TED Conversations

Holly Arnold

This conversation is closed.

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?

Share:

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb

    R H 30+

    • 0
    Mar 8 2012: I would like to offer a little concern about how "we harness the power of memes to inspire". I saw Dr. Dennett's talk (thanks for bringing it to my attention) and I remember him making it a point to mention that memes were 'benign' and 'aviriluous' - or something like that. He also talked about the problems of mis-interpretation/application of memes by people and the different cultural interpretations of the memes themselves. He said we must be concerned with the 'memes we put out there', but also said they were 'benign' - so i was a little confused with that. Anyway, what I'm concerned about is if memes are 'benign'', and we use them to 'inspire', are we actually attempting to use benign memes to our advantage, all in the name of our interpretation of what is good? This begins to appear to be a very subtle form of 'suggestion' (to be delicate) for me. I agree with the Dr. that memes are benign. I believe that each individual attaches their personal interpretation of the meme to it and chooses the intensity of their response to it. So it's not the memes, or the ideas, that cause the violent reactions to them. It is the people that do, through their personal choices - whether those choices were made freely, or were forced upon them politically, or were formed around limited exposure to knowledge. So I offer to this conversation that it is futile, and dangerous, to use memes as a form of suggestion. As the Dr. explained, that's been done many times before. I see that we can only try to clarify our interpretation of them and present them to others as such, and try to improve our understanding of what they're hearing so we can communicate more effectively, and get their 'buy-in'. Otherwise, they may compare the meme to the result and feel somewhat duped if it didn't turn out as expected, for whatever reason. Then, the violence comes. I guess I don't believe memes are 'viral', they're interpreted. Thanks for the interesting question/conversation.
    • thumb
      Mar 8 2012: This is a good point. Memes are benign, and its how individuals react that can bring about violence. Another thing about Dennett's talk that I though was interesting was when he brings up memes that are "in competition with one another" (I think he uses capitalism and communism as examples because you cannot be both of these since capitalism by definition excludes communism and vice versa). Sustainability and the Industrial Revolution seem to in competition with one another. Going back to your comment, I'm wondering if people might be more prone to react violently when memes are in competition with one another. If a person is infected with a meme that excludes becoming infected by another (e.g. a specific religion) perhaps the person is more likely to react. Is why politics and religion are common sources of debate?
      • thumb

        R H 30+

        • 0
        Mar 9 2012: Thanks for responding Holly, and Ashley, but I'm really struggling with the concept of a meme being 'infectious', and equating it to a virus. That implies, to me, that I cannot prevent its effect on me. Not that it hasn't 'attacked my system', but that I have no defense. The ant wasn't 'told' by other ants to run up and down the leaf, it was deformed by a creature and had no further will of its own. Thanks again.
    • Mar 8 2012: I agree that memes are interpreted, but they go viral in the sense that they spread quickly and impact a large number of people. What that meme translates into for each person might be different, bu nonetheless it is reaching them Iin some way. I agree that we need to mprove people's general perception and perspective on things like sustainability, so that when the meme reaches them, they can be infected by it and transmit it to others.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.