The Battle of the Memes

Jonathan Shock writes about a different, but very important competition taking place in society today – the competition for the mental space to think about deep things and not to be distracted by the noise of modern life.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realizse that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

—Seneca, in On the Shortness of Life, AD 49.

If I were to give you a contour map of an unknown mountainous landscape, you could stare and stare at it, but dropped into that landscape you would most likely find yourself completely lost. A more successful approach would be for you to construct a complex mental representation in your mind’s eye, jumping between the contours and the imagined hills and valleys, cliffs and streams. To do this takes deep thought and a cutting out of the world beyond you and the map. If you were to sketch pictures of these imaginings from different perspectives, you would give yourself a much richer idea of the land you were about to be dropped into. The more distinct perspectives, the better the true understanding of the new world.

To me, this contour map makes for a good analogue with the writings of mathematics which students are faced with every day, and this mental play is how we begin to truly understand the mathematical landscape. But to do all of this takes deep, concerted thought, blocking out the noise around us. The problem is that the noise around us seems to be getting ever more intrusive and thus deep thought is harder to come by. Our mental faculties are being tested by competing distractions which are being engineered precisely to keep us locked into their matrix. These distractions are by now well-known and frequently discussed, from social media, to an instant choice of one of a million films, or a billion video clips, or an uncountable number of memes. Meme in the original sense of the word. A meme is an idea which is transmitted from one person’s brain to another, and evolves over time, the most ‘interesting’ idea being the one which survives and goes on to future neurologically manifested generations. These satisfyingly simple memes compete for the demands of the complex memes which have been passed down over centuries of the concerted, deep study of mathematics, and one has to question which meme is winning. For mathematics, in a sense, is a meme. It is an agreed upon idea which has competed with other ideas and has been seen as the best, through some measure of correctness, which again is an idea which we have agreed upon. A meta meme. It is the idea which has proven most useful, most beautiful, most reproducible, both in the scientific sense, and in the ideo-genetic sense.

Illlustration by Liani Malherbe

We have a generation now to whom we are trying to transmit information, which must be chewed upon to truly digest it. At the same time brain space and cognitive workload is being fought over by the morass of memes which have not had so long to evolve as mathematics, but have had an infinitely faster mode of reproduction and evolution, and have become exceedingly good at invading our brains. It is the well-tended garden versus the blight which we must keep at bay in order to be able to cultivate the beautiful, the fruitful and the complex.

So, we are faced with a competition which we have never had to deal with before, at least not to the same degree. Seneca, 2000 years ago, noted how we fritter away our hours. The problem remains, and it may be a larger and more existential question than ever as to how the landscape of complex ideas can win against those which tickle our neurons in less cognitively taxing ways.

Dr. Jonathan Shock

Senior Lecturer,
Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics,

Jonathan Shock is a senior lecturer at UCT, working in theoretical physics, machine learning and neuroscience.

Leave a Reply