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Author: Richard Barbrook

THE MEMESIS CRITIQUE by Richard Barbrook

A critique of the Memesis statement of Ars Electronica ’96


>The human being, characterized by a remarkable ability to process information…

In the first subclause of the opening sentence, the human ability to communicate complex thoughts to each other is elevated above all other aspects of our existence. Although expressed in computer jargon, this separation of thinking from doing is one of the oldest inversions found in philosophy, as in Plato’s parable of the cave. For centuries, it was used the conjuring trick of the priestly caste – elevating the speaking of sacred words above physical toil on the earth of the peasants. After over two centuries of modernity, it is surprising to find this ancient idea at the beginning of a declaration supposedly describing the future. But, as we will see, the process of seeing the world upside down is one of the most important failings of the whole Memesis statement.


Let’s start again:

>The human being, characterized by a
>remarkable ability to process information,
>has extended his phenotype further than any
>other species. Complex tools and
>technologies are an integral part of our
>evolutionary “fitness”. Human evolution is
>fundamentally intertwined with technological
>development; the two can not be considered
>apart from one another. Humanity has
>co-evolved with its artifacts; genes that
>are not able to cope with this reality will
>not survive the next millennium.

The other major error in the Memesis statement is its use of dodgy biological analogies. The discovery of evolution was one of the key intellectual moments in the development of modern society. By offering a rational understanding of the origins of humanity in nature, it destroyed the intellectual basis of revealed religion. Crucially, evolutionary theory was conceived in the first truly modern society: Great Britain. The rapid economic and social changes taking place in this first industrial society enabled Darwin to understand that nature itself was also in flux.

However, problems arise when the relationship is drawn in the other direction: when natural evolution is used to explain social development. In this century, millions of people were shoved into gas chambers because it was believed that they possessed ‘genes that are not able to cope’ as the Memesis statement puts it. Following the defeat of fascism, the biological metaphor is now more often used to revive an earlier illegitimate use of Darwinian theory for political purposes: Social Darwinism. As championed by Herbert Spencer, this theory claimed that unregulated market competition between private property owners was a natural phenomenon rather than a social one. The moral claims of liberalism were restated in positivist language. For instance, Spencer even opposed the installation of municipal sewerage systems to prevent cholera and other diseases as an obstruction of the natural laws of the market!

Although discredited in the early part of this century, the globalisation of capitalism over the past few decades has been accompanied by a renewed faith in the simplicities of liberal economics. In turn, the idiocies of Spencer have been revived in an updated form – as can be seen in Kevin Kelly’s book ‘Out of Control’. By adopting the rhetoric of biology, the Memesis statement is not simply trying to reduce the complexities of millennia of social development to the self-replication of DNA proteins. It is also implicitly supporting the failed social and economic policies of the 1980s.


>As an analogy to the building blocks of
>biology, the genes, memes describe cultural
>units of information, cognitive behavioral
>patterns that propagate and replicate
>themselves through communication. From the
>”bio-adapter” of language as a proto-meme to
>the “infosphere” of global networks as the
>ultimate habitat for the human mind.

If you combine two errors, you go further into confusion. Having separated thinking from doing and reduced society to biology, the Memesis statement now goes on to assert that human consciousness is an autonomous gene! Dressed up in newly fashionable biospeak, what we have here is a garbled fusion of:

* the old Stalinist lie that history is a process without a subject;
* the old post-structuralist lie that language speaks us;
* and the old McLuhanite lie that technology shapes our minds.
For if memes ‘replicate themselves’, what are humans doing in the meantime? We’re not the blind objects of genes or memes. Rather, whether using language or global networks, humans transform themselves and nature through our own activity. We are the subject of history – even if it is not always in circumstances of our own choosing.


>The discussion is intended to probe specific
>segments of the techno-cultural revolution
>against the background of the idea of a
>”culturally based history of creation”.

So now we get to the core of the Memesis statement. The current process of the convergence of telecommunications, the media and computing is to be explained through the dubious biological metaphor. The prosaic task of developing the hardware and software for an integrated communications and information network is to be transformed into a positivist mysticism: the fulfillment of our pre- programmed genetic destiny. Henri Lefebvre remarked that structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis were usually used by intellectuals as ways of avoiding examining the social relations of capitalism. Now we can add biology to the list.


…and also science fiction!

>This is not to develop new utopias, but
>rather to critically assess the current
>scenario, which promises the fulfillment of
>long prophesied visions of the future. The
>possibility of the emergence of a post-
>biological, cyberorganic line of evolution
>out of universal binary code systems, of
>which the first protozoans have names like
>Internet, Cyberspace and I-way.

The Memesis statement is certainly not advocating a ‘new utopia’. It is instead repeating one of the oldest plots in science fiction: the Frankenstein monster, Hal in 2001, the Terminator and so on. But, whereas in the past we were supposed to fear the destructive powers of technology, we’re now invited to celebrate ‘the emergence of a post- biological, cyberorganic line of evolution’. The ending might be more optimistic, but we’ve read the book and seen the film before.

And where is this new life form supposed to come from? Allegedly it emerges from the ‘Internet, Cyberspace and I-way’. Yet the Net is a creation of human labour. Someone has to dig holes in the road to lay the fibre-optic wires. Someone has to work on the production line building the PCs. Someone has to design the hardware which will control the flow of data across the networks. Someone has write the software to enable people to use the Net. And all of us participate in communicating across cyberspace with one other. Without human activity, the Net is nothing but an inert mass of metal, plastic and sand. We are the only living beings in cyberspace.


>As the biological body coincides with its
>mechanical and now informational clone as
>well, neurobionic, robotic prosthetics
>question our relationship to the body and to
>gender; cyborg theory and cyberbody fetish
>as response.

If the Net can be explained by Social Darwinism, why not recent advances in medical science also? In an orgy of hyperbole, people with pacemakers – or even glasses – can become characters from science fiction tales: the cyborgs. Deprived of the consolation of religion, we can now rediscover the promise of eternal life in a new hi-tech form.

But by embracing this positivist mysticism, we ignore the creative powers of our own species to transform its own conditions of existence. Above all, it is not technology by itself which has changed our perception of gender relations. Rather the possibilities of modernity have been grasped by women – and some men – to transform the limitations on human existence imposed by patriarchal societies and biological necessity. It might seem deliciously wicked to indulge in ‘cyborg fetish’, but worshiping the machine and the gene obscures past and present struggles of flesh ‘n’ blood humans to civilise social relationships between the genders.


>Media memory – the collective memory and
>experience of humanity externalized in
>world-wide networks. Memes, as a “mass
>crystal”, the identification and integration
>of virtual communities that gather only in
>network interfaces.

After repeatedly claiming that memes are self- replicating, the Memesis statement suddenly announces that ‘media memory [is] the collective memory and experience of humanity externalised in world-wide networks’. So the memes are actually our own creation. But, if there is active human involvement in the construction of cyberspace, how can technology and genes be autonomous forces outside our control? The fetishistic conception of technology and information within the Memesis statement is now openly revealed for the first time. What we’re dealing with here is a moment of Feurbachian revelation: the Memesis statement now admits that it wants us to worship the magical power of graven images built with our own labour.

The central error of the Memesis statement has become obvious. It regards machines and information as autonomous things outside our control. Yet, in reality, both technology and culture are expressions of the social relationships between individual humans. It is human activity which is crystallised into machines and information, not memes which create ‘mass crystal’. Crucially, by denying the Promethean power of collective creativity, the Memesis statement ignores one of the central questions of modernity: how are the rewards of labour to be divided among the different groups involved in the social production of machines and information? Ah, but the social question is so unfashionable nowadays…


>Memes, the cognitive pixels as a blueprint
>for the cultural practice of sampling, of
>the universal “copy and paste”, which has
>emerged from the new conditions of media.

Having briefly admitted that humans are the subject and culture is the object of their labour, the Memesis statement quickly reverts to its favourite philosophical inversion dressed up in computer jargon. Once again, it is not clever artists, musicians or designers who use digital technologies to create innovative new forms of cultural expression. On the contrary, the software mystically writes itself!

Moreover, the practice of sampling the work of others is hardly new. For centuries, artists have plagiarised their predecessors and contemporaries. All collective endeavours involves a constant process of sampling and ‘copy and paste’. What the new information technologies have done is make the process much easier and more aesthetically pleasing. Above all, they have enhanced and deepened the possibilities of strange juxtapositions and hallucinatory combinations. The Futurists could only dream of machine music. Jungle musicians can now actually create the digital rhythms of drum ‘n’ bass.


>Memesis: a synonym for the current process
>of compression, for the convergence of
>various developmental vectors, which achieve
>a breakthrough as a whole.

Exhausted, we at last reach the end of this journey through intellectual confusion. Assuring that this was all just a ‘synonym’ for the process of convergence, the statement concludes with the promise of imminent rapture: ‘a breakthrough as a whole’. But, at best, the Memesis statement is a piece of bad poetry. At worst, it is an apology for the defunct neo-liberalism and tired post- modernism of the last decade. The Memesis statement presents a Californian Ideology for Europeans: radical rhetoric hiding conservative ideas.

The real crime of the Memesis statement is the way that it willfully obscures the process of human innovation and creativity under a mass of dodgy biological metaphors. In contrast, we must celebrate the Promethean power of humans to create – and recreate – themselves. It is precisely our refusal to accept our biological destiny which makes us more than insects. Unlike our fellow species, we can transform ourselves through thought and action.

The advent of modernity has radically accelerated this process of human self- transformation. The ‘convergence of various developmental vectors’ – as the Memesis statement so inelegantly puts it – is only the latest stage in this process of modernisation. What is interesting about our present situation is how imaginative people are using new technologies to push forward the limits of social and cultural creativity. Instead of being mesmerised by memes, what we should be doing instead is celebrating the achievement of these digital artisans – the artist- engineers who’re pioneering the ways in which everyone will be able to participate within cyberspace in the future.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.