I'm going to level with you: I'm an engineer, not a scientist. It's just a fundamental fact of how my brain works. Why am I bringing this up now? Because so far this blog has been about memetics as a science, but that's not really my true passion. What attracts me to the field is the virtually limitless possibilities of applying memetic understanding to the real world. For today, I want to talk about the three main ways in which I envision memetics improving our lives: personal understanding, infrastructure optimization, and cultural engineering.

The first one is the least ambitious, but most immediately beneficial. When I say personal understanding, I mean the ability to conceptualize oneself as a brain whose beliefs are the product of a rich and ever-changing memetic environment. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with at least a rudimentary knowledge of neuroscience in general (e.g. I highly recommend Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained). For me, one of the main takeaways of these fields is that it's statistically almost certain that at least a few of my core beliefs are wrong. Recognizing that my brain is (extremely) fallible helps me treat my opinions as just data points, to be correlated with those of other brains in search of a good model of our shared world. It's also helpful to remember that other brains are similarly products of their own memetic environment, and therefore it's un- or counter-productive to blame their actions on their being "selfish," "evil," etc. The more people who can learn to treat each others’ brains as shared computing resources, the better off we'll all be.

The prospects for memetically-inspired improvements to our communications infrastructure are extremely promising over the next decade or two. Just about all of human productivity these days boils down to the efficient discovery and propagation of good ideas, both big and small. Rarely, if ever, is this process done entirely within a single human brain; virtually all modern ideas are the product of a whole bunch of previously discovered memes colliding in just the right brain state, with a little luck, to generate a new mutation. Can we devise mechanisms that increase the likelihood/rate of finding these happy accidents, and recognizing and spreading them once they've been found? These aren't easy problems but it's important to remember the scale we're talking about: a 1% improvement in the net productivity of human civilization is worth a lot of money. This is also an area ripe for a cooperative effort between human beings and our rapidly maturing artificially intelligent friends. The brain is still the best tool out there for creating and evaluating ideas, but computers far outstrip us in their ability to process massive amounts of data simultaneously. Using AI to track the movement of ideas amongst a community, and to choose which ideas are most likely to usefully stimulate which brains, we may be able to give "natural" memetic evolution a boost.

Finally, in the slightly more distant future, memetics may be the tool that gives us a serious shot at tackling some of human civilization's most fundamental problems. War, intolerance, corruption, and greed have been with us for so long that to most people the very suggestion of trying to eliminate them is hopeless idealism. Nevertheless, these things are ultimately just mechanical results of the aggregate brain states of the population. Seen from this perspective, "utopia" as such is merely an engineering challenge: how can we create cultural memes that discourage these behaviors, and that will be able to spread themselves to (near-)ubiquity? OK, so it's a monstrously difficult challenge, and it certainly is possible that genetics or "human nature" will eventually pose insurmountable obstacles to getting 100% of the way there. But again, any progress we can make down that road can have a very positive impact on the lives of billions of people. Of course, it's entirely possible that natural memetic evolution is already headed in this direction (there is certainly evidence to support such a claim), but speeding things along is still a worthwhile goal.

All of these applications are based on my own extremely minimal understanding of the science of memetics. As an engineer, my job is to take the stuff the scientists give me and figure out how to use it to change the world. So if you're into the science of memetics, I hope you'll take the time to donate your memes to me, and we'll see what we can do.

23 Aug 2011 | Tags: Memetics

« A Case Study in Cultural Evolution  |  Home Page  |  "Better" vs. "Better Adapted" »