The Pop-Plex

This article is part of a series about memes in popular culture. If you don’t know yet, what memes and memetics are, you will find the answer in part 1.

popcultureOver a long period in human history memes were spread orally. Only the most successful memes survived then. A first step of conservation of memes was the invention of writing. It is thought that the invention of writing happened in different parts of the world separately from scratch. Writing made way for the development of successful memeplexes, like religions. Considering that during a long time books were hand-copied by the clergy, we can understand, from memetic point of view, why religions have gained such power. Who has power over memes has power over humans.
A big step forward was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. After some time it also made way for the secularisation of the print media and weakened the monopoly of the church since the Renaissance. Since the beginning of the 17th century also newspapers were introduced to humankind’s media history.

Modernity developed a huge amount of mass media since the late 19th century. Mass media like “[t]he telegraph and telephone, radio and television, are all steps towards spreading memes more effectively” (Blackmore 1999: 212). The development of the internet in the late 1980’s did the rest: Memes can spread uncontrolled over the world.
Nowadays mass media is classified by eight industries: books, newspapers, magazines, recordings, radio, films, television and the internet. Some definitions consider video games as a ninth industry.

Mass media is the motor for what we call popular culture. Since the last century memes can be spread on a large scale and are able to reach an inscrutable amount of peoples’ minds.

ArchiveFeverThere is a certain dilemma in this: Jacques Derrida’s idea of the Archive Fever (1996) states that the modern phenomenon of archiving literally “everything” leads to a decreasing of information value (before useless information has been omitted over time). Analogically to Derrida I suggest that when formerly useful memes survived and became “meme-fountains” and useless ones went into the “meme-sink” (Blackmore 1999) memes spread by mass media lose some value. The longevity of memes delivered us a society, where useless information is repeated, imitated and conserved over and over again. Let us reconsider Blackmore’s oft-asked question: “Imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Now ask, which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?” (Blackmore 1999: 37). As argued in the beginning of this report, memes can have a life on their own. As there are much more memes ‘out there’ than can find a home in human brains, popular culture makes it possible to conserve and manifest memes outside a human body, encoded in mass media.

As this process continues more memes spread faster and faster. Note that the consequence of this is a headache for humans. Competition in business, publishing, the arts and science all depends on the transfer of memes. As memetic transfer speeds up so the competition speeds up, and people without the latest technology fail in that competition. We are driven by the latest technology to have to read all those books today, send that fax now, or be on the end of a phone line to Japan at three in the morning. We may think all this progress is designed for our own happiness, and indeed we may sometimes very much enjoy our meme-rich lives, but the real driving force behind it all is the interest of the memes. (Blackmore 1999: 213).

Stay tuned for the upcoming episodes of this series, including urban legends, the Mayan Apocalypse and a new disease called Appleplexy.

Source: Blackmore, Susan 1999: The Meme Machine. Oxford: University Press.

Author: André Savetier

Since 2011 André Savetier is actively working as a music journalist with an expertise on contemporary new wave music phenomena. His scientific specialization is anthropology of music and anthropology of popular culture. Savetier remains intrigued by the interplay between the aforementioned social phenomena, the told (and untold) legends of music and its roots.

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