a coupla robot heads sitting around watching tv (or, i caught a bad meme this weekend)

Talkingheads When it comes to “memetics,” which some say is the new science of studying “memes,” consider me a skeptic. Doesn't a science need to have a clearly defined subject and verifiable findings? At this point the “meme” concept seems more or less to be where the “artificial intelligence” idea was twenty years ago: That is, it's not so much a hypothesis as it is an analogy – a somewhat vague and fluid analogy – one that lets people think in some new and smart ways but leaves them subject to flights of excessive rhetoric.

Which means it's useful … but not exactly real.

The uninitiated among you may be wondering what, exactly, is meant by the word “meme.” You're not alone. Meme advocates are still arguing about that. The word was first used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, as a contract of “mimeme” (meaning imitated behavior.) Dawkins was suggesting that cultural behaviors, reproduced as one person mimics the actions of another, could be considered analogous to genes.

What are some examples of memes? Opinions vary. But the word has caught on in the blogging and Internet world, where its definition seems to be indistinguishable from “fads” or “catchphrases.” Lolcats is described as a “meme” on the Web, for example, and so is “rickrolling.” Expressions like “Jump the shark” and “FAIL” are memes in the online universe, too. A more rigorous and universally agreed-upon definition appears to be lacking.

In addition to his scientific work, Dawkins is one of the finest science writers we have. But it's not clear (at least to me) how seriously he expected the idea to be taken. It's being taken very seriously indeed, however. Consider this sentence: “In a given population of people, memes compete to be copied.” It was written by Dr. Susan Blackmore, a noted researcher in altered mind states and well-known debunker of paranormal phenomena. The sentence reflects the mind-set of someone who is notably and eloquently skeptical about many phenomena, yet is somehow willing to impute agency – and something that sounds very much like volition – to cultural behaviors.

The Oxford English Dictionary's online definition of compete is “strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.” So, by this theory, LOLcats and rickrolling strove to prevail over other websites and Internet pranks that have been less successful. A less successful website – like Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians, for example – apparently lacked either the proper attributes … or maybe the will … to succeed as its fellow memes have succeeded. It is a loser in the cold Darwinian battle for our head space.

Look … it's entirely possible I'm being unfair about all this. I've caught a nasty virus and I feel lousy. It feels like I'm typing this from inside a six-foot sphere made entirely of lint. Dr. Blackmore's done some very interesting work. Maybe there is something called a meme, and maybe it does have agency. But the virus that has attacked my body can be seen on an electron microscope. It can be defined. It reproduces and competes for definable and limited resources.

Let's look at this “meme” thing a little further. (And forget about Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians. I know why that didn't succeed – because, judging from a quick scan, pretty much any man over fifty qualifies. It's bound to annoy both older men and lesbians. You call that a meme?)

Dr. Blackmore's paper on “consciousness in meme machines” points us to the exceedingly cool work being done by researchers such as Luc Steels, who has used computer science and robotics to experiment with creating and reproducing language.

In their paper “Bootstrapping Grounded Word Semantics,” Steels and Frederic Kaplan describe their research on “robotic agents interacting with real world environments through a sensory apparatus.” (See illustration, above.) Specifically, they connected “Talking Head” robots via the Internet and gave them the ability to exchange “agents” that could move from one unit to the other. Both robots had visual access to a series of colored shapes on a whiteboard, which they viewed via an electronically relayed imaging system.

In other words, the robots were watching TV … and talking about it.

It should be noted that the Steels/Kaplan paper does not use the word “meme.” They are attempting to reproduce the genesis and evolution of linguistic forms using programmed software, combined with video technology and robotics. The subjects of their experiment clearly do have identity and agency, even if it is programmed from an external source (and therefore could be said to be an expression of Steels' and Kaplan's actions, not the expression of their own volition.)

Are there really “selfish memes”? Isn't that like saying the different pairs of pants in my closet “compete” to be worn by me every morning? And that the plaid ones my mom bought me are being selected against on a regular basis? Isn't that really just an analogy?

Well, analogies are alright. Analogies are good and proper and useful – provided we remember that they are analogies. I'm not on board the “meme” bandwagon as reality – at least not yet. Apparently the “meme” meme's efforts to reproduce itself in my mind have been unsuccessful so far. But then, is there a “me,” independent of the memes that have coagulated in my general direction? Dr. Blackmore suggests not, that the illusion of self is created by hordes of selfish memes: “The illusion that we are a conscious self having a stream of experiences is constructed when memes compete for replication by human hosts.”

It's a fascinating idea, one that owes much to Dr. Blackmore's past studies of Buddhism and which I can more easily grasp because of my own. But I'm not prepared to make the leap of faith required to consider it a reality.

Maybe it's just this virus slowing me down. I certainly feel lousy – that is, if there really is an “I” who feels anything. Maybe the “feeling sick” meme just needed to replicate and I was an available host. Which is to say, maybe I just came down with a bad meme.