When coming across the chapter in Gleick titled “Into the Meme Pool,” my mind immediately jumped to the captioned photos and videos blasted across the internet in succession, each changing slightly in form to the next. I did not expect the term “meme” that we commonly use now in pop culture to have first been coined by a biologist. According to Gleick, Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “‘a bodiless replicator'” (312). Dawkins considered memes to be catchphrases, tunes, ideas and images. The memes we see today fit well into this definition crafted in 1976, typically taking the form of a formatted image or video with captioning that is changed to the discretion of each repeater. According to an MIT Technology Review, the modern meme is “a variant of an image based on a common theme that has spread widely on the internet.”

Dawkins described the journey of memes as the replication of “themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, is called imitation” (312). However, this form of imitation didn’t have the negative connotation of cheap copying — it is instead viewed as a collaboration. With each imitation, the meme evolves. As with the genes that form our lives, memes seek to repeat and evolve, stretching through the human story. The internet memes that have become so integrated into our culture (to the point where they reached the clutches of Facebook moms) are an example of how information and communication has evolved with technology.

Memes are comedic in nature, an inside joke for the internet. Some jokes are more exclusive than others. All memes are built upon a common understanding of the internet community. Memes are a testament to the strange culture and humor that has developed mainly with the younger generations that grew parallel to the internet itself.

According to this article by Brady Gavin, the first meme was a dancing baby used to demonstrate the impressive movement of a new software.

The MIT Technology Review describes how Gianluca Stringhini and colleagues at the University College London developed an algorithm to track how memes go viral across the internet. Their algorithm used perceptual hashing or pHashing to identify similar images: memes. The group found that for a meme to be most successful, one must mass produce various forms of the meme — similar to how genes “evolve through mutation, selection, and selection.”

However, not all memes are innocent jokes. As the article discusses, some memes are used to perpetuate racism, and these memes can go horribly viral — as a virus does. These memes seem to act more like a vicious virus, seeking to harm for the sake of its continuity.

In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the pop culture concept of “meme” derived from the observation of a biologist. Internet memes seek to replicate and evolve as genes do. Memes thrive from their replication and evolution, and they have the best rate of survival when mass produced with a spectrum of competitive variants. Memes may be the expression of the internet’s genes, in a constant state of modification, adapting to the ever-changing terrain of the web.

Intelligence is the Awareness of Information

I am struck by Glieck’s phrase, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (12). The span of humanity develops as a whole with the more we find, the more we learn. Our knowledge today is based off thousands of years of contributions by countless people to the collective intelligence of humanity. Our modern formation of the English language is one such example. Glieck discusses how language has evolved through the years from cave paintings to oral culture to the written word to the digital word of codes behind a screen. The language of computers, such as binary code, doesn’t even need letters to communicate — just two digits. As people collect new information, how we communicate is constantly evolving. Our language itself evolves. Prior to the written word or digital technology, there was a lack of permanence to words. They only existed through the memory of the speaker and their listeners. “Now people leave breadcrumbs,” but before that sounds traveled “a few yards and fade[d] into oblivion” (31).
As people were enabled to become more aware because they had access to more words, information trapped to pages, they were able to become more critical. When people “began systematically to gather different print tables in order to check one against the other…they found unexpected flaws” (94). The lingering of words birthed more responsibility. The need for consistency, for rules and standards was demanded because information could be collected and compared through its perpetuity. With these rules, more rules were created. These rules turned into a set of guidelines that created artform and expression – the humanities. For instance, the standard of the novel we know today did not appear overnight. As discussed in a previous class I took centering on epistolarity, it was collections of letters sustaining a narrative that eventually evolved into the formation of the novel. Language has acted as a carrier of information, and as our understanding of language has evolved through the years, so has the sophistication of our information.
If not for language, there would be no information. At a previous college I attended, I took a basic communications class. It was there I learned the story of a boy who was found in the wild raised by wolves. As he had grown past the years of critical language development, he was unable to learn how to communicate through language. Without language, he was unable to understand abstract thought. Information cannot be comprehended without language. The boy had no vehicle in his mind to form thought, ideas. His world existed only in the present moment, driven by what he currently observed with no structure to capture or reflect on it.
Language empowers us to capture information, to think beyond now to the past and future to the information found before us. The development of the written text further empowers us to collect and develop that language. The digital age opens a new realm of possibilities for our language and the development of new language, which leads to further sophistication of information. Information is only as permanent as its container. Information can be irreversibly lost when the books it is written within are destroyed — just look at the Library of Alexandria. With the creation of the computer, the internet, and now the clouds, information has taken on a new permanence. The knowledge previously contained in books is now recorded digitally. Technically, people are now more intelligent than ever with the plethora of information we have access to in a matter of moments. Our abstract thoughts can expand further than before, our understandings of the world more complicated.
With the collection of more information, the more sophisticated information and how it is presented can become. Novels are now digested as ebooks or even audible books. More people are able to create and share language and literature than ever before. As we have become more aware with the information we’ve gathered, so has the technology we store it upon. Computers have their own languages. In one case, Facebook artificial intelligence was able to develop its own language to communicate with each other that wasn’t comprehensible by people. As our technology begins to collect more information as people have done through the ages, will it begin to sophisticate it as we have?