Thinking about Memes

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For a long time, two questions have pounded around in my brain. Thinking about memes has brought me some most helpful insights on these questions.

          I first came across the word "meme" about a decade ago, in a book by Mihalyi Cziksentmyhali, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. The notion--as I grasped it then--is as follows. As we humans construct reality, and use our creative urges, we make things: ideas and objects. Because we communicate in words, and visual and aural images, these ideas and objects may appeal to others and begin to (be) replicate(d); some of those eventually become absorbed into a culture and eventually, somewhat like parasites, seem to use the oblivious and unwitting human inhabitants of the culture to their own ends.

          Since then, I've thought about the concept of memes intermittentaly and applied it in my mind while trying to make sense out of what is happening in the world. I decided to write about my ideas, and then thought I'd better find out what the wider discussion on the topics of memes was. I did an Internet search and came up with a plethora of stuff--memes are no longer an estoteric subject. Much of what's written describes memes as "viruses of the mind", with the ability to replicate and destroy in the same way computer viruses and diseases do. I couldn't quite swallow this one.

          My concept of a meme was a bit different. I thought of a meme as an idea or an object that gets established in a culture to the point where it is uncritically accepted as true (in the case of an idea) or normal (in the case of an object). As the meme becomes assimilated into the every day life of the culture it slowly seems to take on a life of its own and, unnoticed by the people, begin to be used more in ways that benefits the meme than the people. This is often to the detriment of the people, but quite outside their awareness. The initial creators of the meme were undoubtedly well-meaning, as are those who continue its propagation--even as the meme acquires negative side effects. At some point, some memes tend to develop a form of malignancy, that can destroy their host culture--whose members are generally oblivious to what's happening to them--the ultimate demonstration of unintended consequences.

          Some examples come to mind:

          Then I came across a different definition of meme, from the field of developmental psychology. A lot of work and research is going on in this fascinating field, and being integrated across numerous disciplines. Of great interest to me is the notion of Spiral Dynamics (SD) by Don Edward Beck and Christopher C. Cowan. SD sees human and cultural development proceeding through 8+ stages, it calls memes. In this use, a meme is defined as a stage of development that can be expressed in any activity. In his books A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber attempts to explain how this and hundreds of other theories can all fit nicely together within a single framework.

          And so, it finally began to make sense to me if we think of individual and collective human development as a process of changing world view, changing value systems. We see the world through a window/filter that matches our stage of development. For most of our development, we believe that is the way the world is, and people who're looking through a different window are uninformed, just plain wrong, stupid, or even evil. Even though we may think we are open-minded, until we reach the second tier (SD's level 7 and above) we habitually disregard or discount information that is out-of-step with our current mindset.

          As we grow and develop there is a decline in our egocentrism. We move from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric. The 8+ stages described by Spiral Dynamics are listed below. Note that it's not until we reach the worldcentric level (level 7+) that we can see the whole building--and the other stages looking through their various windows. At that stage, we no longer see other worldviews as wrong or evil just by virtue of their being different, because we can finally see a more whole picture.

          Spiral Dynamics labels the 8+ stages with a color, to underscore the rainbow-like beauty of the development. The hard part to grasp is that no stage is more valuable than any other--all are essential and need to be valued. And, at each level healthy and unhealthy behaviors can be exhibited. Thus it is the health of the whole spiral that is important. Clearly, the job of those who have developed further along the spiral, is to nourish the healthy development of those at an earlier point, and to lovingly and compassionately aid them in their growth along the spiral.

          All of these stages are essential, none can be skipped, and currently most of us die well before reaching the second tier.

          The key insight is that someone at one stage sees things very differently and has a different value system from someone at another stage. We flow through the stages as we grow, contemplate, and learn. And, our worldview changes as we react to stress--we tend to move down the spiral when threatened, and up when freed.

          The first 6 stages are defined as "first tier consciousness" and the remaining 2+ as "second tier consciousness". The difficulty is that only second tier consciousness can see the preceding stages as good and necessary, and most of humanity is in the first tier, ravaging the earth, competing and fighting with each other over differences in points of view.

          Not only did this help me answer my two questions, it explained the development of us as a species (through the same 8+ stages that an individual can grow through). It also gave me a framework for understanding how we as a species are changing, and how (if we choose) we can move ourselves (individually and collectively) more rapidly into second tier thinking--before we all die. Through time, many species have become extinct because they were flawed in a fatal way. Some believe that homo sapiens has just such a flaw, and that its incredible drive to kill its own members (found in no other species) will be its undoing. But, the good news is that we are the first species to be able to influence the direction of our own evolution. However "if we keep on doing what we've always done, we'll keep on being what we've always been." It seems to me that:

          The ITP is the most useful process I have found to change myself. But first............ I had to want to.


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Bill Dillon (KG4QFM)
Pat Watt (KG4QFQ)
This page was last modified on August 9, 2009

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October 27, 2002
by Pat Watt