Information as Infection, Part I: Going Viral


Caution: if you are reading this, there’s a good chance you’re going to be infected. Each sentence, like a coded strand of nucleotides, adds to the structure of thought-DNA that is replicating in your mind as you read. Don’t worry, unlike an actual virus, the likelihood of fatal illness or adverse reactions from ideas is relatively low…then again, there are plenty of cases in which ideas really do endanger their hosts. Allow me to invade – ‘ahem’, I mean explain.

Those of us who are deeply enmeshed in digital culture (especially You Tube) surely understand the meaning of the cliché “going viral.” It turns out it’s more than just buzz phrase. Researchers like Shade Shutters of Arizona State University’s Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity take the analogy between ideas and viruses quite seriously. Shutters, who studies theoretical biology and evolutionary economics, is among a group of experts who are trying to use the concept of “information as infection” to model complex social interactions.

In 1999, psychologist Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine reinvigorated a controversial debate surrounding the concept of the meme, a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme can be understood as any pattern held in memory, and include symbols, ideas, or practices that are transmitted from one mind to another and that are subject to variation and selection pressures. The word “meme” clearly draws an analogy to a biological counterpart, the gene. But memes don’t behave like human genes, which are transmitted vertically, from parent to child. Instead, memes are transferred horizontally, between individuals, in much the same way contagion spreads. In this way, passing along new information to a friend is kind of like sneezing.

Another characteristic that distinguishes memes from genes is their high fecundity, or the ability to transmit rapidly. For instance, the average person is exposed to a massive quantity of new information about consumer products every single day. The sheer volume of information transmitted about products means that bad ideas are quickly rejected, a few good ideas thrive, and advertising evolves on a regular basis.  The human species, by comparison, appears to have evolved very little since its inception…or has it?

For exposure to more mind-contagion, check out Part II and Part III of this series.

Image courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Thanks Sanofi!