, which is interpreted as code that allows
you to load programs, which themselves are interpreted as code responsible for interpreting the data on your hard
drive as sounds or images or whatever you choose. Goldwave is a sound editor program that allows you to load
any file as if it were sound data. In the context of the operating system, an executable file
means an application, but processed in the context of Goldwave, an executable file can mean sound. The sound,
the image, and the application are only given their meaning as sound, image, or application in their
interpretation by the processor.
Likewise, because of our differing habitual ways of thinking, the "same" belief may mean different things when
it is found in the brains of different people. When people communicate, each will be affected differently by
the communication as the interaction is interpreted in the context of their existing beliefs and habitual ways of
thinking. Justin Timberlake briefly alludes to this in his treatise on genetic ideation, "Like I Love You", when
he says "Funny how a few words turned into sex". He's clearly referring to the unpredictable recombination of
meaning in the differing contexts of different minds, drawing an analogy to the unpredictable combination of
traits that offspring have as a result of sexual reproduction. Or, possibly, my own mind, with its
preconceptions and preoccupations, has generated a response to those words which is different from what
Mr. Timberlake intended.
I'm riding in a friend's car. He's probing, asking me
questions about how I've been doing. My posture is
tensed, slightly hunched. It would be difficult at
this point to hide the necessary information to
continue the illusion of normalcy. I tell him that I
suspect I may have dysthymia. "Dysthymia" is described
as a mild, chronic depression. But "dysthymia" is just
a word. It might seem like a certain absolution of
responsibility on my part to be able to pin my
persistent feelings of hopelessness and pointlessness
on a word. Or, it might be shirking. I was never sure.
To someone who cannot coherently represent for themselves what a true belief is, what must govern the
choice of one belief over another? The first criterion that suggests itself is that beliefs should be selected for
their stability, in the manner of natural selection. A second possibility is to select beliefs for their
usefulness. The question may be moot. It is not clear that beliefs are chosen by the believer at all, at least,
at the conscious level. It may be the case that beliefs are chosen by the habitual thought patterns of the
believer acting on the substrate of existing beliefs.
It was 3:30am. I was on a lunch break, and I decided to head over to a nearby grocery store to pick up something
to eat, like I had every other 3:30 of every other morning for the past 3 years. I crossed the icy street and
entered the large parking lot. The lot had white lights. They were the only visual points of interest; in
my boredom I looked at them as I walked. The lights themselves were white, nearly purely so. But the blue
light pouring out of them bounced off the particles in the surrounding air and into my eyes, while the other
frequencies, indifferent, continued downwards, barely heating the snow on the ground. The lights' blue aura
shocked and fascinated me. The instant categorization of the visual field into immediately relevant elements
failed for these precious few moments, and I saw once again reality.
At that moment I was reminded at the most visceral and preverbal level that my pointless, routinized life was
subject to change. Categorization is a destruction of information, a quantizing distortion of the echoes that
pass between ourselves and the universe, leading ultimately to stasis. Meaning is the change induced by
communication; to not change anything around us and to not be changed by what is around us is to make our own life
meaningless. To communicate with the universe in this process of change is to be one entity with the universe in
the same way that an atom is considered to be one entity.
So long as our beliefs evolve only in strict accordance with our habitual thought patterns interacting with our
environment, we will be vulnerable to stasis. To allow a change in beliefs not in accordance with our habitual
thought patterns is a leap that may appear to us as unjustified, for it is our habitual thought patterns that
form part of our concept of justification. To view our ideas as evolving dynamically, perhaps as being useful but
without a concept of their rigorous truth, is to allow these leaps of something resembling faith. Of course, such
a leap could only be sustained, regardless of its beginnings, if its entire end result was consistent
with habituated patterns of thinking.
A building I never knew existed behind the Pick'n'Save grocery store caught fire a few days ago.
The thin smoke from the fire spread through the sky, surrounding the white parking lot lights with a faint blue aura as they glowed in the night.