What are Memes?
Memetics - the study of the persistence and replication of information.
Two definitions, one formal, and the other a class of cultural artifact: 1) the fundamental units of reproducing information and 2) a memeplex capsulized as a simple statement or graphic.
Should a technical and utilitarian definition of memetics be limited to the study of the propagation, reproduction and persistence of information in living systems and organisms? Or should it be assumed to include non-living systems as well? If the former, we face the daunting task of defining life. More subtly, does this apparent dichotomy of choices stem from the structure of our language - the meme of pervasive dichotomies? If so, perhaps we should assume this pair of questions, though seemingly reasonable, arise from the imprecise structure of language and flawed cosmological assumptions, in which case the later choice should be employed.
Why study memetics?
Alright... so that folks don't think my obscure forays into cognitive anthropology are just exercises in mental self-stimulation, I'll explain my motives in posting this nonsense. First, memetics is a well established, though obscure science - a branch of linguistics, more or less, that looks at how and why ideas propagate within cultures. Some have argued, and I will skip journal citations here because who gives a damn, that the emergent science of memetics speaks to fundamental physical processes... perhaps laws, governing the survival and transmission of information in complex systems. I happen to agree with this, but it doesn't matter. We live at a moment in history when every citizen of the US is the target of a constant barrage of ideas, all of which are competing for space in our brains. Some of these ideas are good old fashioned propaganda. Others are elegantly constructed weaponized memes, employed in well-funded offensive or defensive political, corporate or religious efforts at conquest, and others, like the anti-vax debacle, are spontaneously evolved stupidity, with strong viral characteristics acquired by blind chance. When I look at the world around me, I see ideas that threaten the environment, endanger lives, turn citizen against citizen in increasingly violent distrust, and worse. And many of these memes spring into existence through the internet, engineered and sent out like heat-seeking missiles, into the global conversation... and frankly, we don't know who is crafting them or where a lot of them are coming from. We should not underestimate this crap - there are memes that even encourage Americans, in the name of patriotism, to use violence against other American citizens - actual memetic attempts at second-hand assassination! And would-be patriots swallow them blindly. Memes, beliefs, turn the pages of history, both building and toppling nations. They can be understood in simple, rational terms, and they can be put together and taken apart as easily as a child stacks blocks. They should not be underestimated, and yet the vast majority of people are fundamentally ignorant of their existence. My motivation is this: I simply believe that a basic understanding of the science of memetics is necessary for personal and national survival in the modern world, that a population aware of how ideas work is to some extent inoculated against bad ones, and that the potential cost of ignorance, as has been so explicitly illustrated by the deaths resulting from the anti-vax stupidity, justifies at least some small effort at sharing something of the simple but obscure science with others.