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Holly Arnold

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Are memes important for our survival? How can we draw on memetic theory to inspire ideas of sustainability that go viral?

Memes are elements of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. Dan Dennet's TED talk addresses memes that are powerful because they inspire passionate, extremist behavior based on idealistic notions of freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, and religion. While not always bad, memes can be destructive and result in conflict and death. Yet, memes have great potential benefit to humanity by eliciting behaviors that promote equality, peace, and sustainability. Sustainability in particular has been suggested to be the most important factor in determining the fate of humanity, as discussed by Paul Gildings. How can we harness the power of memes to inspire notions of patriotism, freedom, and justice that elicit a passionate response for the cause of sustainability, rather than a passionate response that leads to conflict?


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    Mar 7 2012: I think it is important to make a distinction between a meme and dynamic word association. For example, a meme can powerfully transfer an idea from person to person (positively or negatively) based on the power of its merit. Whereas, certain words can instantly evoke mental and emotional reactions and transfer influence based on association, for good or evil. I remember watching a documentary where the words "death tax" were used to replace "estate tax." This had a powerful impact on listeners when they considered being taxed when they died. After all, they reasoned, the estate tax was for the rich, so who cares? I think this reflects the power of word association vs. the power of an idea that is transferred through a meme such as a symbol or cultural expression.
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      Mar 7 2012: Excellent point. Word associations to emotions are used all the time. For example the "war on terror" was originally labeled "operation infinite justice". People had such a negative reaction to these words that they renamed it.

      "Sustainability" to me seems to be neutral in the emotional response that it receives. It could mean a greater expense in terms of a good or service being produced (a slight negative reaction).. It could also contain a positive reaction in terms of a "green future".

      What about these:
      "Earth Liberation Front",
      "Earth Freedom Fighters"
      "The war on contamination"
      • Mar 7 2012: This brings up the idea of branding. Branding is the idea of finding the right words and/or images (memes in themselves) to represent an idea, an organization, or a product. Thus, branding is building on the memes that already exist and creating more associations. Everywhere you look you can see evidence of the power of branding. Is there a way we can harness this power to further the idea of sustainability?
        • Mar 7 2012: Memes are passed on from person to person directly relating to the way they strike a person on an individual level. If we see or hear a meme that we think has some level of intrinsic value we will surely pass it on. Whether those memes are words images or ideas, if they merit some feeling, good or bad, we are likely to share those memes and feeling with another person. All the way passing the meme on to that person.
          Now, if this aspect of a meme can be harnessed to double as an educational tool then ideas can be spread in a positive manner. Ideas such as sustainability can be presented in a good light or bad, but have the same overall impact on that person. For instance if the negative impacts of global warming were presented to a group of young adults it could reinforce the importance of sustainability. So by presenting a meme with a negative meaning/feeling we could promote positive change in the world of ecological advancements.
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        Mar 7 2012: Holly and Lucie, you both bring up some great dialogue here. Emotional word plays coupled with branded imagery is a powerful combination. Fortunately, you are suggesting it for good use. Unfortunately, Madison avenue doesn't always have the same vision. Case in point: Ad Agency Saatchi and Saatchi convincing even themselves that Cheerios were "mysterious" in their former campaign of the product. I agree that these tools can harness our energies and be put to work for noble causes as you are suggesting.
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      Mar 7 2012: Perhaps we are then talking about two different classes of memes. The first class of memes are memes that are logical and therefore are often less controversial in nature. The second kind are memes that play on emotions. Subscribers to logic might not see this second type of meme as "playing fair". Perhaps it is time for logic-users to "logically manipulate emotions" in a way to better serve the interests of the human race. (At what point is it logical to "stop playing fair"?)
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        Mar 7 2012: Hmm, I've wondered about this concept for years. When does strategy cross the line to become manipulation? The only answer I've come up with is the motivation of the person using it determines that. But, that is hard to gauge in other people because how can we know what their motivation is? There is logical manipulation, too, it's called NLP. I don't know a lot about it, but I ran into it a while back in certain marketing and copywriting trainings. I'm not a fan, and I don't believe in using it in marketing as it so often is utilized. Perhaps I'm naive, but I think ideas should have the ability to be transferred based on their merits without the help of trickery. Maybe I'm getting a bit off track from you original question at this point. Getting back, I do think that it is worth taking time to consider how to cause good ideas to spread through a better understanding of memetic theory. If bad ideas are being spread using the wrong motivations and tactics, at least good ideas will gain a better chance of winning if we are smart about how to spread them.

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