Category Archives: Research Paper

Cosmos and Culture

Dangerous Memes, or What the Pandorans Let Loose – Susan Blackmore (chapter 7 p297)

The Science of Memes
Memetics is rooted in Universal Darwinism—the idea that natural selection is a general process of which Earthly biology is just one example. Working from his detailed observations of living things, Darwin saw what very few people had ever seen before even though the process is always staring us right in the face. That is, if creatures vary, and if they have to compete for resources so that most of the variants die, and if the successful variants pass on to their offspring whatever it is that helped them survive, then the offspring must be better adapted to the environment in which all this happened than their parents were. Repeat that cycle of copying, varying, and selecting, and design must appear out of nowhere.(p298)

My favorite word in that description is “must.” This “must” is what makes Darwin’s insight the most beautiful in all of science. You take a simple three step algorithm and find that the emergence of design for function is inevitable. Dan Dennett calls it “a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” (Dennett 1995, 50). This is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the wonders of nature; that all the fantastic and beautiful creatures in the world are produced by lots and lots of tiny steps in a mindless and mechanical algorithm.
The whole process can look like magic—like getting something for nothing—but it isn’t. It is not possible to get matter out of nowhere, but it is possible to get information, or new patterns of matter, apparently out of nowhere by making copies. If the copies vary slightly and not all the copies survive, then the survivors must have something that helped them win the competition—using Darwin’s term, they are more “fit”; they make a better fit to their environment. Then they pass on this advantage to the next generation of copies. And so it goes on.(p299)

Is memetics really so scary? Possibly it is. Among the ideas that upset people are that all “our” ideas are recombinations and adaptations of other people’s, that all creativity comes from the evolutionary algorithm and not from the magic of human consciousness (Blackmore 2007a; Chater 2005), that our inner conscious selves may be memeplexes created by and for the memes (Blackmore 1999), that free will is an illusion, that modern computing technology is creating itself using us, and that the process of memetic evolution is not under our control (Blackmore 1999; Dennett 1995). (p301)

Some survive predominantly because they are useful to their hosts (e.g., effective financial institutions, scientific theories, or useful technologies); others depend on fulfilling human desires and preferences (e.g., the arts, music, and literature); and still others are positively harmful, tricking their hosts into propagating them.(P302)

 A good example here is the evolution of language—long a highly contentious issue with many competing theories (Dunbar 1996; Pinker 1994, 2007). On this memetic view language, like art and all of culture, is not seen as an adaptation of benefit to humans and their genes, but as a parasite turned symbiont. Indeed, all of cultural evolution is seen as happening for the benefit of the memes and in spite of posing a threat to humans and their genes. The human genes did, however, survive but the creature that was once their vehicle (i.e., the human body) gradually turned into a better and better copying machine for the new replicator—the memes. That is how we humans became such effective meme machines.(P304)

..there is indeed an important transition from memes copied by human brains to information copied by technology other than human brains. These “technological memes” are riding on top of both genes and memes to form a new layer of evolution. I’d like to call them “temes.”

The justification is this: replicators do not evolve on their own but coevolve with the machinery that replicates them. In the case of Earth’s first-level replicator, DNA, we have only a sketchy understanding of its origins (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995) but we now see an exquisitely coadapted system of DNA and cellular copying machinery on which most living things on Earth depend. These living things can be thought of as the “vehicles,” or gene machines, that carry the genes around and protect them (Dawkins 1976), or as the “interactors” that interact with the environment to produce differential effects on gene replication (Hull 1988). In the case of human evolution, those vehicles eventually became the copying machinery for a new replicator, memes. Could it then be that the memes will do the same—building themselves meme-vehicles that in turn become the copying machinery for a new kind of replicator, temes? I suggest that this is what is happening all around us now. (P305)

The Evolution of Culture – Daniel C. Dennett (chapter 4 p125)


This traditional perspective can obviously explain many features of cul-tural and biological evolution, but it is not uniformly illuminating, nor is it obligatory. I want to show how theorists of culture—historians, anthropolo-gists, economists, psychologists, and others—can benefit from adopting a dif-ferent vantage point on these phenomena. It is a different application of the intentional stance, one which still quite properly gives pride of place to the cui bono question, but which can provide alternative answers that are often overlooked. The perspective I am talking about is Richard Dawkins’s meme’s-eye point of view, which recognizes—and takes seriously—the possibility that cultural entities may evolve according to selectional regimes that make sense only when the answer to the cui bono question is that it is the cultural items themselves that benefit from the adaptations they exhibit.(p128)

How did music start? What was or is the answer to its cui bono question? Steven Pinker is one Darwinian who has recently declared himself baffled about the possible evolutionary origins and survival of music, but that is because he has been looking at music in the old-fashioned way, looking for music to have some contribution to make to the genetic fitness of those who make and partici-pate in the proliferation of music.16 There may well be some such effect that is important, but I want to make the case that there might also be a purely memetic explanation of the origin of music. (p135)

 Habits—good, bad, and indifferent—could persist and replicate, unappreciated and unrecognized, for an indefinite period of time, provided only that the replicative and dispersal machinery is provided for them. The drumming virus is born.Let me pause to ask the question: what is such a habit made of? What gets passed from individual to individual when a habit is copied? Not stuff, not packets of material, but pure information, the information that generates the pattern of behavior that replicates. A cultural virus, unlike a biological virus, is not tethered to any particular physical medium of transmission. (p136)

Finally, one of the most persistent sources of discomfort about memes is the dreaded suspicion that an account of human minds in terms of brains being parasitized by memes will undermine the precious traditions of human creativity. On the contrary, I think it is clear that only an account of creativity in terms of memes has much of a chance of giving us any way to identify with the products of our own minds. We human beings extrude other products, on a daily basis, but after childhood, we don’t tend to view our feces with the pride of an author or artist. These are mere biological by-products, and although they have their own modest individuality and idiosyncrasy, it is not anything we cherish. How could we justify viewing the secretions of our poor infected brains with any more pride? Because we identify with some subset of the memes we harbor. Why? Because among the memes we harbor are those that put a premium on identifying with just such a subset of memes! Lacking that meme-borne attitude, we would be mere loci of interaction, but we have such memes—that is who we are. (p140)



Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene

Dawkins 1976 book The Selfish Gene is where the term “meme” is first used. The relevant chapter, chapter 11, is called “Memes: the new replicators” (p 189-201), and was originally the last chapter of the first edition of the book.

Cultural transmission is a major characteristic of humanity, but is not unique to man. Dawkins discusses the research of P.F. Jenkins on the the saddlejack, (p 189) a bird native to New Zealand, which has developed a repertoire of nine distinct songs, and for each of these songs several “dialects” have been recorded in neighbouring regions. A particular dialect could be shared by one bird and its offspring, but this is not a genetic inheritance. The song would be copied by one individual from its territorial neighbours. Occasionally, the invention of a new song was witnessed, caused by a mistake in the copying of an existing one. This new variation could remain in a stable existence for years. Jenkins called this origin of new songs “cultural mutations”, and Dawkins supposes that an analogy can be drawn between cultural and genetic evolution.

Dawkins expresses dissatisfaction with the idea that the gene alone can explain the origins of human behaviour, and with his colleagues’ emphasis on seeking out biological advantages in an attempt to account for various human attributes. The concept of Darwinism, or natural selection, he argues, is far too all-encompassing and significant a theory to concern itself with the gene alone. He suggests if there turns out to be one characteristic that may be truly universal in the development of life (universal in the literal sense, as there may be life elsewhere in the universe) it will turn out to be that “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” The DNA molecule, or gene, is simply the dominant replicator that we have for biological evolution here on Earth. It has simply no reason to assume it’s the only one though. Cocky bastard. But in the absence of the ability to visit a distant planet, Dawkins wonders if there may be another way to see an alternative replicator at work, here on our own planet.

He suggests that we can find the answer in the “soup of human culture”, and decides to give it the name “meme”, coming from the Greek root “mimeme”, and resembling the word “memory”. In the endnotes of later editions, he gratefully acknowledges that the word “meme” came to be a pretty successful meme, while playing down the notion that he was trying to construct a grand theory of human cultural development. He was more interested in nudging the gene off its pedestal a bit. Among examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, ideas, and ways of making pots or building arches. The meme is capable of being spread in the meme pool, from one person to another, and may be thought of as a type of parasite inhabiting a carrier. It is propagated from one brain to another where it resides as a particular pattern of interconnected neurons.

The God meme is clearly a very successful one and has a very long history, It is replicated by spoken and written word, and is propped up by many works of music and art. Dawkins argues it has great survival value as a meme because it has a great psychological value in the cultural environment. It provides superficial answers to troubling questions of existence and destiny, and comforts people by having them believe that traumas in this life may be rectified in the next. Dawkins is all too aware of colleagues who still insist that there still must be a survival advantage giving rise to this particular idea inhabiting our genetically evolved brains. To counter this Dawkins points out that the mistake that is commonly being made is failing to see the meme as a replicator in its own right, which, like the selfish gene, has no purpose other than to get itself copied. Once evolution had provided us with our complex brains, a suitable vehicle was available and the meme, as a replicator, simply took off of its own accord. It need not be subservient to the gene at all.

Dawkins now discusses the meme in comparison to the gene regarding its development through natural selection, as it appears that some memes do well at copying themselves, while others are soon forgotten. He looks at the three qualities a replicator must have for natural selection to take place; longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity. Longevity for an individual meme will vary from person to person, but successful memes will nevertheless persist in various formats for a considerable time. Fecundity he considers to be much more important, and points out that some memes, such as pop songs, achieve great short term success but then fizzle out, while others last for thousands of years. Copying fidelity is given much more attention, and Dawkins admits to being on shaky ground here. He points out that more complex ideas may be spread from person to person, each having their own different variations, and that which remains common to all may be considered the true meme.

He considers further the similarities between memes and genes in the context of how they may group together. Co-adapted gene complexes have developed in animals, stable groupings of individual genes which get passed on together and can be effectively thought of as single entities. As a comparison to memes, Dawkins says the God meme may be associated with the meme for hell and eternal damnation, as one reinforces the propagation of the other, strengthening both their positions in the meme pool. The meme for faith comes into play here too, as a meme which discourages rational enquiry and a desire for evidence will naturally tend to survive as its viability won’t be questioned. Conversely, a gene for celibacy would surely quickly reach a genetic dead end, but a meme for celibacy would fare much better. In the priesthood, the celibacy meme would stand the best chance of being passed on if the carrier were able to devote as much time as possible to spreading it. Therefore it would have greater survival value than the meme for marriage, which would compete far too much for the priest’s time and resources. These co-adapted meme complexes are therefore very significant, as they take into account the cultural environment (other memes) in which the memes find themselves, and where they must battle for supremacy. Dawkins reflects that whereas the genetic information of an individual gets heavily diluted after a few generations, ideas, academic achievements and works of art can last for a very long time indeed.

Dawkins reiterates the point that when we are looking at the survival of memes in the meme pool, we in no way need to see any biological advantage – memes needn’t provide any advantage to anyone or anything other than themselves.

The chapter ends on an optimistic note, as Dawkins expresses the hope that despite the evolutionary evidence to the contrary, we as a species have developed to the point where we are capable of foresight and true altruism. He supposes that even if we are fundamentally selfish beings, we have the power to resist the selfish genes (and memes) that created us. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (p 201)

Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Since the development of engraving and woodblock, then lithography, then photography, the work of art has been mechanically reproducible, changing profoundly how we are exposed to information. This, and the development of the film, has changed how we see traditional, original artworks.

The “aura” of a work of art is that which is lost in its reproduction. This includes its uniqueness, its state of repair, history of ownership and so on. Reproduction also allows the viewer to experience the work in a lesser form in his own situation, meeting it half way. This adds up to a shattering of tradition which has broader societal repercussions outside of the realm of art.

The masses are increasingly inclined to sacrifice access to the authenticity of the original object in order to quickly grasp the reproduction, and a sense of the aura of the original is lost.

As new forms of art have developed since the invention of reproduction and photography, the idea of the aura of the original, historical work has ceased to make sense. In art designed from its conception to be reproduced, it makes no sense to ask for an “original”. We also have the rise of “pure” art which needn’t perform any social function and and is self-reflexive. This process WB sees as taking art out of the realm of ritual (historical) and into the realm of politics.

Art has shifted from having a cult value, such as prehistoric works which were intended to have magical or spiritual significance, to a modern emphasis on exhibition value and accessibility.

There has been difficulty in accepting photography and especially film as unique modes of expression, with many critics insisting on discussing them in the context of traditional, ritualistic forms such as painting. It would have been more useful to examine the effects the newer forms were having on the status of art in general

There is a profound difference for the actor between stage and film work. On stage he can see and react to the audience, and performs his piece in its entirety at one time. In film he is detached from the audience, a prop to be used, surrounded by equipment and his performances will be later edited together in a way over which he’ll have no control. This in turn leads to a public projection of the actor’s personality for the film studio’s promotion, a projection which may bear little or no relation to the actual person, but is demanded by consumerist forces anyway.

There’s a growing sense in film, which also happened in literature, of the spectator being able to take part in the making of the piece, such as when part of the content of newspapers might be letters and comments sent in by readers. In the Soviet Union this ability becomes a valid aspect of work itself.

There’s a difference between the reality that the cameraman presents and that of a painter. The cameraman permeates deep into the real world and presents an edited version of what he sees uncluttered by the evidence of the equipment used to capture it. A painter always maintains a natural distance from reality.

Since film can be seen by a large audience simultaneously, it tends to promote an acceptance among the masses, who can collectively enjoy its merits thereby increasing its accessibility.

Photography and film have the ability to present us with records of subtle human movement which weren’t accessible before its invention, in contrast with painting. He equates this with psychoanalysis and its ability to reveal our unconscious impulses. Almost went a whole day there without encountering Freud  –  F.O.F (Fuck Off Freud). That really should be a meme.

The Dada movement went out of its way to remove the aura from art, assaulting the senses and attempting to prevent the viewer from entering into a chin-stroking, contemplative state of reverent appreciation. WB argues that film achieves the same effect, as the viewer doesn’t get a chance to focus on one image before the next one is presented.

WB quotes Duhamel’s opinion on movies – “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” – If this was a modern-day pitch for a reality TV show it would be snapped up immediately. WB counters this opinion though by explaining that a distracted state in the viewer is in fact a very receptive one, as ideas absorbed in this state must be aquired through habit and repetition, and will be absorbed at a deeper level.

The epilogue discusses the social and political implications with respect to fascism, and its goal of introducing aesthetic expression into political life while preserving property relationships. War can be the only outcome from this situation. Communism can respond to this by politicizing art.


Hito Steyerl – In Defense of the Poor Image

A nice piece on the status of the “poor image”, or digital image that has been passed along, compressed, copied and renamed until it becomes difficult to decipher and is of dubious origins and intention.

Low Resolutions

A hierarchy exists that the higher the resolution and fidelity of a still or moving image, the more intrinsic, artistic “worth” it has, even though this view is mainly propagated by a male-dominated, capitalist studio culture. The rich image established its own set of hierarchies, with new technologies offering more and more possibilities to creatively degrade it.

Resurrection (As Poor Images)

In the last few decades, the proliferation of commercial media, rise of the cineplex, and of monopolies on broadcasting has pushed the production and distribution of non-commercial, experimental works further underground. Only more recently, with the advent of digital media-streaming services, has the situation begun to change. Though the discerning viewer may expect to have to wade through a large amount of shite to get to worthy content, at least it’s out there now. Many works of avant-garde, essayistic, and non-commercial cinema have been resurrected as poor images. Whether they like it or not.

Privatization and Piracy

The condition and existence of poor images betrays their origins as having been previously marginalised and subsequent re-emergence. Poor images are poor because they are not assigned any value within the class society of images—their status as illicit or degraded grants them exemption from its criteria. There is also the issue of nations undergoing political change and cultural shifts, where new histories are created and old ones discarded. What may have once been a well maintained, high fidelity archive becomes too expensive to maintain, and eventually will go the path of re-emergence as poor images.

Imperfect Cinema

The notion, predicted by Garcia Espinosa in Cuba in 1960s, that “imperfect cinema” is a progressive antidote to capitalist, technically masterful “perfect” cinema. The rise of video technology would lead to a greater democracy of production, allowing ordinary people a voice and platform. While Steyerl draws a parallel between that development and the status of the poor image, she also makes the point that digital communication is also subject to more negative influences, such as hate speech, porn, spam and aggressive consumerist forces.

Poor images are thus popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission. 

The poor image needs to be re-assessed in this light – they are compressed and travel quickly (They lose matter and gain speed.) A parallel is drawn with the development of conceptual art and the turning away from the fetishisation of the visual, the commodity. The poor image has an inherent contradiction; while it can be seen as acting against the consumerist value of high resolution, its very nature (compressed and low-res) allows it to be easily propagated as information on the internet where market forces are waiting to exploit us with it.

Comrade, what is your visual bond today?

The reverse can also be seen to happen though, as the poor images through their circulation find and create a sense of community among an audience who are tuned in to their status as an alternative, militant collection of images. They do this by being carried by the very commercial media streams which try to utilise them for gain. They can be said to relate to Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “visual bond”, a sort of communist, visual academic language which could link the workers of the world with each other. The poor image can therefore be a vital part of non-conformist, militant movements.


Marcus Chown, “The Never-Ending Days of being Dead”, 2007, Faber & Faber ltd, ISBN 978-0-571-22056-4

Katherine Hayles, “My Mother Was a Computer”, 2005, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-32147-7

Susan Blackmore, “The Meme Machine”, 1999, Oxford University Press inc. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-286212-9

Stephen Wolfram, “A new Kind of Science”, 2002, Wolfram Media, ISBN-13: 978-1579550080

Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, 1976, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0199291151


Wolfram, Cellular Automata and the Computational Universe

Stephen Wolfram is an English mathematician and computer expert who is convinced that the the entire universe is essentially a computer program, consisting of no more than a few lines of code, which has been running since the beginning of time; or for about 13.7 billion years. Everything from cushions, to the laws of physics, to us, to spiral galaxies have been created by these few lines which are simply run again and again, with ever increasing levels of complexity developing from very simple origins.

I first read of his work in Marcus Chown’s book The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead, which is essentially an overview of current scientific thinking on matters of the formation and workings of the universe, collecting together and explaining the best of the current ideas from the world’s leading theoretical physicists. Wolfram gets chapter 2 all to himself, where his pioneering work on cellular automata is explained. These are essentially lines consisting of rows of black or white cells, which update themselves continually and sequentially through the application of simple rules. These simple computer programs can be shown, if allowed to run long enough, to produce remarkably complex results from the simplest of rules. Wolfram published the modestly titled A New Kind of Science in 2002, using 1,200 pages and 1000 black and white pictures to explain his findings to the rest of the scientific community. His theories seem to be as difficult to dismiss as they are likely to annoy other scientists, whose work Wolfram largely dismisses, claiming his theories encompass all of theirs anyway.

Wolfram’s work is also very heavily referenced in Katherine Hayles 2004 book My Mother is a Computer, where she is very concerned with Wolfram’s findings as they relate to her subject of analysing the current proliferation of digital media and the relationship they create with more traditional forms of communication such as speech and literature. She discusses his proposed model of reality, or “computational universe”, in the context of her interest in the Posthuman, where our subjectivity is altered by being combined with intelligent machines. Wolfram’s work with cellular automata has clearly proven very influential and contentious outside of the scientific community as well as within, as Hayles references and critiques the work of several other writers who deal with his theories during the course of her book. Hayles gives particular emphasis to the distinction between viewing Wolfram’s work as simply a metaphor for how the universe is constructed on the one hand, and the far more substantial claim that his computer codes actually generate reality on the other. Wolfram himself seems to be in no doubt that he will eventually prove the latter to be the case.


Susan Blackmore – The Meme Machine

Blackmore’s own chapter synopsis in italics, with my own notes in between.


1. Strange creatures

What makes us different, this book argues, is our capacity to imitate. We humans can pass on ideas, stories, tunes, and theories from one person to another. All these are memes – and memes, like genes, are replicators that undergo evolution. A brief history of the meme is given, and a few implications sketched out.

Stresses the importance of the ability of humans to imitate each other which we learn from a very early age. Animals are only very rarely able to do this.

The meme was first mentioned by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976, in which he stresses the importance of both memes and genes as selfish replicators. The notion of the selfish replicator was an important development for evolutionary biologists as it gave a better explanation for certain characteristics of natural selection than that offered by focusing on the individual creature. The individual gene will propogate itself if it can, that is its only function. “Selfishness” in this case should not be taken literally or as an indication of intentionality. A gene, or meme for that matter, is simply a unit of information and isn’t capable of this.

Dawkins wanted to illustrate that the principle of natural selection, and the concepts behind Darwinian thinking, had more fundamental implications than those which apply to biological evolution alone. He wondered if there were other types of replicators which could be seen as acting out their own form of evolution, presumably to bolster his arguments and provide his readers with an analogous argument which was more readily relatable and had the advantage of not taking millions of years to develop.

He hit upon the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, and singled out the Greek word “mimeme” and shortened it to “meme”. This monosyllabic abbreviation had the effect of making it catchier, easier to remember, and a better, well, meme. As examples of memes he suggested ” tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”. Memes get stored in our heads, books and other storage media and get propogated by imitation, being talked about, read about and watched on television.

According to Dawkins a key characteristic of the meme is that it acts like a parasite infecting a host, and can be seen as a replicating entity in its own right. In this sense it is inherently selfish like a gene, and will act in its own interest, whether this benefits the genes or not, and whether its effect on the host is harmful or beneficial. Dawkins disagrees with many of his colleagues who assert that ultimately all of human behaviour must serve some biological advantage. Now that our brains have evolved sufficiently to accommodate memes and they have been unleashed, he argues, they will only serve their own purpose.

Blackmore then discusses the idea of “meme fear”, and discusses the current status of the acceptance of the concept of the meme, culturally and scientifically. When Darwin first explained his theory of natural selection there was a great deal of resistance to the idea, largely because it forced us humans, as a species, to think of ourselves as just another product of a mechanism, rather than the direct descendants of a divine being. This was a difficult exercise in modesty that took some adjusting to. Blackmore suggests that if her theories of the meme are correct, a similar leap will be necessary to deal with the implications for the origins of our minds and consciousness. (She ultimately uses memetics to deny the self, free will, consciousness and creativity. Oops.)

2. Universal Darwinism

The evolutionary algorithm requires replication, heredity, and selection to run – and when it runs it produces design out of nowhere. If memes are replicators then the design of societies and minds is an evolutionary process. We must remember, though, that memes and genes are different in many ways. Their similarity is that both effectively say “Copy me!”. Examples of self-replicating “copy me” memes are provided from chain letters to political beliefs.

Daniel Dennett is referenced (page 11), as describing the whole evolutionary process as an algorithm, or mindless procedure which, when put into motion, must produce an outcome. Our relationships with machines is very algorithmic, as when we interact with them we know we must follow certain steps in a particular order, or we won’t get the desired result (reference Hayles?). The point of an algorithm is that it is substrate-neutral, or can run on a variety of different systems, including us. Only the logic of the algorithm, the instructions contained within it, is important.

The point of the evolutionary algorithm is that it allows for design to come out of apparently nowhere, without the need for a designer or a plan. As long as there is heredity, variation and selection, attributes which Blackmore argues they do, it is inevitable that evolution will occur. There is no way to predict what kind of design will result without running the process and observing it. The complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann is referenced (page 13) who likens the evolution of life to an incompressible computer algorithm (Wolfram, Chaitin, mathematical irreducibility ?)

American Psychologist Donald Campbell (page 17) argued that organic evolution, creative thought and cultural evolution resemble each other and do so because all are evolving systems where there is blind variation between the replicated units and selective retention of some units at the expense of others. The important point is that he wasn’t deriving this idea from biological principles directly, but suggesting that organic evolution is simply one instance of a general principle of evolution which encompasses various forms.

The idea of the memeplex, or sets of related memes that group together to more easily propagate themselves, is introduced.

Dennett referenced again (page 22) saying that our minds are the result of the interplay of memes, and human consciousness is a result of them. The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind itself is an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes (Dennett 1991, page 207).



3. The evolution of culture

Inventions are memes, from the origins of farming, to engines, books and coca cola cans. But who benefits? We may think we do but according to memetic theory it is the memes themselves who are the beneficiaries, not the genes, and certainly not us – their creatures.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994) is referenced as explicitly applying evolutionary thinking to the development of language, considering heredity, variation and isolation in allowing variations to emerge (p 25). This is in contrast to previous modes of thought which looked at the development of culture as a simple accumulation of knowledge and ideas over a period of time. However, he stops short of considering a selfish replicator as an agent in this process, or explaining why language developed in the first place. Blackmore is sceptical of others who have the same approach, and thinks that the problem is that many theorists don’t seperate the general principles of evolutionary theory from biological evolutionary theory. (Dawkins had the same difficulty in The Selfish Gene with his contemporaries – they were always inclined towards seeing a biological advantage to everything) Blackmore argues that memetic theory can shed much light on the issue of how culture evolves.

It is essential, to understand memetic theory, to see the meme as a selfish replicator in its own right, which isn’t subordinate to the gene. Where the two coexist, there will be conflicts of interest between them; sometimes the gene wins, sometimes the meme. As for the question of who benefits (Dennett addressed this in 1995 (p 30)), the answer is nobody, apart from the replicator itself. The successful meme gets itself copied, there is no need to ask why that benefits us (it needn’t), or if it benefits the genes (it might, it mightn’t.)

From p 31 Blackmore reviews the work of several theorists who have considered cultural evolution. Two camps – herself, Dawkins and Dennett, Boyd and Richerson, who believe that the meme is a true selfish replicator not controlled by the gene, and others, like Alexander, Lumsden and Wilson, who believe the gene ultimately wins out. The “Leash Theory” is introduced, comparing the relationship of the gene and the meme to that of a dog and its owner. The dog owner (gene) can let the dog (meme) wander off on the leash, but even if the leash grows long, the dog can never escape or control the owner. Blackmore argues that the dog is just as likely to gain control.

Evolutionary psychology is mentioned (p 35), (Pinker 1997) which maintains that all our beliefs, behaviors and tendencies are adaptations we have undergone in our distant past to adapt to a hunter-gatherer way of life. In other words all of our behaviour ultimately comes back to biological advantage. Blacmore argues that this viewpoint, while useful, doesn’t sufficiently explain our development, and we need to consider the relationship between the gene and meme in our evolution.



4. Taking the meme’s eye view

Why can’t we stop thinking ? The surprising answer from memetics is that it is because the memes force us to keep thinking – and talking – to spread more memes.
Some words of caution – Not everything is a meme, only those things that are passed on by imitation are memes. Distinctions between imitation, contagion, and social learning are made. A lot of what we experience through perception and learning has nothing to do with memes.

5. Three problems with memes

Three important problems are discussed. We cannot specify the unit of a meme, we do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes, and memetic evolution appears to be “Lamarckian”. This last has caused enormous controversy but rests upon a false comparison between genetic and memetic evolution.

6. The big brain

No one knows why the human brain is so relatively enormous. The origins of the human brain are discussed along with various theories of its origins. A new memetic theory is proposed – that memes designed the human brain for their own replication.

7. The origins of language

The evolution of language has been hotly debated for more than a century. The major theories and their strengths and weaknesses are reviewed.

8. Meme-gene coevolution

A new theory of meme-gene coevolution is proposed and applied to the origins of language. The theory suggests that language was created by the memes as a way of improving the replication of memes by increasing fidelity, fecundity and longevity. In other words, the purpose of language is to spread memes. Both our big brains and our language have been meme driven.

9. The limits of sociobiology

Sociobiology has made great progress, for example in overthrowing the Standard Social Science Model of human behaviour. However, sociobiologists believe that the genes hold culture on a “leash”. According to memetics this is wrong – the memes have leapt off the leash and are driving the genes. The concept of memetic drive takes us far beyond the interests of the genes.

10. An orgasm saved my life

Sex spreads memes. The sociobiology of sex is reviewed and the importance of love, beauty, and parental investment considered. Biological approaches can explain a lot about sex but mysteries remain.

11. Sex in the modern world

From the genes’ point of view the major mysteries of modern human sexual behaviour are celibacy, birth control, and adoption. Each of these can be easily explained in terms of an advantage to memes – not genes.

12. A memetic theory of altruism

Altruism has long been a problem for genetic explanations of behaviour. The varieties of human altruism and cooperation are reviewed. Conflict between genes and memes appear and again can be resolved by seeing that the meme is a replicator in its own right.

13. The altruism trick

A new theory of memetic altruism is proposed. Altruism spreads memes and therefore thrives even at the expense of the genes. Some memes just look like altruism, but whole memeplexes (co-adapted meme-complexes) can use the “altruism trick”. Debts, obligations, and bartering are all affected by memes.

14. Memes of the New Age

Alien abduction is a memeplex, as are many other popular new age ideas. Strong emotions and inexplicable experiences provide specially ripe conditions for spreading false memes. Near-death experiences are another, as are the memeplexes of divination and fortune telling. These may all be relatively harmless but big money is involved in peddling the memes of ineffective alternative therapies.

15. Religions as memeplexes

Religions have been used as a prime example of powerful, and usually false, memes. Their power is explained in memetic terms. Religions and genes have coevolved, providing us with brains that are especially likely to pick up and enjoy religious ideas – even when they are false. The true insights at the heart of some religions can be swamped by other more powerful memes. Group selection (so controversial in biology) may also play a role. Finally, what is the difference between science and religion?

16. Into the internet

The memes took a great step forward when they invented writing – and then printing, and then other forms of communication, from railways and ships to fax machines. The important concepts of copy-the-product versus copy-the-instruction are explained. We can now understand how and why the internet has evolved and guess at the direction the memes will push it in.

In this chapter Blackmore argues that memes essentially created telephones, computers, books dvds and in fact all the tools we have which are involved in the storage or consumption of ideas. She explains this by pointing out that as soon as memes appeared they began evolving towards better fidelity, fecundity and longevity, and in the process brought about the design of better meme-copying machinery. As it seems to any rational person a little far-fetched to expect that bits of information could achieve all of this, she point out that genes, which are bits of information stored in DNA, have created gnats and elephants (p204). The answer is the same for both cases, the information is a replicator which undergoes selection. Evolutionary algorithm runs, and this always results in design. She points out that the design of computers by memetic selection is no more mysterious than the design of forests by genetic selection, a process which is very well understood and accepted. The consciousness of a designer is not required in either case. Design comes about entirely from the playing out of the evolutionary algorithm. (p204) (need to expand more here on selection with regards to environment, what is the memes’ environment?).

For some context, Blackmore refers back to the early days of natural selection. As Dawkins and others have stated, when the first ever replicator arose on earth, it is assumed it wasn’t DNA. This precise cellular machinery for propagating genetic information would come much later. Rather, it would have been much simpler, and what was being selected was probably tiny bits of protein or other chemicals. Gradually, over time, some of these got copied more often and accurately than others, and became more prevalent. Natural selection would see to it that more of these got copied, as well as other proteins that were involved in the copying. At a much later point the system settled down so that there were very high-fidelity copies being made of long-lasting proteins –  DNA. The key point Blackmore is making is that we should see the meme as being at this crucial, early point in its evolution. It is still experimenting with differing forms of getting itself copied, hence the proliferation of various media and devices for storing them. It has not yet settled on a stable, favoured method yet. (You can see this in the progression of film storage, where we’ve gone from early film, to vhs, to dvd, to blu-ray, to super high quality digital streaming – always evolving, always improving quality and efficiency of spreading itself around. Could be a good place to reference Hito Seyerl’s essay on the poor image.)

Blackmore now traces the development of various milestones in human cultural evolution to make her way to the internet. She had previously discussed language and now comes to the invention of writing. What writing achieved for the meme was the third of the big three; longevity. (Spoken language had us well covered for fidelity and fecundity.) Writing appears to have been invented several times in human history by different cultures. In all cases though, there was a gradual development and adoption of conventions and improvements were made over time.

Human consciousness is considered, as the driving force for all creativity. Blackmore points out the difficulty in explaining this, as it leads to a dualist position – that the physical brain and conscious thought are seperate entities, and there’s no proper evidence for this. Scientists are more inclined to propose that creativity is the product of a person’s intelligence and abilities, that brain mechanisms are doing the work. (though I don’t see how intelligence differs from consciousness regarding dualism.) But this view doesn’t account for all the ideas that are already stored in the person’s brain. A mimetic approach however, takes it all into account.

Blackmore’s point is that human minds are a product of genes and memes. Daniel Dennett is now quoted (1991, p207) “a human mind is itself an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes”. The history of writing is given a review; systems which represent each sound with a letter (our Roman alphabet) have gained more dominance than those which use symbols specific to each word as used in the far east. This is because there is far less effort required in learning the former, and the meme can be propagated further, more quickly. Therefore natural selection ends up favouring it. After the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of books, the meme scored a major boost, as now any sort of information can be in printed form. Before, with books so expensive to make by hand, the content was closely controlled by those with the resources and politial motivations to do so. The notion of memes in books Blackmore sees as a good example of natural selection at work on culture. The replicators are the memes, the selective environment is the mind of the author where the ideas battle it out for supremacy, and the bookshops where they are sold and the people who do or don’t buy them. The copying machinery is the printing presses, publishing houses etc. The point is that though people are crucial in the process, we don’t in any way constitute creative designers conjuring ideas from thin air. “We are the copying machines, and parts of the selective environment, in a vast evolutionary process driven by the competition between memes.” (p.210) Blackmore thinks of her own mind as a battleground of ideas, millions of which she has picked up from numerous sources over many years, and does not think of herself as an, independent conscious being.

The difference between the city and rural areas of population is discussed. There will be a natural memetic pressure for people to live in cities. Because cities are densely populated, there are far more opportunities to exchange and spread memes by meeting others, going to pubs, theatres, art galleries and so on. Once somebody has become accustomed to a meme-rich existence it is very difficult to go back. Competition in business, science, publishing and the arts depend on the transfer of memes, and as the methods of transferring them become faster the competition only increases. Though we may think, possibly rightly, that this is an enrichment of our lives, it really is for the benefit of the memes. (I suppose today those who are not on social networking sites advertising their shows and encouraging people to comment on them are at a disadvantage.)

The movement from analogue to digital was an important development as it increased the fidelity of information copied. The progression from speech to writing can be compared to this, language being more digital than indistinct cries or sounds, and writing furthering the process. A person who has learnt to read can distinguish a distinct letter from a variety of scrawls from various hands. This is a digital signal taken from an analogue one. Copy the instruction over copy the product is another important development. If you have a recipe or set of instructions for making something, you will produce a far better copy than if you try to guess or reverse-engineer a copy from an existing item. Working from a set of instructions each time eliminates errors and keeps the accuracy high as many items are made. This context is important because it has been key to the development of computers and programming, which are always sets of instructions. Programs are continually refined over time (actually, especially now as open-source code allows savvy users to make their own enhancements) and successful ones are copied with huge fecundity and fidelity and spread worldwide. Also, in the case of a word processor software, the documents that are produced are what constitute the vehicles to carry the original program, much as creatures are vehicles for copying genes. “The competition between replicators forces the invention of better and better systems for copying those replicators. The best systems are digital, have effective error-correction mechanisms, and copy the instructions for making the products, rather than the products themselves.” (p215)

The internet is the ultimate vehicle for the storage and propagation of memes. Blackmore wonders about the future and if the internet will ultimately remain under our control. Just because we built the machinery within which it operates, she argues, it doesn’t mean it will remain so as the system becomes ever larger and more complex.

17. The ultimate memeplex

This is not some super-invention of the web, but our familiar and ordinary “self”. What am I? A conglomeration of memes – a massive memeplex living in a brain. Many illusions are created by the memes and, if this view of memetics is true, we are not really in charge of our lives at all – the replicators are. Our “self” was created by and for the memes.

In the 17th century Rene Descartes (Descartes 1641, p 102) concluded that the only thing it was possible for him to be certain of was the fact that he was thinking, and that this confirmed his existence. This “Cartesian dualism” is therefore the notion that thinking stuff is somehow different from physical stuff, that our bodies, and our minds (or souls) are separate. This idea is not supportable though. If our minds are not made from something physical then there is no way they could control our material brains and bodies. Also, there appears to be no way to differentiate between the neurons in the brain which control automatic bodily functions, and those which produce thoughts and emotions. There are no “self” neurons.

The brain has about a hundred billion neurons or nerve cells. They are connected together in fantastically complicated arrangements to store and process the information which produces our behaviour. Neuroscientists now know that when we perform an action, such as identifying and pointing to a specific word on a page of printed text, many separate systems of the brain work in parallel to produce the action. There isn’t any one area where a series of inputs come in and processed instructions emerge however. There doesn’t seem to be any need for a “self” in this process, or any place for it to exist, and this is a very disturbing point. (Exactly why we find this so disturbing is what fascinates me, what’s the big deal?) There is the popular notion of the “Cartesian Theatre”, in which the mind is likened to a theatre with a spotlight shining on the stage, illuminating those bits of the brain’s vast store of information which are currently being thought about. This continually shifting focus is what consciousness is. This couldn’t exist though, as the brain’s focus of activity, depending on what we are doing, shifts to many different regions of the brain at once. “I” am not located anywhere. Daniel Dennet (1991) argues that there is no place in the brain where “it all comes together” but that the brain produces multiple drafts of what is happening as information flows through the brain’s parallel networks. One of these drafts is the verbal story we tell ourselves, which happens to include an author of the story. There isn’t one though, and can’t be. It’s only an illusion.

Benjamin Libet (1985). Performed a series of experiments in which subjects were asked to spontaneously flex their wrists while their brain activity was monitored. They were asked to observe a revolving spot on a clock face, and to note exactly where the spot was when they decided to act. There is a particular brain wave pattern, called the readiness potential, that is observed when the body is about to perform a complex movement, as it prepares the series of movements to be carried out. In every case where a subject moved their wrist the readiness potential was recorded more than half a second before the decision to act was made, and the action itself occurred a fifth of a second after the decision. It appears our brains don’t need us to make decisions at all.

David Hume (18th century scottish philosopher) said that even when he meditated, he would always experience some form of sensation, whether pleasurable or not, but could never catch simply himself alone without some form of sensation. He concluded that the self was no more than a “bundle of sensations” (Hume 1739-40). Consciousness also appears to take time to build up, as further experiment by Libet showed. The brain can be stimulated to experience sensations, but only if continuously stimulated for more than half a second. This leads to the idea that our conscious appreciation of the world lags behind the real events, we simply have a mechanism (subjective antedating) which restores the order to the events in our minds. As in pulling your hand away from the flame before being consciously aware of the heat, consciousness does kick in, but too late to have directed the action. (Could be good here to talk about decision-making in art practice, as I am so interested in authorship and all that)

There are then, two ways to interpret the self and consciousness. The first is as a persistent, real self which is somehow apart from and in control of our bodies. The other is more difficult to accept but much more likely given the evidence, that the self is an elaborate story or illusion that the complex workings of our brain makes us perceive. We are in fact only a bundle of thoughts and sensations tied together by a common history.

The big question remains though, why do we have such a strong conviction that we are conscious, persistent beings? It’s sometimes thought to be a necessary legacy of having evolved as beings with complex social structures. In order to survive and thrive in social communities, it is necessary to have an understanding of the possible motivations and likely actions of others so that we may act accordingly. But could we not understand our own behaviour without invented fake versions of ourselves? Blackmore wonders if we insist on believing the illusion because it makes us happy, and points out that studies have shown that happiness comes not so much from the acquisition of material wealth or recognition but from living lives where we get to do things we are skilled at; a sort of fulfilment. She references the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) who studied the fulfilling experience of “flow” that artists experience when they attain that point in their practice when they are lost in their work. This seems to be a sense of happiness through loss of self-consciousness.

The selfplex. Memes can change from being information which is simply out there to being something that “I” firmly believe, when they take advantage of and bolster up our strong belief of self. The more beliefs and opinions we have in our brains, the stronger the notion becomes that there is a “me” to do the believing. These memes are in very strong positions, as when they gather into memeplexes they form a self-protecting barrier into which it is difficult for other memes to break. As the memosphere becomes ever more complex and competitive, we individuals who are inhabited by them are expected to be interested in more subjects, hold different opinions, behave in certain ways, acquire certain possessions and so on. Blackmore ultimately concludes that our sense of self is so strong because the memes that have gotten inside us make it that way to aid their propagation.

18. Out of the meme race

Our place in the universe has to be reconsidered in the light of the power of the memes. We have no free will, and our consciousness is not the driving force of our behaviour. Creativity and foresight owe more to memetic evolution than to individual brilliance. In other words, we are meme machines through and through, and we need to learn to live with it. Dawkins claims that we alone can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but really, the book concludes, there is no one to rebel.

Sociobiology has always attempted to explain the development of human culture in respect to the selection of the gene by applying the principles of natural selection to psychology. Blackmore argues that considering the meme gives a far fuller picture of cultural development, as it takes into account the memes’ own selection in the cultural environment, and its power to effect genetic development.

The model Blackmore constructs of humans is that we are biological machines which have evolved over a very long period, initially, as a result of the natural selection of our genes. At a more recent point in our history memes, when they attained the status of replicators, co-evolved with our genes to give us the large brains which now house them, resulting in the selfplex, and the resulting illusion of self and consciousness we experience. “The way we behave, the choices we make, and the things we say are all a result of this complex structure: a set of memeplexes (including the powerful selfplex) running on a biologically constructed system.“(p 236) As genes continually fight it out to get to the next generation, memes battle each other to get passed onto the next brain, book or computer, and this is how cultural design comes about. These are replicators working their way through the algorithms of natural selection; there is no need for any other source of design power, and no need to invent the idea of free will.

An example is given of a boy named Benjamin who eats cornflakes for breakfast. His body has evolved to require carbohydrates as nutrition in the morning, he lives in a society in which cornflakes have been developed as a product, and is attracted to the design and colours on the packaging. He might claim, if asked why he chose cornflakes, that he likes the taste of them, but the argument is that this is a story he tells himself after the fact. Does he have free will? It depends on who we mean by Benjamin. If we treat him as a mind and a body, then certainly he had various choices to pick from, as all people have desires, plans and aversions on which they act. Blackmore however, does not feel that this is enough to constitute free will. She points out that in order for free will to exist, there must surely be an “I” which is capable of making independent, conscious deliberate decisions, and “I” must be the agent for it to count as free will. But this “self” which is supposed to have the free will is nothing but an elaborate story which forms part of a vast memeplex. All human actions are the result of complex interactions between our genes, memes and the complex environment they inhabit. “The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not “have” consciousness, and it does not “do” the deliberating.”(p237) – (she now references Dennet (1984) as having various descriptions of free will, claiming she wants no version of free will that relies on a self who doesn’t exist)

In memetic terms, a model to examine my own creativity might go something like this. My inherited genes have formed a brain which handles visual information well, and gives me good co-ordination and motor skills. I was born into a society which has developed and values education, and a family which was supportive of individual growth. Later in life my interests and skills caused me to associate with similarly minded people, giving me a rich environment in which to exchange and absorb a huge amount of information relevant to an artistic practice. This was further strengthened and refined by attending college, where memes are concentrated and propagated to a huge degree. Therefore, when I complete a new work, it could be said that it is a combination of memes from countless sources derived from my knowledge of historical art practice, and other disciplines in which I’ve become interested over time. The complex process of my gene and meme-derived brain have given rise to something new. I may well hold a firm conviction that I was directing proceedings by making choices at all stages along the way, but this requires the belief in a “self” which was doing the choosing, which is merely an illusion forming part of a vast memeplex residing in my brain.

Blackmore notes that creativity certainly does exist, and creative acts happen all the time. She just disputes that the generative power behind these acts is a conscious self, and is instead competition between memes. She also considers the self we experience to be very important, as it is a powerful entity that affects people’s behaviour. In terms of creativity however it can get in the way, as the most potent bouts of creativity often occur when the artist is in a state of selflessness, acting spontaneously and without self-consciousness. (I myself have never experienced this.)


Katherine Hayles – My Mother is a Computer

Chapter 1. Intermediation : Textuality and the Regime of Computation

Language alone is no longer the distinctive characteristic of technologically developed societies; rather, it is language plus code.

Language and code are now encountering each other in many ways all the time, and a way is needed to examine how this happens. Code, as well as being a technical language for computing, is now theorised by Stephen Wolfram and others as underlying the nature of the universe and all its systems itself.

Proponents of speech, writing and code regard each other’s fields with a certain amount of presuppositions, referred to as worldviews.

Turing proposed that a computer in any form should be able to begin with simple operations, and gradually add layers of complexity until we would eventually have complexity equivalent to human thought.

The Universal Turing Machine, as the name implies, can perform any computation that any computer can do, including computing the algorithm that constitutes itself.

Wolfram uses cellular automatons to employ simple rules to small black or white squares, which are continually updated sequentially and change themselves. Some of these demonstrate complex emergent behaviour, one even producing something resembling a Turing Machine. Since such complexity can emerge from such simple origins, he suggests that they can not only model natural systems, but are also capable of generating them. This is the computational universe.

Wolfram’s slide from regarding his simulations as models to thinking of them as computations that actually generate reality can be tracked at several places in his massive text.

Underneath the laws of physics as we know them today it could be that there lies a very simple program from which all the known laws, and ultimately all the complexity we see in the universe – emerges.

The computational universe is thought of as a metaphor for the formation of the physical world, even if it can’t be proven to have an actual ontological effect on its systems yet. This creates a feedback loop to the present which provides useful context.

Morowitz goes beyond Wolfram because he points out that once the cellular automata reach a certain level of complexity they can get no further. What needs to happen is that a first-order system leads to a second-order system, retaining and building on its complexity, and then you can have a third, fourth and so on. This will keep on going until we eventually reach a state of posthumanism.

Hayles reviews these ideas with some scepticism. Wolfram doesn’t get us from automata directly to natural processes, or from one order of complexity to the next. Morowitz points out this flaw but doesn’t provide a solution or indicate where to look for one.

Media can converge into digitality and simultaneously diverge into a robust media ecology in which new media represent and are represented in old media, in a process that Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin have called “remediation.”  note – Hayles prefers the term “intermediation.” Even as traditional media such as books become digitised, there is a feedback loop which then informs the older forms, and they reflect this absorption, making for a new set of contexts or ecology.

Notwithstanding their opposed viewpoints, Hansen and Kittler share a mode of argumentation that priveliges one locus of the human/machine feedback loop at the expense of the other. One says that the nature and quality of the media informs the subject’s interpretation of it, the other maintains that the subject retains their own autonomy and will experience their own personal reading of the media.
2. Speech, writing, code – Three Worldviews

A comparison between the qualities of speech and writing with code, Hayle’s position seems to be that code is superior to both. Speech is immediate, where writing can be stored and read much later.

Computer’s accuracy is tied to material, physical considerations, which is why they operate in binary. It’s easier to distinguish between two states than many. Same with language to an extent, we don’t have extremely long words for example.

In computers, changes in voltage are the signifiers, and the signified is how this in interpreted by other levels of code. The computer is continually translating between low level and high level languages and back again, much like the spoken and written word gets converted to a meaning of the word in our minds.

In language, it’s possible to have a signified without a signifier, an independent autonomous thought. In code this makes no sense, as each change in voltage must come from somewhere an lead somewhere else.

Computer code causes real changes in other physical systems in a direct tangible way, whereas language may lead to behavioural changes but these are mediated and open to interpretation.

changes to the language of code happen much more quickly and are more severe than changes to spoken language, and are subject to capitalist pressures (changes to Windows versions) The open source movement challenges that.

When we hear or read a word we don’t need to consciously run through a list of all word we know to identify it, it just comes. Computers can’t do that.

Author says that as reveal/conceal dynamics become more prevalent in digital media, it makes the computational model of the universe all the more plausible, allowing us to get closer to Morowitz’s fourth stage of evolution of mind reflecting on mind.

Talks at length about procedural programming languages ( c++ but Processing is similar) and about how classes and objects are formed, where behaviour can be modified and new objects can be evolved from those already present.

Sounds a warning about how we need to remain aware of how computers and big software companies like Microsoft condition us to become a certain type of subject while using the computer.

3. The Dream of Information

The notion that once we develop nanotechnology, we will be able to make everything we need and there will be no shortages, hence no need for oppression or war. Also, information is free to copy in the same way with no cost, except there is always a cost in terms of resources to keep networks running and in terms of pollution of old machinery etc.

Philip K Dick’s book talks about the notion of simulation and reality having no distinct barriers, and how the drug that induces the simulation ends up consuming the user, not the other way round. It is actually being used as a tool to control the populations of Earth and Mars, so ultimately is bound up in capitalist interests, going against the idea of information as having no real cost.

4. Translating Media

Discusses a website which puts William Blake’s literary works online, emphasising the original printed work as the superior version, taking care to recreate the original pages formatting and size as accurately on the screen as possible. Ironic that I’m reading this 2004 book on a kindle app now.

Schillingburg asserts that text translated from one form to another such as from printed text to computer text, still retains the same inherent and essential qualities. Hayles doesn’t agree at all.

Much talk of the Platonic “essence” of the book and how it becomes altered by the encoding into digital media. I’m not sure it makes sense to talk of this essence as being something relating to only the print version, as there could be many different interpretations from this alone.

Ok. Seems she agrees.

We need to let go of the old model of literature as a finite, static expression of immaterial essence and see it as something dynamic and changeable, inhabiting new forms of physicalities (computers) which infuse it with their own aspects of authorship.

Walter Benjamin has the idea of some form of higher language, like a Platonic ideal version of language, which exists above all languages in use. He suggests this gets hinted at when translators convert texts from one language to another, as they have to extract some essential quality to try to represent in the target language. Hayles thinks this isn’t how real language works though.

5. Performative Code and Figurative Language

Neal Stevenson’s Cryptonomicon, is a book which while printed as a paper text reflects the influences of the relationship between code and literature, while also encompassing the influence of capitalist forces such as Microsoft. (He previously lost a large file to software failure so is a big supporter of Unix)

A hierarchy between those who obdiently use computers and code, and those who actually understand how they work and so control matters. Uses HG Wells Time Machine as an analogy, the Morlocks in control, feeding off the Eloi whom they easily exploit. Parallel tension between Mac operating system, using metaphors like folders and trash cans while hiding the real workings underneath, and Unix, which allows the user to directly control matters without obfuscation. Capitalist control versus open-source utopianism.

6. Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl

It was historically encouraged to think of the literary work, and by extension the author, as something disembodied from the physical media, something transcendental which had a high value. There was also the assertion that the author’s own creative genius produced the original work, but this contradicts the idea that when a work is written, the author must draw on pre-existing conventions and appropriate inherited ideas.

The character is a re-assembly by Mary Shelley of her female Frankenstein monster, with hyperlinks in the text leading to texts about the various people who were used to make her up. The body is a patchwork, a sort of committee vying for control. Reminds me of Susan Blackmore’s model of the memes and genes battling each other in our brains making our decisions, giving us an illusion of consciousness and free will.

We are not unified, discreet beings but assemblages, like the monster, of thoughts, experiences and influences. Unity is not natural or even desirable.

Within all of us resides a great deal of forgotten memories, which could make up an entire other person, or set of people. We are merely the combination of all the memories we retain. In this sense the monster, being assembled from bits of others but not having had the chance to develop its own unique memories, is like us.

7. (Un)masking the Agent, “Lem’s The Mask”

Does our analogue sense of consciousness actually have an underlying code like digital computer code? Could relate this to Blackmore’s theories and her denial of the self and free will.

Deleuze and Guattari see the unconscious as being driven by a version of Wolframs cellular automata, where the computations that are carried out constitute desire. Though Hayles says they take too many liberties with how the automata actually work to get there.

At the same time, machines evolve along lines that mimic biological evolution, and they begin to develop traits of expression, and are ultimately capable of desire. Hayles isn’t convinced of what actually drives this though.

Lacan considered the unconscious as a type of Universal Turing Machine, operating upon language in a linear way not requiring any kind of awareness to work. Again influenced by cellular automata. The beginnings of language are in this mechanistic unconscious state, from where we develop higher, conscious thoughts. Then we come back to how this relates to Freud and his concept of the death drive. Seriously, why won’t he just FUCK OFF!

In considering the relationship between human and machine and where consciousness comes from, there is a shift from thinking of nonliving/living to mechanistic intelligence/conscious awareness. Our unconscious operates like a turing machine mechanically, but then gives rise to our conscious selves.

The problem of agency. If we are evolved from mechanistic origins, then it doesn’t seem that our agency can come from our conscious mind, and also if machines can be considered like biological organisms, they have agency even though they are not conscious in any sense we recognise. Sounds good for Blackmore again.

The king wanted to assassinate Arrhodes, so made a cyborg woman with an insectoid robot inside her to do this. The king had sworn that Arrhodes must accept her of his own free will, so she was beautiful and would attempt to seduce him. There was therefore a battle between the woman’s conscious mind and the program that was designed to control her actions. Agency crisis again.

Given the mechanical nature of the creature, even consciousness must arise from code, for as noted earlier, she has been manufactured rather than born. In this sense, consciousness may also be a mask created to mediate between human readers and an alien core.

Whether conceived as literal mechanism or instructive analogy, coding technology thus becomes central to understanding the human condition.

8. Simulating Narratives, What Virtual Creatures Can Teach Us

Sims made a computer program to simulate the evolution and development of creatures by writing code which generated virtual creatures on a screen, by creating discreet modules which could be repeated with variation, to first produce individuals, and then populations, which reacted to a digital environment whose characteristics allowed for a form of natural selection to unfold.

Sometimes in these artificial life systems the creator intervenes and changes variables to address certain problems. Often the system that evolves is more complex or unpredictable than the author expected. The point is that it is often easier to let complex behaviour, or intelligence evolve than to attempt to design it. Relates closely to Wolfram’s theories about irreducible complexity – the only way to see what happens is to run the program.

Dealing with the nature of the type of reality that the simulations possess; they are at their lowest levels ones and zeros, but produce complexity by the running of algorithms which are not unlike those of natural selection which produced us who view them. Hayles suggest that this gives them a certain type of reality no less significant than ours. This also doesn’t prevent us from attributing anthropomorphic narratives to their behaviour.

The realist approach to perception is to give most importance to the physical, actual object we perceive through our senses, even though it is our own perceptual processes (eyesight, processing the information and recognition of the object) which we encounter first. The virtual creatures remove this step, since there is no underlying corporeal “reality” producing them, just a computer and some code.

These processes are what we experience when we attempt to understand the virtual creatures, and we are also drawing on similar processes when we arrive at narratives to imbue them with our tales of defeat, bravery, survival and so on. It is this emphasis on processes that Hayles is thinking of when she describes us as virtual creatures. Or something like that.

We can ultimately think of ourselves as “hybrid entities” when we consider our subjectivity as becoming involved in a sytem of understanding that includes interactions with all sorts of actors such as the chair we sit on, the book we take notes on etc.