Scanning Retrospective, No. 11

Foresight Snippets – No. 11

[Originally published] 30 April 02001

  • Memes and Cultural Evolution
  • The OECD Environmental Outlook is Released
  • The Clock of the Long Now

Memes and Cultural Evolution

Genes are packets of information which replicate themselves biologically across physical ecologies. A packet of information which replicates across ecologies of mind is called, by analogy, a “meme.” Ideas, beliefs, concepts etc are examples of this broader notion of “meme.” (In fact, the idea that memes exist is itself an example of a meme.) Genes evolve over time and give rise to biological evolution; memes evolve also, but on a much, much shorter time-frame. The empirical and theoretical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes is called “memetics.” The evolution of memes can also be used to model human cultural evolution. In certain cultures, different memes find it easier to “take hold” while in others they do not. In addition, the mechanism of transport affects how far and fast a meme will spread, how much it will mutate, and how readily it might combine with other memes. It could be argued therefore that human evolution beyond hunter-gathering is the result of the capacity of the human brain-mind system to allow for memetic evolution. This perspective allows us to re-conceptualise the human journey into the near future as a collective process of making choices from among competing memes. The choice of time-frames is the key — do we want short-term rewards or long-term survival? The concept of memes is introduced and explained in detail at Principia Cybernetica. A recent concrete example of the rapidity with which memes can spread, thanks in part to the mechanism of the Internet, was the phenomenon of “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” [sic]. The Age has a feature story showing its life cycle.

Sources: Principia Cybernetica
The Age online

The OECD Environmental Outlook is Released

The OECD has released a new report providing economy-based projections of environmental pressures and conditions to the year 2020. In governance terms this 20-year time-frame is considered “long-term.” The report identifies policy packages to address the most urgent issues facing OECD countries and analyses their potential environmental and economic effects. The key message of the OECD Environmental Outlook is summed up in their press-release: “To prevent irreversible damage to our environment, governments need to change their policies in a number of clearly identifiable areas over the next 20 years.” OECD environment ministers will be meeting in Paris on the 16th May 02001 to consider these concerns — and hopefully to agree on an OECD Environmental Strategy to shape the emerging millennium in ways that are guided by a sense of long-term responsibility. In the light of recent public sentiment regarding economic globalisation, it will be interesting to see what transpires in Paris on the 16th. That is, it will be interesting to see whether public sentiment to environmental degradation (which has longer-term consequences) will be as vocal and demonstrative as it has been to the shorter-term economic effects of globalisation, so clearly vilified in Seattle, Melbourne and now Quebec.

Source: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Clock of the Long Now

It’s been about 10,000 years since agriculture was invented and the human journey moved beyond daily hunter-gathering. All of recorded [i.e., written] history takes place in [half of] that timeframe. Human civilisation today is developing a pathologically short attention span — in essence, our meme selection is focused on short-term rewards rather than long-term survival. In the West we consider 20 years to be “long-term” and have lost the sense of “deep time” which some cultures still possess. The Long Now Foundation was set up to foster this sense of “deep time” and thereby to engender the sense of deep responsibility which that realisation gives rise to. To this end, they are building a 10,000-year clock, designed by Danny Hillis, who invented the massively parallel computer The Connection Machine. He described the Clock as one which “ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and where the cuckoo comes out every millennium.” It is to be constructed on a grand scale — several stories high — so that people could walk through the mechanism of the Clock and see and feel it running. Also part of the Clock project is a 10,000-year Library. The Long Now Foundation have taken to writing years with 5-digits (hence 02001) in order to prepare for the “Y10K” problem, and to constantly remind us of this 10,000-year perspective. While it might be easy for some minds to dismiss this meme as ridiculous, I submit that once we start to take a 10,000-year perspective, we are forced to think seriously and deeply about our responsibility, not only to the 20 billion people who will have lives in the 21st Century alone, but to those in the 99 centuries beyond that. The 10,000-year perspective of the Long Now is really about forcing us to think about what is truly important now. What would you put into a 10,000-year Library? What do you consider important enough from today to want to preserve for future generations to see?

Source: The Long Now Foundation

Foresight Snippets are interesting, intriguing or weird things we find during our strategic scanning which may or may not have direct obvious relevance to Swinburne, but which do provide signals about what the future might be like. Brought to you by the Foresight & Planning Unit.

An archive of the Foresight Snippets and a list of Frequently Asked Questions are available at [deleted].

Copyright © 2001 FPU and Swinburne University of Technology.
Feedback is welcome. Send feedback to [deleted].

NOTE: In all the posts in this series, the original source URLs are left exactly as they were when published 20-odd years ago. This means they will almost certainly be dead links (or good ol’ 404 errors). I do not have the patience or inclination to follow-up or find any archived or re-located versions of those web pages (because, well, life is too short). But, if it really bugs you, I invite you to see if you can find archived or relocated versions of those dead-link pages. And if you do, let me know, and I’ll update these posts with due credit to your detective work.

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