The Memetic Heretics


Memetics, the science of information flows, existed long before the internet, but a Belgian court went against long-held knowledge when it sentenced a group of digital Memetic Heretics last week. A 30-year-old politician and former member of parliament was sentenced to one year in prison and other punishments, for –among other things– being part of a closed Facebook group in which memes were shared. Some of his friends were also punished. The judicial decision goes against long-standing scientific ideas on open societies and can be seen as an attempt to add a final layer of control on top of already heavily controlled online information flows.

With this prosecution the deceptive usage of the word ‘meme’ becomes more relevant. Biologist Richard Dawkins first wrote about memes in 1976. The Greek word ‘mimeme’, imitated thing, lead him to the word ‘meme’ as the counterpart of the ‘gene’: both are signals carrying information that through Darwinian natural selection reproduce themselves. A meme is any idea, style, behavior or other cultural signal. In 2013 Wired wrote about “the hijacking” of the word and Dawkins explained how online memes differ from natural memes and genes because they are concocted and copied by humans. He did not mention the far-reaching consequences of the lack of natural context in anything digital. A digital clock, for instance, doesn’t display the twelve hour circle. In other words, all digital messages, tweets, posts, likes and so forth are memes, and the lack of natural context increases risks for freedom of information civil rights if judges can punish these artificially siloed signals as crimes.

Governments and Big Tech have been exploring every option to expand control on the content, speed, spread, flow and the serving of online data –these are the elements that resemble some of the context of natural memes and genes. Within the layers of information flows, Edward Snowden revealed, they are able to tweak experiences on the individual level, and it is offline where they influence the main factor of online environments: the Shannon equation from 1948 shows that information flows speed up significantly in times of uncertainty and unpredictability. Unrest is the main driver behind exponentially accelerating information flows, doubling at shorter and shorter intervals.

While modern man is struggling to stay sane during the mental assaults of commercials, clickbait, pop-ups, propaganda, manipulation and ‘memes’, Belgian judges are pointing at Memetic Heretics. As long as constitutional rights remain on the negotiating table, the uncertainty grows among writers, artists, thinkers and outcasts about the legal risks of the internet. Some have taken their work and readership offline and some new magazines only appear in print.

The price we pay for manipulated and restricted information flows is faster growing inequality. Inventor and philosopher Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) explained in great detail how the spread of information leads directly to the spread of wealth and prosperity. Psychologist, comedian and writer Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) made a strong case in the early 1980s on why even the most ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘dogmatic’ memes can’t ever be harmful, because the only risk lies not in the information but in the behavior of the receiver.

Unless people are hypnotized and mind controlled to absorb information dogmatically, human minds are naturally capable of seeing multiple angles while extracting, combining and rejecting information at will. The mind can open a door to see what’s behind it, and close it when it is not interested. If the information depicts criminal behavior, although AI complicates the verification of this, the behavior can be punished, but when it comes to information, Wilson said, the healthy mind needs a ‘reality labyrinth’ instead of a ‘reality tunnel.’

The decision of the Belgian court can not be reconciled with one major idea underscored by many scientists, each in their own field, from Galileo to Albert Einstein to Donald Hoffman. It was described well by philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) in his 1933 book Science and Sanity with the phrase “the map is not the territory”: the meaning of a meme is determined always by the reaction of the receiver, never by the intention of the sender, be they Memetic Heretics or not.

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