Geert Lovink on Mon, 3 Jun 96 11:07 MDT

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Hallo Ingrid (und Christa),

hier die zweite Version. Christa hat reingeschaut. Frag ihr bitte noch
mal wo, welche Aenderungen vorzunehmen sind. Zuerst muss die Englische
Version in Ordnung gebracht werden (von wem?) und vielleicht sollte es
dann erst ins Deutsche uebertragen werden, oder? Und sag doch was dazu!
Seit gestern also hat die zweite Runde der Diskussion angefangen.

bye!  geert


The memesis network discussion
A Compilation by Geert Lovink

In this summary of the first six week of the discussion on the Net, one
will find a personal, subjective selection of quotations from the
numerous contributions, which were being posted by both invited
speakers and the general audience, as far as they have access to the
Internet. The discussion can be followed on the World Wide Web
( and also by subscribing to a mailinglist,
which would send all the contributions as e-mail.
At april 15, 1996 the network discussion on memesis started with two
documents, in which the goals of the network discussion were made
clear. I, being the moderator, opened, stating that:

"so far there is not much experience and expertise in the
orchestrating of net-based public debates on technology. At this stage
we are leaving the era of the introductions on the nature and the
implications of new technologies (and the role of artists in this
process) and find ourselves in the middle of controversies around
topics like copyright, privacy, war on standards, cultural biases,
public censorship and other 'old patterns' in 'new media'."

In recent years we have seen a wide use by artists of appearantly
harmless notions which have their origin in physics and biology (chaos,
virus, artificial life). Also the cyborg has such a scientific
background. To start a discussion so many months in advance, was an
attempt to break down the old consensus of the pioneers and show that
media-art festivals, like Ars Electronica, from now on should be more
than just a trade fair for computer-related art concepts. The Net
seemed to be a perfect tool to vitalize the static form of conference
presentations. The 'Memesis statement', written by Gerfried Stocker,
was posted, which proved to be a good starting point for the

"Complex tools and technologies are an integral part of out
evolutionairy "fitness". Human evolution is fundamentally intertwined
with technological development; the two can not be considered apart
from another. Humanity has co-evolved with its artifacts; genes that
are not able to cope with this reality will not survive the next

Let us not try to reconstruct the following discussion in a
chronological order. Richard Barbrook took the manifesto for what it
was and wrote a similar, bold response.

"The major error in the Memesis statement is its use of dodgy
biological analogies. The discovery of evolution was one of the key
intellectual moments in the development of modern society. By offering
a rational understanding of the origins of humanity in nature, it
destroyed the intellectual basis of revealed religion. However,
problems arise when the relationship is drawn in the other direction:
when natural evolution is used to explain social development. In this
century, millions of people were shoved into gas chambers because it
was believed that they possessed 'genes that are not albe to cope' as
the Memesis statement puts it."

The scientic meme researcher Francis Heylighen from Brussels responded
to this critique in the following way:

"Hitler was a Christian, so religion leads to the gas chamber. Stalin
was a atheist, so atheism leads to extermination etc. The fact that
some people at some point have misused an idea does not in any way
prove that the idea is wrong or evil."

Heylighen than elaborates on the term 'evolution":

"The essence of the meme idea is that evolution no longer takes place
on the level of the genes, but on the level of culture. The fact that
memes evolve according to principles of variation and slection very
similar to the principles governing Darwinian evoltion of genes does
not in any way lead to Social Darwinism in its old sense."

Douglas Rushkoff ("just an American who has probably watched far too
much TV and spent a bit too much time online") disagrees with the
"negative fuss about memes":

"It just boiles down a deep-rooted fear of the human spirit. We seem to
fear that, left to our own devices, we will rape and pillage one
another. Unchecked, the cautious social theorists warn, human beings
will drive relentless towards fascism. Social scientists were taught
that the masses, too stupid and easily swayed towards social policies
as destabilizing as Nazism, must be let by a benevolent elite. They see
society as an ocean that must be contained; they don't realize that
their social theories are like the temporary plugs in a dike that will
never hold up against the tide.
And like the sad social theorists, the fundamentalists developed their
own mind control control techniques. They believe that, deep down,
people are sinful. If we were allowed to roam free, we would have no
choise but to succumb to our basest desires."

According to Rushkoff, the Internet is designed to promote global
awareness. Evolution doesn't always favor certain individuals over

"Those who fear memes and evolution really just fear progress. That's
why so many well-spoken social theorists hate us pro-Internet,
California-style utopians. If we attempt to slow the transmission of
memes through culture, we will surely weaken and rot like the overly
inbred royal families of centuries past. But I suppose I shouldn't
worry. The anti-evolutionists are fighting a losing battle. Since their
memes don't ultimately promote anything but social decay, they will
surely perish in the long run."

How will Richard Barbrook's answer look like? We don't know yet.
In his first critique he stated:

"It is precisely our refusal to accept our biological destiny which
makes us more than insects. Unlike our fellow species, we can transform
ourselves through thought and action."

But let's go back to Barbrook's 'fundamental' critique of the Memesis

"If memes 'replicate themselves', what are humans doing in the
meantime? We're not the blind objects of genes or memes. We are the
subjects of history - even if it is not always in circumstances of our
own choosing. The Net is a creation of human labour. Someone has to dig
holes in the road to lay the fibre-optic wires. Someone has to write
the software to enable people to use the Net. Without human activity,
the Net is nothing but an inert mass of metal, plastic and sand. We are
the only living beings in cyberspace."

The Memesis statement, again, says:

"As an analogy to the building blocks of biology, the genes, memes
describe cultural units of information, cognitive behavioral patterns
that propagate and replicate themselves through communication. From the
'bio-adapter' of language to the 'info-sphere' of global networks as
the ultimate habitat for the human mind."

Richard Barbrook does not believe that there is such thing as an
autonomous entity, located inside the technology.

"The Memesis statement regards machines and information as autonomous
things outside our control. Yet, in reality, both technology and
culture are expressions of the social relationships between individual
humans. It is human activity which is crystallised into machines and
information., not memes which create 'mass crystal'. Crucially, the
statement ignores one of the central questions of modernity: how are
the rewards of labour to be divided among the different groups involved
in the social production of machines and information? Ah, but the
social question is so unfashionable nowadays..."

Tom Sherman also stresses the social aspect of the use of technology.
Based at the School of Art & Design in Syracuse (NY), he reports from a
"burned-out, totally out of date industrial in the rust belt of the
American northeast" and he comments on what is going on around him:

"You don't hear a lot of evolutionary analogies in factory lunch rooms
or college coffee houses these days. The talk is about survival and how
tough a place the world has become. People are forming relationships
with machines, not necessarily because they're attracted to machines,
but because they are desperately trying to get connected and/or stay
connected with other people, particularly with those who can help them

In this context the Web, for Serman, is becoming a "electronic talent
database or tourist bureau full of resumes and brochures and maps." He
compares this "indexical domain" with today's modern office:

"Same software, same information handling methodologies; but no regular
paycheck, no healthcare, no social security net. The Web is The Office
for freelancers. Artists, that endagered species, when connected
with/by computers, sit at a desk and look very much like office
workers, telecommuting home-office workers. These are the new
industrial labourers."

And, a few weeks later, Tom Serman resumes:

"Wanting badly to define ourselves at any cost, we try to figure what
kinds of memes work best in particular tevchnological spaces. We'll
wear the damnedest memes, hust because they flourish in a system.
Apparently we enjoy indulging in evolutionary analogies, playfully
trading strong opinions about the minds's responsability to the body,
wondering whether our meme pool is stagnant, expanding or collapsing,
AND visiting and trashing the cultural ruins of Silicon Valley."

Herbert Hrachovec, philosopher in Vienna, contributes by saying "the
printout of my neural reactions is not my neural state", in a reference
to Kathryn Bigelows film "Strange Days".

"'Cognitive behavioral patterns that propagate and replicate themselves
through communication' used to be called 'topoi', 'habits' or
'cliches'. They were thought to be social constants, stable but subject
to alterations at the margin. This feature is lost in talk about
'memes'. They seem to be scientific constructs that can be handled like
cellular tissue."

Suddenly, a report came in from the street of San Fransisco, from
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. For them, meme is just a word, "and in
'Ars California' words are always too slow."

"Memetic flesh? That's certainly not a sociological rhetoric of
evolution or devolution, but something radically different. It's
neither future nor history, but the molecular present, a floating
outlaw zone where memes fold into genes. In SF, memes have abandoned
the art academy, becoming popular culture for the 21st century. Memetic
as daily life in cyber-city, the kind of place where the virus of the
tech future digs its way under the skin, like an itch or a sore or a
viral meme that just won't go away."

They discover the 'art of dirty memes', unofficial outlaw art that's
practiced in hidden warehouses, storefront galleries and ghetto

"Dirty memes? That's what happens when memetic enineering escapes into
the street of cyber-city, and its scent is picked up by viral artists.
Neither technotopian, nor technophobic, memetic art in the streets of
SF is always dirty, always rubbing memes against genes, always
clicking in (our) memetic flesh."

The cyber-feminist group VNS-Matrix posts their "Bitch Mutant
Manifesto", command line poetry for seduced on-liners, digital

"Read only my memories. Upload me into your pornographic imagination.
Write me. We are the malignant accident which fell into your system
while you were sleeping. And when you wake we will terminate your
digital delusions, hijacking your impeccable software. SUCK MY CODE.
The limit is NO CARRIER, the sudden shock of no contact, reaching out
to touch, but the skin is cold... I become the FIRE. Flame me if you

In the meanwhile, several participants reacted on the Memesis Statement
and Richard Barbrook's critique. Simon Penny reacts on the original
Memesis statement:

"Humaninity has NOT co-evolved with it's artifacts in any biological
sense. Survival into the next century depends not on whether genes will
'co-evolve with... artifacts' but whether they can survive the effects
of those artifacts. The 'future of evolution' qua biologicalevolution
is only brought into question by the cancerous proliferation of one
particular species, homo sapiens."

He advices us to think twice before our mind is thinking of moving out
to take up residence on the net. Global networks as the "ultimate
habitat for the human mind"?

"It baffles me that this rethoric of 'transcendence via the net' did
not die a quick death a decade ago. Doesn't anybody realise just how
corny and retrograde the noton is? It is just one facet of a general
argument against the body, which has been an ongoing characteristic of
western philosophy and christian theology. William Gibson's Cyberpunks
proclaimed 'the body is meat' but they did not pause to note how
similar their position was to that of St. Augustine."

Robert Adrian (Vienna) also comments on the 'modern' notion of
evolution, as it is being used in the Memesis statement. It might as
well be other people's evolution, not ours...

"Evolution is treated as a one-way street... always better, always
improving. But the concept of evolution is not about 'progress' but
about adaptation. This means that a species may be perfectly
specialised for a specific environment but is utterly helpless should
the environment change... In the future the world may become a very
uncomfortable place for societies of high consumers. Presumably the
memes/genes that survive into the next millennium will be those of the
electronically endowed. That is: memeber of the electronic master-race.
But there is not really much support for the assumption that because
industrial culture has created this technology, it somehow OWNS it."

The artist Perry Hoberman isn't very happy with the "demolition derby".
According to Hoberman, "the concept of meme has been subjected to such
extreme mutation that its progeny have almost become unrecognizable."
He therefore introduces into the discussion two "misshapen mutant
memetic childern": the Living Meme and the Imposter Meme.

"The Living Meme is croos-bred with the rethoric of (strong)
Articificial Life and Articifial Intelligence and the wide-eyed notion
of global networks achieving both autonomy and conciousness. The Lving
Meme is ready to run the whole show. The Imposter Meme on the other
side always found grossly wanting and has been taking the rap here for
just about every social ill of the twentieth century. A front man for
Social Darwinism and Final Solutions. Obviously the Lving Meme and the
Imposter Meme are in fact identical good-and-evil twins."

Hoberman proposes to return to the original definition of memes, coined
by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene".

"The meme is presented there neither as the building block for some
eventual autonomous realm that would supplant biological evolution, nor
to imply that the direction and development of human culture are
completely out of our hands. The meme is posited instead as a unit of
cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. If we are going to use a
term, we ought to have a reasonable understanding of it.

According to Roy Ascott, we should take meme as a metaphor. But there
is no Truth behind a metaphor. Ascott is in favour of a "pragmatic

"Is the metaphor of meme useful to artists? The answer is yes. Is the
idea of a meme space, understood as a kind of collective intelligence,
a community of mind, useful to artists? Yes it is. The whole
collaborative enterprise in art is based on the idea of shared
consciousness. It is the field of consciousness which  artists now wish
to explore. It is telematic consciousness  which presents the
opportunity and challenge to art as it moves beyond its lumpen concern
with the surface appearance of the world. Can we speak yet of a
memetic aesthetics replacing the old mimetic art? It depends. The meme
metaphor falls flat considered in relation to the old biological
processes of cognition. But in its post-biological context assimilated,
transposed, transmitted and transformed by the processes of human
cyberception, the meme metaphor acquires considerable potency."

Simultaneous, as one of the last in this 'first round' of the network
discussions, Manual Delanda goes further on the the idea of the 'non-
generic replicator'. In this, he critizes Dawkins:

"Dawkins adopted the term meme because the mode of replication he had
in mind was imitation. Yet, the sounds, meanings, and syntactical
constructions of human language (and most of the other replicators that
make human societies work, such as contracts, laws etc.) are not 
entities that replicate through *imitation* but institutional norms
which replicate through *obligatory repetition*. I personally would
restrict the term meme to apply exclusively to patterns of *behavior*
transmited through imitation, such as bird songs or tool-use in apes,
or fashions and fads in humans."

But besides replicators, there are also interactors: in biological
terms enzyms and in human society 'speech acts', as Delanda suggests.
Delanda warns us to be precise and take terms like meme literally, with
proper technical care.

"The point is that unless we are very specific about both replicators
and interactors when talking about non-biological fields, we risk
falling into mere metaphor. Not that metaphors are useless, they are
not. But the point that Dawkins is trying to make is precisely that the
relation between memes and genes is not one of metaphorical analogy
but of *deep isomorphism*."

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