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Memetic Engineering

To add to the confusion, the modern world has seen an unprecedented multiplication and proliferation of memes, with mass media being the preeminent transmission vector. Some of these memes are devised with rational ends, such as advertising consumer products; others are devised solely as play; others are "junk" memes. Hula hoops, the Burma Shave billboards of the 1950s, the slogan "There's always room for Jell-O," the synthesizer intro to the 1984 song "Jump" by Van Halen, or the three-note "by Men-nen" jingle, while of no use to those they infect, are excellent examples. The Internet in particular is a virtual memetic petri dish, with examples such as the nonsensical phrase "all your base are belong to us" (from a badly translated 1988 Japanese video game called Zero Wing) spontaneously arising on message boards in 2000, spreading from mind to mind via the ether and then dissipating, not unlike a particularly virulent disease burning its way through the population.

Thus the idea of memetic engineering consists not only in choosing which memes to be influenced by but also in counterpropaganda and countersloganeering designed to purge from the meme pool those ideas deemed deleterious to society at large. The essential component in memetic engineering is faith in human reason to discern the most advantageous memes. Dawkins himself expressed a secular humanist optimism when he wrote, "We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" (p. 201). (Of course, from another perspective, this could be seen as just another Darwinian struggle, with the meme for "secular humanism" trying to crush its competitor for mindshare, the meme for "theocracy.")

One example of the deployment of this idea is the activist Andrew Boyd's Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) campaign, which used the ironic, parodical image of the superwealthy taking to the streets in support of their candidates in order to "piggyback" on mainstream media coverage of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and thus call attention to social issues neglected by the candidates. The idea of memetic engineering was both popularized and taken to its logical end by the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Though the actual word meme never occurs in the book, the plot makes clear reference to Dawkins's work. The title, for instance, refers to a key element in the book's plot, a literal "mind virus" modeled after a computer virus that is capable of destroying a user's mind through merely being seen on a computer screen. The resolution involves a clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, on which are recorded syllables in an ancestral ur-language (reminiscent of ideas of the "deep structure" of language popularized by Noam Chomsky and others) that can program human beings, like robots, into performing tasks for those who know how to wield the power. Snow Crash is frequently cited in meme circles as an example of the power of memes taken to the nth degree.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMeme - The Selfish Meme, Memetic Engineering, Criticism Of Memetic Theory, Bibliography