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> Antiviral Memes


Antiviral Memes

Just as it's a necessary annoyance for bodies to have immune systems and computers to have antiviral software, so also is it for minds to have an antiviral meme or two.

I've already described my own primary antiviral meme in Reaction Against Button-Pushing. I say “my own”, but of course I don't mean that I invented this particular antiviral meme; in fact, I almost certainly acquired it from Brodie's book Virus of the Mind. No, I just mean that I'm carrying it, and that I've formulated it in my own way.

Brodie, it turns out, has a web site (Meme Central) that contains the same antiviral meme nicely tailored to replication by email forwarding (Internet Virus Antidote). The only point I'd disagree with is the description of the meme as a counter-virus. Not all memes are viral, and I think this is one of the non-viral ones. It may spread by word of mouth, but it doesn't spread needlessly and waste resources as a virus would.

In fact, any antiviral meme that could spread virally would have to be pretty ineffective!

Now let me consider my antiviral meme as a bundle and break it down into smaller memes.

A1: Understand the dynamics of memes.
A2: Learn to recognize button-pushing.
A3: Memes that push buttons are foolish.
A4: React against button-pushing.

The meme A3, coupled with my righteous intolerance of foolishness, provides the motive for A4. Or so I imagine. But what if I weren't intolerant of foolishness? How could A3 be modified so as to remain effective? One idea is buried in Internet Virus Antidote;

Remember, when you forward urban hoaxes as if they are real, you look foolish.

another can be found in the interesting article Meme, Counter-Meme. Here's how I'd summarize the two.

A3a: If you respond to button-pushing, you will look foolish.
A3b: If you respond to button-pushing, you will look predictable.

Although in the past I haven't been too impressed with it, I ought to admit I found the above sites via memepool.

So, that's a lot of detail about what is essentially a single antiviral meme. Are there any other antiviral memes? Certainly! Consider the idea that it's immoral to forward email or cut and paste text. I don't see how you could set that up except as dogma, but it would pretty well take care of replication by email. There are even other general-purpose antiviral memes, for instance, the idea of being a hermit or of taking a vow of silence. (I don't mean to suggest that those practices evolved as antiviral measures, just that they have that effect.)

I'd characterize the above examples as pathological in the mathematical sense, in that they're limiting cases designed to prove a point. But there are even normal examples. One could, for example, limit one's exposure to known sources of unhygienic memes … roughly, the analogue of not eating off the floor. That's all that comes to mind right now, but I'm sure there are others.

* * *

It's true, there are other antiviral memes! Here are two I just noticed.

First, there's the idea, or habit, of responding slowly to input. When, for example, I'm in a bookstore, I may see a book that appeals to me, and be determined to buy it. In such cases, what I like to do is put the book back on the shelf and say to myself that if I really want it, I can pick it up again on the way out. Then, on the way out, when I think about the book, I often realize that it was pushing my buttons, perhaps by having a nice design, or by having a sexy picture on the cover. In other words, the viral button-pushing is made ineffective by waiting until it wears off.

By the way, the idea of responding slowly, applied to email, is not quite same thing as the rule of correspondence, partly because not all email is correspondence, and partly because different time scales are involved.

As a more sophisticated version of the same thing, one might, instead of responding slowly to all input, learn to recognize button-pushing in real time (cf. A2), and respond slowly only to that … a generalization of counting to ten when you're angry!

The second antiviral meme is an idea I'd already written down, but hadn't recognized as antiviral, namely, the guideline I came up with back in April (2000), that I shouldn't just write about whatever's on my mind. The thoughts that are topmost in my mind at any given moment are likely to have some viral character, so it's best to ignore them and write about more important things.

It would be nice if I could avoid thinking viral thoughts altogether, but I suspect that's impossible—there will always be some selection mechanism for the thoughts I think, and there will always be thoughts that exploit the mechanism. On the other hand, it still ought to be possible to find a better mechanism.

That last point, about the selection mechanism for thoughts, makes me think about all kinds of things. It reminds me of “music to break phonographs by”, from Contracrostipunctus; more to the point, it reminds me of a problem, described in The Nature of Heuristics, that Eurisko ran into, involving heuristic rules that did nothing but promote themselves … that is, viruses!


  See Also

  Footnote (Antiviral Memes)
  meme, memetic
  Memetic Engineering

@ January (2001)
o October (2001)