Memes, Communication, and Telegraphy

Are memes a kind of autopoietic system? Are the self-reproducing systems? This is what Wikipedia (You have to start somewhere!) says about memes:

A meme (/ˈmm/MEEM)[1] is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”.[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.[3]Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.[4]


One problem with the above definition is the claim that “ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind.” There is no reason to talk about minds here at all. We don’t need to fall back on an outdated model of of communication–the transmission model, wherein a thought or idea is packaged in language and conveyed from one mind to another. That’s not the way communication happens. Communication consists of communicative events, or the linking of one communicative event (the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) to another communicative event. They must be linked together because a single event has no duration.  

Memes circulate in communication without ever entering or passing through any brains or minds. Memes do not reside in the brain or infiltrate the brain like a biological virus; they circulate through a communication/social system. There is no point in searching brain scans for memes. Sociologists and system theorists are better equipped than neuroscientists to understand memes.

Shannon and Weaver’s transmission model has been traced back the development of the telegraph. Shannon and Weaver benefited from research published in the 1920s. According to Sapienza, et al., 

Claude Shannon’s scholarship represents a Kuhnian anomaly in the field of mass communication’s historicity. Although many mass communication scholars regard Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) A Mathematical Theory of Communication as the origin of the transmission model and information theory, a close examination of the original text reveals that Shannon (1948) simply incorporated an extant conception of communication into his work. This is apparent in the first paragraph, where Shannon (1948) acknowledges both R.V.L. Hartley and H. Nyquist’s research and posits his research is merely a continuation of theirs.

Zachary S. Sapienza, Aaron S. Veenstra, John L. Hochheimer, Kęstas Kirtiklis (2018). MASS COMMUNICATION’S WILD WEST: TRACING THE TRANSMISSION MODEL TO THE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH.

Meme theory is, therefore, traceable back to ideas about the telegraph. If memes are “transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena,” they aren’t much different than codes transmitted from one telegraph station to another. The station, in this case, equates metaphorically to the mind


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