Thursday, April 19, 2012

Memes and Pharmacies

That rivalry proposal went in last Monday with no problems, along with a long-festering manuscript, so it seems I took a week off from writing. Now I have progress reports to do, presentations to prepare, other manuscripts to complete, on and on.. I need to make sure I keep up with this journal, which seems to be helping in keeping my writing pace up.

Vacation is over!

About 12 years ago, I read the Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. It was around the time that I decided to major in psychology, and I was reading all this Dan Dennett Douglas Hofstadter stuff, but it was her popular science book that really had a big effect on me - I would say that it changed my worldview completely, to the extent that I would identify myself as a memeticist when discussions of religion or that sort of thing came up (it was still college, see) - I really felt like it was a great idea, that human culture and human psychology could be explained as essentially a type of evolutionary biology. I still believe it, and so I suppose this book still really sits near the base of my philosophical side, even though I don't think about these things so much anymore.

I bring this up because the other night Jingping and I were talking about being tricked, since this was the topic of a Chinese textbook lesson I had just read, and I recounted the story of being completely conned by a thief once when I was a clerk working at CVS. I wound up going on more generally about working there, and I remembered that I had worked out a memetics-inspired 'model' of that store, which I hadn't thought about in a long time. One of the things about the memetics idea that had really gotten to me was that you could see social organizations as living creatures with their own biological processes - not that this is an idea original to Blackmore, and I'm sure that's not the first place I had heard it (like I said, I was also reading Dennett and Hofstadter at the time), but she did work it into a larger sort of scientistic system which seemed to simplify and unify a lot of questions.

Now I realize that the criticisms of memetics that I heard from professors in college (when I questioned them about it) were mostly right, in that it mostly consists of making analogies between systems; only in the last few years, with the whole online social networking advent, has a real science of something like memetics actually gotten off the ground (this is a neat example from a few weeks ago), and it's very different from what had been imagined when the idea was first getting around.

Anyways, I thought I'd detail here my biology-inspired model of a CVS store, ca. 2001. I have a notebook somewhere where I had detailed a whole system, with functional syntax and everything, for describing social organizations in terms of cellular, metabolic systems. This might have been the first time that I had tried to put together a comprehensive model of a system, now that I think of it. The store, I thought, was itself a cell in a larger CVS system dispersed across the city, which itself was a system dispersed across the country. I was mainly interested in the store level, where you could see different components acting as reagents. It was a strongly analogical system, but not completely analogical, to plant metabolism: a plants needs carbon, so it uses sunlight to break down carbon dioxide, releasing the unneeded oxygen back into the world. A store needs money, so it uses salable products to break down a money-human bond, releasing the human back into the world.

Of course, with plants the sunlight comes free from heaven - all the plant can do is spread out and try to catch it - while salable products must be delivered from another part of the CVS system: the distribution center. The distribution center emits reagents to the stores, where the money-human bond is broken down. The CVS system also emits catalytic agents into the world - advertisements - to facilitate the crucial reaction. The money absorbed by the system is energy which is used to drive the system through a reaction not unlike oxidation - the money-human bond is reformed systematically, with employees as the human component. This reformation is what really drives the system. Those new human-money bonds then go out into the world and fulfill the same function, breaking apart, as they interact with other businesses.

Looking at a business in this way totally changed the way I understood the world. Businesses, churches, governments, political parties, armies - all of them can be thought of as living creatures, or as organs of larger creatures, rather than as some sort of human means-to-an-end. By changing perspective between levels, we can see ourselves as means to the ends of these larger systems, just as our cells and organs are means to ours. Now I'm finally getting around to reading straight through Hofstadter's GEB, and so I can see that this general idea of shifting perspective across levels is an old one that has been astonishing people for a long time. But for me, coming to see human culture as as being alive was a fundamental shift in my intellectual development, one that hasn't really been superseded since. I haven't become a real memeticist yet, but it's all still there, underneath... these tiny tendrils of memetics live yet...

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