The Memesis Network Diskussion

Date: Mon, 3 Jun 1996 11:00:04 +0200 (MET DST)

From: Geert Lovink <>

The Memesis

Network Discussion

A Compilation by Geert Lovink

In this summary of the first six week of the discussion on the Net, one will find a personal, subjective selection of quotations from the numerous contributions, which were being posted by both invited speakers and the general audience, as far as they have access to the Internet. The discussion can be followed on the World Wide Web ( and also by subscribing to a mailinglist, which would send all the contributions as e-mail. At april 15, 1996 the network discussion on memesis started with two documents, in which the goals of the network discussion were made clear. I, being the moderator, opened, stating that:

"so far there is not much experience and expertise in the orchestrating of net-based public debates on technology. At this stage we are leaving the era of the introductions on the nature and the implications of new technologies (and the role of artists in this process) and find ourselves in the middle of controversies around topics like copyright, privacy, war on standards, cultural biases, public censorship and other 'old patterns' in 'new media'."

In recent years we have seen a wide use by artists of appearantly harmless notions which have their origin in physics and biology (chaos, virus, artificial life). Also the cyborg has such a scientific background. To start a discussion so many months in advance, was an attempt to break down the old consensus of the pioneers and show that media-art festivals, like Ars Electronica, from now on should be more than just a trade fair for computer-related art concepts. The Net seemed to be a perfect tool to vitalize the static form of conference presentations. The 'Memesis statement', written by Gerfried Stocker, was posted, which proved to be a good starting point for the discussion.

"Complex tools and technologies are an integral part of out evolutionairy "fitness". Human evolution is fundamentally intertwined with technological development; the two can not be considered apart from another. Humanity has co-evolved with its artifacts; genes that are not able to cope with this reality will not survive the next millennium."

Let us not try to reconstruct the following discussion in a chronological order. Richard Barbrook took the manifesto for what it was and wrote a similar, bold response.

"The major error in the Memesis statement is its use of dodgy biological analogies. The discovery of evolution was one of the key intellectual moments in the development of modern society. By offering a rational understanding of the origins of humanity in nature, it destroyed the intellectual basis of revealed religion. However, problems arise when the relationship is drawn in the other direction: when natural evolution is used to explain social development. In this century, millions of people were shoved into gas chambers because it was believed that they possessed 'genes that are not able to cope' as the Memesis statement puts it."

The scientic meme researcher Francis Heylighen from Brussels responded to this critique in the following way:

"Hitler was a Christian, so religion leads to the gas chamber. Stalin was a atheist, so atheism leads to extermination etc. The fact that some people at some point have misused an idea does not in any way prove that the idea is wrong or evil."

Heylighen than elaborates on the term 'evolution":

"The essence of the meme idea is that evolution no longer takes place on the level of the genes, but on the level of culture. The fact that memes evolve according to principles of variation and selection very similar to the principles governing Darwinian evolution of genes does not in any way lead to Social Darwinism in its old sense."

Douglas Rushkoff ("just an American who has probably watched far too much TV and spent a bit too much time online") disagrees with the "negative fuss about memes":

"It just boils down a deep-rooted fear of the human spirit. We seem to fear that, left to our own devices, we will rape and pillage one another. Unchecked, the cautious social theorists warn, human beings will drive relentless towards fascism. Social scientists were taught that the masses, too stupid and easily swayed towards social policies as destabilizing as Nazism, must be let by a benevolent elite. They see society as an ocean that must be contained; they don't realize that their social theories are like the temporary plugs in a dike that will never hold up against the tide.

And like the sad social theorists, the fundamentalists developed their own mind control control techniques. They believe that, deep down, people are sinful. If we were allowed to roam free, we would have no choice but to succumb to our basest desires."

According to Rushkoff, the Internet is designed to promote global awareness. Evolution doesn't always favor certain individuals over others.

"Those who fear memes and evolution really just fear progress. That's why so many well-spoken social theorists hate us pro-Internet, California-style utopians. If we attempt to slow the transmission of memes through culture, we will surely weaken and rot like the overly inbred royal families of centuries past. But I suppose I shouldn't worry. The anti-evolutionists are fighting a losing battle. Since their memes don't ultimately promote anything but social decay, they will surely perish in the long run."

How will Richard Barbrook's answer look like? We don't know yet. In his first critique he stated:

"It is precisely our refusal to accept our biological destiny which makes us more than insects. Unlike our fellow species, we can transform ourselves through thought and action."

But let's go back to Barbrook's 'fundamental' critique of the Memesis statement:

"If memes 'replicate themselves', what are humans doing in the meantime? We're not the blind objects of genes or memes. We are the subjects of history - even if it is not always in circumstances of our own choosing. The Net is a creation of human labour. Someone has to dig holes in the road to lay the fibre-optic wires. Someone has to write the software to enable people to use the Net. Without human activity, the Net is nothing but an inert mass of metal, plastic and sand. We are the only living beings in cyberspace."

The Memesis statement, again, says:

"As an analogy to the building blocks of biology, the genes, memes describe cultural units of information, cognitive behavioral patterns that propagate and replicate themselves through communication. From the 'bio-adapter' of language to the 'info-sphere' of global networks as the ultimate habitat for the human mind."

Richard Barbrook does not believe that there is such thing as an autonomous entity, located inside the technology.

"The Memesis statement regards machines and information as autonomous things outside our control. Yet, in reality, both technology and culture are expressions of the social relationships between individual humans. It is human activity which is crystallised into machines and information., not memes which create 'mass crystal'. Crucially, the statement ignores one of the central questions of modernity: how are the rewards of labour to be divided among the different groups involved in the social production of machines and information? Ah, but the social question is so unfashionable nowadays..."

Tom Sherman also stresses the social aspect of the use of technology. Based at the School of Art & Design in Syracuse (NY), he reports from a "burned-out, totally out of date industrial in the rust belt of the American northeast" and he comments on what is going on around him:

"You don't hear a lot of evolutionary analogies in factory lunch rooms or college coffee houses these days. The talk is about survival and how tough a place the world has become. People are forming relationships with machines, not necessarily because they're attracted to machines, but because they are desperately trying to get connected and/or stay connected with other people, particularly with those who can help them survive."

In this context the Web, for Serman, is becoming a "electronic talent database or tourist bureau full of resumes and brochures and maps." He compares this "indexical domain" with today's modern office:

"Same software, same information handling methodologies; but no regular

paycheck, no healthcare, no social security net. The Web is The Office for freelancers. Artists, that endangered species, when connected with/by computers, sit at a desk and look very much like office workers, telecommuting home-office workers. These are the new industrial laborers."

And, a few weeks later, Tom Serman resumes:

"Wanting badly to define ourselves at any cost, we try to figure what kinds of memes work best in particular technological spaces. We'll wear the damnedest memes, just because they flourish in a system. Apparently we enjoy indulging in evolutionary analogies, playfully trading strong opinions about the minds's responsibility to the body, wondering whether our meme pool is stagnant, expanding or collapsing, AND visiting and trashing the cultural ruins of Silicon Valley."

Herbert Hrachovec, philosopher in Vienna, contributes by saying "the printout of my neural reactions is not my neural state", in a reference to Kathryn Bigelows film "Strange Days".

"'Cognitive behavioral patterns that propagate and replicate themselves through communication' used to be called 'topoi', 'habits' or 'clichés'. They were thought to be social constants, stable but subject to alterations at the margin. This feature is lost in talk about 'memes'. They seem to be scientific constructs that can be handled like cellular tissue."

Suddenly, a report came in from the street of San Fransisco, from Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. For them, meme is just a word, "and in 'Ars California' words are always too slow."

"Memetic flesh? That's certainly not a sociological rhetoric of evolution or devolution, but something radically different. It's neither future nor history, but the molecular present, a floating outlaw zone where memes fold into genes. In SF, memes have abandoned the art academy, becoming popular culture for the 21st century. Memetic as daily life in cyber-city, the kind of place where the virus of the tech future digs its way under the skin, like an itch or a sore or a viral meme that just won't go away."

They discover the 'art of dirty memes', unofficial outlaw art that's practiced in hidden warehouses, storefront galleries and ghetto schools.

"Dirty memes? That's what happens when memetic engineering escapes into the street of cyber-city, and its scent is picked up by viral artists. Neither technotopian, nor technophobic, memetic art in the streets of SF is always dirty, always rubbing memes against genes, always clicking in (our) memetic flesh."

The cyber-feminist group VNS-Matrix posts their "Bitch Mutant Manifesto", command line poetry for seduced on-liners, digital addicts:

"Read only my memories. Upload me into your pornographic imagination. Write me. We are the malignant accident which fell into your system while you were sleeping. And when you wake we will terminate your digital delusions, hijacking your impeccable software. SUCK MY CODE. The limit is NO CARRIER, the sudden shock of no contact, reaching out to touch, but the skin is cold... I become the FIRE. Flame me if you dare."

In the meanwhile, several participants reacted on the Memesis Statement and Richard Barbrook's critique. Simon Penny reacts on the original Memesis statement:

"Humanity has NOT co-evolved with it's artifacts in any biological sense. Survival into the next century depends not on whether genes will 'co-evolve with... artifacts' but whether they can survive the effects of those artifacts. The 'future of evolution' qua biological evolution is only brought into question by the cancerous proliferation of one particular species, homo sapiens."

He advices us to think twice before our mind is thinking of moving out to take up residence on the net. Global networks as the "ultimate habitat for the human mind"?

"It baffles me that this rhetoric of 'transcendence via the net' did not die a quick death a decade ago. Doesn't anybody realize just how corny and retrograde the notion is? It is just one facet of a general argument against the body, which has been an ongoing characteristic of western philosophy and Christian theology. William Gibson's Cyberpunks proclaimed 'the body is meat' but they did not pause to note how similar their position was to that of St. Augustine."

Robert Adrian (Vienna) also comments on the 'modern' notion of evolution, as it is being used in the Memesis statement. It might as well be other people's evolution, not ours...

"Evolution is treated as a one-way street... always better, always improving. But the concept of evolution is not about 'progress' but about adaptation. This means that a species may be perfectly specialized for a specific environment but is utterly helpless should the environment change... In the future the world may become a very uncomfortable place for societies of high consumers. Presumably the memes/genes that survive into the next millennium will be those of the electronically endowed. That is: memeber of the electronic master-race. But there is not really much support for the assumption that because industrial culture has created this technology, it somehow OWNS it."

The artist Perry Hoberman isn't very happy with the "demolition derby". According to Hoberman, "the concept of meme has been subjected to such extreme mutation that its progeny have almost become unrecognizable." He therefore introduces into the discussion two "misshapen mutant memetic children": the Living Meme and the Imposter Meme.

"The Living Meme is cross-bred with the rhetoric of (strong) Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence and the wide-eyed notion of global networks achieving both autonomy and consciousness. The Living Meme is ready to run the whole show. The Imposter Meme on the other side always found grossly wanting and has been taking the rap here for just about every social ill of the twentieth century. A front man for Social Darwinism and Final Solutions. Obviously the Living Meme and the Imposter Meme are in fact identical good-and-evil twins."

Hoberman proposes to return to the original definition of memes, coined by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene".

"The meme is presented there neither as the building block for some eventual autonomous realm that would supplant biological evolution, nor to imply that the direction and development of human culture are completely out of our hands. The meme is posited instead as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. If we are going to use a term, we ought to have a reasonable understanding of it.

According to Roy Ascott, we should take meme as a metaphor. But there is no Truth behind a metaphor. Ascott is in favour of a "pragmatic approach".

"Is the metaphor of meme useful to artists? The answer is yes. Is the idea of a meme space, understood as a kind of collective intelligence, a community of mind, useful to artists? Yes it is. The whole collaborative enterprise in art is based on the idea of shared consciousness. It is the field of consciousness which artists now wish to explore. It is telematic consciousness which presents the opportunity and challenge to art as it moves beyond its lumpen concern with the surface appearance of the world. Can we speak yet of a memetic aesthetics replacing the old mimetic art? It depends. The meme metaphor falls flat considered in relation to the old biological processes of cognition. But in its post-biological context assimilated, transposed, transmitted and transformed by the processes of human cyberception, the meme metaphor acquires considerable potency."

Simultaneous, as one of the last in this 'first round' of the network discussions, Manual Delanda goes further on the the idea of the 'non- generic replicator'. In this, he critizes Dawkins:

"Dawkins adopted the term meme because the mode of replication he had in mind was imitation. Yet, the sounds, meanings, and syntactical constructions of human language (and most of the other replicators that make human societies work, such as contracts, laws etc.) are not entities that replicate through imitation but institutional norms which replicate through obligatory repetition. I personally would restrict the term meme to apply exclusively to patterns of behavior transmitted through imitation, such as bird songs or tool-use in apes, or fashions and fads in humans."

But besides replicators, there are also interactors: in biological terms enzyms and in human society 'speech acts', as Delanda suggests. Delanda warns us to be precise and take terms like meme literally, with proper technical care.

"The point is that unless we are very specific about both replicators and interactors when talking about non-biological fields, we risk falling into mere metaphor. Not that metaphors are useless, they are not. But the point that Dawkins is trying to make is precisely that the relation between memes and genes is not one of metaphorical analogy but of deep isomorphism."