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Electric Meme, The: A New Theory of How We Think and Communicate Hardcover – 1 Sep 2002


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (General list, Trade Division) (1 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743201507
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743201506
  • Product Dimensions: 24.5 x 16.2 x 2.8 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,370,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Robert Aunger received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Cambridge. He was until recently a Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge, and is currently affiliated with the Department of Biological Anthropology at the same university. He organized the first academic conference dedicated to memes, which resulted in his book Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. He lives in Cambridge, England. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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These apparently unrelated vignettes, recounting events from varied times and places, all involve the transmission of information-in biological, cultural, or electronic form. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 16 reviews
62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Genesis of a real science of culture transmission 4 July 2002
By Todd I. Stark - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Memes," the suggestion that ideas and other bits of culture can act like parasites by spreading from mind to mind without regard to the invaded host is a particularly compelling idea. It has caught on with a lot of people outside of biological science, but biologists have been generally skeptical of it. The problem has been that theories of memes did not take the characteristics of the host into consideration, and we have a strong sense from biological data that the host of transmitted information probably has to have some control over the processing of the information that they receive and transmit. The notion that our obvious strong propensity for social imitation also allows memes to enter us almost without resistance, then control us to force us to spread them seems a bit much.
Aunger has formulated the meme theory in a way that resolves these problems. He is very careful in his reasoning compared to other popular books on memes and cultural transmission. He shows why cultural transmission is important, pulling from some of the same fascinating data as cultural selectionism researchers such as Boyd and Richerson. Cultural transmission matters because culture doesn't track with environmental, ecological, or genetic patterns. He then makes the crucial distinction for a true meme theory. He distinguishes the idea of a replicator and a duplication mechanism, and builds a model of memes specifically as replicators.
Cultural selection theory holds that culture plays a role in biological evolution, but doesn't neccessarily consider bits of culture tobe composed of self-copying replicators. The reason the distinction is important, Aunger makes clear, is that if they truly can be seen in that way, then they add an additional causal force for culture to take on a life of its own to transmit itself through us. This is the causal force that other meme authors have taken for granted, and Aunger makes it explicit and potentially testable.
In building his model of memes, Aunger finds that the definition can and should be made more specific, as a kind of complex residing in the brain rather than an arbitrary collection of artifacts, behaviors, and ideas. This model of memes gets around the problem of beliefs not being truly arbitrary by making it at least possible to connect the acceptance of memes back to our evolved computational engines as described by evolutionary psychologists.
This is a very rigorous and well-considered argument that finally takes real anthropological and biological data into consideration rather than simply making vague analogies of culture patterns to infection patterns of microbes, or providing a too-facile explanation for things we don't agree with (those guys were just infected by "religion memes," but we're immunized from that.")
I think this book is a landmark in the literature of modelling the transmission of human culture, and if the empirical testing it suggests bears fruit, it may well change the way we view human belief in general and have significant implications to epistemology.
On the downside, while this book is non-technical, it is academic in tone and is unlikely to have the same popular appeal as Brodie's dramatic "Virus of the Mind" or Susan Blackmore's very provocative "Meme Machine." On the other hand, it heralds a potential start for a real science of memetics, addressing the truly important questions (such as "do we have memes or do they have us ?") which those others books attempted to answer but assumed the answer from the start rather than framing the question in empirically testable terms and a more specific definition of a meme, potentially telling us how well memes act act as true replicators.
41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Instigation is double-speak 19 July 2002
By Andrew Chen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book and models something totally different from what I conceived of as a meme. In fact, it redefines memes to something potentially relevant but even more inaccessible before. It's notion of what a "meme" is winds up being a tiny little fragment of a thought, so that something like a word or a idea or a sensation wouldn't actually be a meme, but a collection of them.
My big gripe (but it isn't that big) is that when the author seeks to avoid the problems with how memes transfer between brains, he winds up saying that they don't - they merely create conditions suitable for the recreation of the meme in the other brain. From my point of view, this is double-speak - to paraphrase the book, it says something like "they're not being transferred, because there are problems with memes being transferred, but they are being transferred, but we're not calling it that". This would basically mean that memes don't really get transferred, and that there's a definite possibility of those conditions not leading to recreation of the meme in the other brain. I guess that's what happens when people "misunderstand" each other.
I applaud him for realizing the value of context in understanding what a meme is - not just spatial and cognitive context, but also temporal context - but the "instigator" double-speak is enough to prevent me from calling this a five star.
What I think he means is that memes can only be understood in their context and that meme transfer involves and requires significant amounts of common context in order to be successful. I wish he just said that instead of the rambling on-and-on about "instigators".
This is definitely a book worth looking at. I wouldn't recommend reading the whole thing if you've read any other books on memes or memetics - just use the introduction and table of contents to determine the relevant chapters for you. The only people who should read the whole thing are patient people who haven't heard much about memetics or who don't mind re-reading much similar material.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The Design of Communication 12 July 2002
By Charles Nix - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In this excellent volume Aunger presents a clear and convincing argument. The meme is placed squarely in the brain, safely recreating itself, allowing all that goes on outside of the brain to be viewed in a fresh perspective. Aunger's clear explanations of concepts like signal correction, signal redundancy, and artifacts as repositories of memes should prove invaluable to those involved with the design of communication.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Give Electric Memes a chance 28 Jun 2002
By Marcello Barbieri - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Electric Meme is a superb book. It is fresh, original, deep and entertaining. Memeticists should be truly grateful to Aunger (Richard Dawkins first in line) for giving memes the only reality they can possibly have. I am not (yet) a meme-believer myself, but I totally share Aunger's statement that "establishing whether memes exist is a scientific project of primary importance"(p.333). And I admire Aunger for saying "I will accept the conclusion of this project either way: memes or no memes". That's beautiful. From now on, if you want to talk about memes, pro or contra, you simply have to know what this book is saying. All that has been written so far is already pre-history.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Takes the brain seriously 7 July 2002
By John van Wyhe - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is certainly the most carefully thought out, best researched, most subtle and nuanced book ever written about memes. Of particular importance is Aunger's stress that cultural particulars (like ideas, beliefs, knowledge etc.) are brain states. At last we find the brain taken seriously. It is to be hoped that the standard of meme literature will continue to increase in sophistication as it has markedly done in Aunger's book.
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