Q&A with Susan Blackmore, Author of The Meme Machine

Q&A with Susan Blackmore, Author of The Meme Machine

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usan Blackmore is a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth who believes memes, like genes, are evolutionary replicators that are subject to the forces of natural selection. After abandoning the field of parapsychology, Blackmore wrote the 1999 popular science book The Meme Machine, which attempted to constitute the controversial theory of memetics as a science. In 2008, she spoke at the prestigious TED conference about the “teme”, a new kind of meme she described as the “third replicator.” Recently, Blackmore has dived into the world of Internet memes, commenting on phenomenon like Rickrolling and LOLcats.


Q: We noticed you’ve recently been commenting on Internet memes. What was the first internet meme you’ve ever encountered?

A: Ceiling cat. I have never stopped finding this funny. I keep looking up and seeing Ceiling Cat just disappearing back into the now-invisible hole. I’ve even made my own Ceiling Cat pictures (the power of the human desire to copy and remix memes!). My husband does not find it at all funny – no accounting for taste.

Q: Do you think there’s a reason behind the Internet’s love for cats, even though statistically there are more dog photos on the web?

A: Of course (I’m a cat person). More seriously, I think they are easier to anthropomorphise and harder to herd. There’s something secretive about them. When I was a child I used to imagine that all our local cats met up every night after dark to plot schemes against the grown-ups (I wished!). One would never imagine this of dogs, so Ceiling Cat ruling the world from the loft is perfect.

Q: You gave an interesting TED talk on the third replicator which you identified as “temes” a few years back. Could you briefly explain what a “teme” is?

A: It’s an abbreviation of technological meme or techno-meme. I had been wondering for years whether all the digital information flying about in cyberspace is something new or just more memes. In some ways this discrete information, copied with such high fidelity, is unlike the human memes of speech, art, religions and so on. Eventually I realised that it would surely count as something new if all three of the essential evolutionary steps were carried out by machines – that is, machines were able to copy, vary and select information without us. I believe that we are on the verge of seeing this happen. When it does I shall call the information they copy ‘temes’ and the machines ‘teme machines’. They will vastly outshine we mere mortal meme machines and we will have no real control over the direction their evolution takes.

Q: How is the idea of temes different from say, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s vision of the Semantic web or the concept of technological singularity?

A: It’s totally different, though not exclusive of these ideas. The whole point is to see digital information as evolving in its own right, driven not by us and our desire to create toys for ourselves, but as intrinsically evolving because it undergoes the evolutionary algorithm of copying with variation and selection. This new layer of evolution may indeed produce a semantic web but the underlying power is replicator power. As for the singularity, if you mean Kurzweil’s version, then this is unimportant in my opinion. The important question is not when technology becomes more intelligent than us (what is intelligence anyway, and what kind matters?) but when the new replicators take off on their own. This is what memes did when our ancestors began to imitate. That step changed the world: this next step will do so again – and with unpredictable and possibly dangerous consequences. In this way I disagree with Kurzweil about the critical turning point.

Q: You’ve said before that you do not believe in “free will” and that it is largely an illusory experience. Why do you think that is and do memes play a significant role in this?

A: Not ‘largely an illusory experience’ but totally! The ordinary, everyday idea of free will implies an inner self whose conscious thoughts cause things to happen – like consciously deciding to get up in the morning, or have toast for breakfast, or finally making that dreaded phone call. From everything we know about the brain it seems obvious that no such magical process is required. When you jump out of bed, hundreds of factors are involved from your knowledge of the time, your commitments that day, and the weather, to your temperature, hunger and so on. All these things influence the brain’s decisions and we can see from scans and other methods just which parts of the brain are involved. There is no need for any extra ‘self’ to go messing about among the neurons and no way in which it could influence the brain if it did.

I have also done a lot of meditation practice and the more I have observed my own actions, the less they seem to be under ‘my’ control. Indeed ‘I’ do not really exist – at least not as the kind of persisting, powerful entity that we commonly imagine.

The trouble is that we all feel as though ‘we’ are in control of our bodies and it’s a feeling that is hard to let go of. However, I’ve been practicing this since I was a teenager and now I no longer get the feeling of free will. And the world doesn’t fall apart! It’s fine. This body seems to get on perfectly well without the illusion.

Q: What is the current state of memetics as a science? What do you think the future holds?

A: Pathetic. Very few people are seriously working in memetics, although there are a few.
As for the future, I think that the idea will gradually take hold and eventually people will think it’s just obvious. But this will require some serious basic research, or some lucky discoveries. Until memetics can explain things that no other approach can it will probably just pootle along as it is now, on the very fringes of scientific acceptability.

Q: Outside of Ceiling Cat, do you have a favorite Internet meme or YouTube video?

Flashmobs singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

Q: If you could delete any meme from the entire Internet, what would it be?

A: God.

Susan Blackmore is an English freelance writer, lecturer and Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. You can read about her research on her personal website and view her latest posts on The Guardian’s Comment is Free. This interview was conducted over email on April 18th, 2012.

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