Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Memescape

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins popularized the notion of a 'meme,' which compliments the biological 'gene.' When he took a question about the subject at a talk in Columbia, SC recently, he seemed almost rueful, saying something like "Oh, no. Not the meme question." But there's no turning back now, as the google trends chart shows:

A search on revealed about eighteen books about memes, and there are currently 49 million hits on google, including the wiki page, a Daily Meme site, and Know Your Meme that claims to document Internet phenomena (one might say ephemera). A whole "science of memes" called memetics has sprung up, claiming 487,000 web hits currently.

So what's a meme? The wikipedia definition is just fine:
A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena
Remember pet rocks, anyone? Meme. Tickle-me Elmo. Another meme. Obviously, "meme" itself is a meme, and a very successful one. If we think of any medium that will permit complex organizations within it, it seems to find fixed points (self-replicators) on its own. We might call this the cosmic version of Murphy's Law: if a system has fixed-point expressions, they emerge naturally from noise. Feed some noise into a microphone and point it at the speaker. You don't get amplified noise, you get a particular resonant frequency that is tuned to the physical characteristics of the system. This is a powerful idea because you can work it backwards too: look at what emerges naturally from a medium and then figure out what the characteristics of the medium must be.

Ever get a chain letter? That's a particularly interesting one because it's easy to dissect. This idea is described by Dawkins, but I'll paraphrase. A good way to get an idea replicator going is to combine these elements:
  1. An imperative to replicate the idea. This is the basic "reproduction drive." E.g. Send this to ten of your friends.
  2. A carrot. If you perform #1, something good is likely to happen to you. E.g. Cite stories of people who had amazing fortune after forwarding the email to ten of their friends.
  3. A stick. If you fail to perform #1, something bad will happen to you. E.g. This one dude forgot to send the email and a brick fell on him.
Of course, the more fake documentation (a REAL LAWYER friend said "blah blah blah"), and other emotional mumbo-jumbo you can ladle onto the thing, the better chance it has. In order to survive, it needs to multiply its chances geometrically (at least, I think I can prove that if you give me an hour), and hence the replication imperative is structured to multiply senders. Dawkins notes that the elements above are found in most religions.

This is a mind-broadening idea, because we all carry around the burden of memes that are so deeply buried in our nous that we don't realize they are there. Some are undoubtedly hardwired by evolution so we avoid starvation, for example. Not everything you believe can be logical. This is because even logic is based on assumptions (called axioms). Karl Popper ran into this problem when he philosophized about science never proving anything a theory, but rather only disproving theories that didn't work. By his own logic, he couldn't prove that. You have to start somewhere. It's a nice exercise to dig around in your beliefs and see what's there. Could be a great self-assessment assignment for a course that contains noncognitives too. Which leads to next topic.

Memes and the Academy. What does this have to do with teaching, learning, and assessing? Obviously teaching has to do with the transmission of ideas. I think we miss a trick by not trying more actively to transmit habits of mind as well. After all, part of being open-minded is the meta-cognitive ability to examine ones own beliefs. We could do that more deliberately in our curricula.

There apparently are some scholarly activities on this topic, for example "Memes and the Teaching of English, which "Examines why some sayings and catchphrases stick in people's minds, while others are unrecognized and unused. Offers an answer to this question from an evolutionary standpoint."

It's much more natural to me to think of assessment on the meme level, rather than on the cognitive ability level. Individual concepts and skills can be taught. I'm not sure how to teach raw cognitive ability. The assessments of the former are more or less straightforward. Of the latter, steeped in statistical voodoo and ed-psych theory that may or may not have a basis in physical reality.

In practical terms, you can use memetics every day. Here's an example. You're sitting in a committee meeting, where the members are problem-solving. You have some ideas of your own about how the issue at hand might be resolved. What do you do?

First, there are always ideas. Lots of ideas. I'd recommend sorting through your own in your head before advancing one. Make sure it has a chance of survival. Wouldn't want to get the poor meme's hopes up only to be dashed immediately. There is value to producing good ideas--it makes you seem smart--and so your standing in the community is enhanced when you display brilliance. So you may choose to pick your best idea and propose it. This is somewhat Machiavellian because the loading is "Professor Zza has good ideas" rather than the actual idea itself. We all have to play that game early in our careers. Of course, it extends to publishing research, which is more substantive than what happens in committees, but the idea is the same. This is the reason there are lots of meaningless papers produced--the real message is: Zza is really productive.

Once past the need to establish oneself, there is (sometimes) the altruist urge to actually reach good decisions in committees, simply for the good of the academy. This is an entirely different approach. It's like fishing. The problem is that everyone has only so much political capital to spend. Even if you have wonderful ideas, no one wants to admit that their own ideas are ugly misshapen things, so there is a kind of baby worship that happens when someone produces a newborn meme, no matter how defective and ill-begotten. At least, this can happen. If you're lucky there will be a ruthless meme-killer in the group who wields an idea-axe to put these unfortunate ideas out of their misery. That's a political minefield, so better have tenure first, and plan to be labeled a "character" for the rest of your career.

The fishing idea works like this: first, admit that other people have ideas as good as yours, and dedicate yourself to finding the best ones overall--not by wielding the axe, but by subtle twitches of the fishing lure. Help turn the discussion toward the ideas you see as best, and toss out a distraction if a real clunker comes along. A bright shiny object is as effective as an axe.
"I think we should eliminate faculty parking altogether."
"Hey--did you hear the merit bonuses are out?"
Check your ego. If you have a really great idea, wait to see if someone else comes up with it too. You can nudge your lure a bit toward the idea and hope someone grabs it. Then speak out in support of it strongly. This gives the little meme the best chance at life. For example, imagine that you like the idea of instituting an Assessment Day in the academic calendar to allow program assessments and surveys to be administered all at once. You might dangle your lure thus:
You: One of the problems is finding the time to get all these assessments done in an organized way. We don't want to duplicate students--ask them to take the same survey twice. They hate that.
Prof Eks: Maybe an assembly of students on Saturday?

You: They'd never show up. It would cost us a fortune in iPods to motivate them. I wish we could take class time to do it--you know, all at the same time period.

Prof Eks: That would never fly--we'd need to sacrifice a whole day from the calendar.

You: That's true. We'd need a whole day, probably. Hmmmm.

Prof Why: What if we added a day? Call it Assessment Day?

You: What a great idea! I've heard of this being done a Harvard and Yale. It would solve all our problems! Super!
You get the idea. You might want to hone your acting skills. A less honest way to engineer memes, which I don't recommend, is to attribute your own ideas to other people as a way of flattery. "You remember that idea you had about an Assessment Day? I really think that's a winner." If it really is their idea, that's fine, of course. But if you're inserting it into their memespace, tagged with their own ownership, you might get a funny look. It happens, though--now you're perhaps inoculated against such attacks. By means of this meme. Enjoy.

Update: Note that during the "fishing expedition" it often happens that someone advances an idea that's better than yours. At that point, it obvious what to do: support the better idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment