TED Conversations

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 8 2012: Since this question has been posted, I have noticed a very powerful meme being rapidly propagated throughout the vast expanses of cyber space, in the form of Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" video. The video was posted to Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc) two days ago and it already has racked up over 22 million views. The power in this meme lies not in the humanitarian effort that it presents, but more-so in the idea that we, as global citizens, can all come together and make change happen. Through the use of the internet and social networks, we have the power to spread awareness of issues and demand that our governments do something about it. For so long the avenues for mass mimetic transfer (the media) have been in a stranglehold by a relatively small group of people, who may or may not have ulterior motives in filtering the memes that actually reach the populace, but the advent of the internet has opened the floodgates for memes of any type to reach any number of people. If looking at memes as a virus, the internet takes the contact rate of an infected individual and raises it exponentially. The folks at Invisible Children take full advantage of this, and not only have they successfully raised awareness of this specific Ugandan war criminal, but they have raised awareness of the potential for raising awareness in our digital age. This idea/meme, that we have the capability to communicate and organize on a global scale and create meaningful change, is what I think will aid in propelling us into a more sustainable future.

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