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The Role of Memetics in Metadesign

Peter Spring and John Wood

The idea of Memetics

Much of the original interest in what we now call 'memetics' was sociological, after biologist Richard Semon began using the term 'mneme' as the smallest unit of evolution within society, in 1921. This contrasts with more Darwinian and Lamarkian theories in which scientists such as Dawkins, Sheldrake, and Blackmore developed memetics to account for the more biological aspects of natural selection and evolution. The modern term 'meme' (Dawkins', 1976) can nevertheless be roughly interpreted as meaning anything that appears to replicate itself, whether it is biological, physical, an object, a fashion, style, or organism. Interestingly, compared with the sociological and biological work much less attention has been paid to the memetics of designs and how they interact with their individual 'users' (see Langrish, 1999). This paper seeks to map some possibilities for continued research in this area. In particular, it looks to ethical aspects of positive memetic 'design' that we hope to be effective for the general benefit of humanity and the biosphere.

Thinking in Pictures

Many, or most designers appear to work for much of their time by visualising new possible conditions. Generally speaking, design questions the roles and, therefore, the interplay that exists between the individual and the designed artefact or 'thing'. One might speculate that this elaborate task could be accomplished within the actative realm of the 'material world'. This appears to be the case when 'designs' emerge from a long iterative process of incremental improvements to how something is made. Ultimately, the objects that the designer has 'designed' become extant in the world at large. They appear to materialise in shops, in houses, on the highways, in the air, in your pocket, on - or even in - your body. Nevertheless, designing is a very complex task which must take place predominantly within the mind. The 'ideas-for' and the 'ideas-of' these complex designs reside within the individual’s mind when we recognise them as the artefacts they are deemed, culturally speaking, to be.

Between the Material, Actual, and Imagined Realms

The actions of designers therefore have far reaching consequences which stretch far beyond fulfilling the specific design brief posed by the client. The designed objects that emerge have a history that must work effectively on many levels simultaneously; such as the formal, functional, conceptual. The new designed object is a composite presence that derives from the individual's former actions that correspond with the cultural embodiment of many complex interactions. Indeed, as individuals, we both create, and are created by, this circular process. Design, as a professional practice, famously calls upon the designer to step 'outside of the box' in order to interrogate and reframe a host of possible and subtle actions, implications, appearances of the actual 'designed product' before it can be launched into what is always, to some extent, unforeseen circumstances.

The idea of 'the idea'

One type of meme that holds a particular fascination for designers is the idea of the 'idea-of'. When we speak of the 'idea-of' something in a design context we moot a kind of flux between the artefact and its user. This may remind us of the emergent nature of 'design entities' within 'design world'. At the macro level it is an indication that design is a both a symptomatic and a formative aspect of human culture. In this regard it raises questions as to why we continue to be bemused and intrigued by the dual nature of memes in that they often defy categorisation as either 'actions' or material 'things'. This becomes a little less mysterious if we consider that modern western discourse still adheres to a fundamental grammatical distinction between 'name' and 'form' that can be traced back, through Latin and Greek, to ancient Sanskrit.

Designing by 'naming' v. designing by 'forming'

Also, as modern societies became increasingly bureaucratic we tend to identify with the way 'truth' is assumed to reside in the 'facts', rather than in the 'flow' of events. Historically, the introduction of alphabetical writing enabled Governments to identify clear operational boundaries of distinction between 'right' and 'wrong'. This led to the idea of governance by laws that were 'designed' to optimise shared well being. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a legislator who envisaged eventual social tranformation (1789) via the implementation of wise rules as a kind of 'design by algorithm'. Nonetheless, where verbal categories tend to encourage an ethics of obedience to categorical rules (see Wittgenstein, 1921), the creation and manipulation of forms (i.e. as in 'design') tends to encourage a more eudaemonic ethics. This is because, from the form-user's perspective, he or she feels as though s/he is acting more from choice than from obedience.

Four Conditions for Memetic Designing

By invoking the 'memetic' we therefore raise the the possibility of a new form of metadesign. One of the hopes of the ds21 project is that we might learn how to create cognitive tools with which (meta)designers would facilitate and proliferate well-being. Wood, (2003) has suggested that we might be able to design successful 'memes' by ensuring that at least four key parameters are present at appropriate times throughout the expected life of the 'meme':

1) a sufficient level of desirability
2) a sufficient level of attainability
3) a sufficient level of reproducibility
4) a sufficient level of maintainability

The Catalytic Potental of Memetic Design

Hence, from all of the above bases, we hope that metadesigners would eventually be able to 'seed' beneficial change by creating an appropriate balance of 'design affordances' (Wood, 2003) from within a given set of designs. By 'affordance' we utilise a term first used in psychology (Gibson, 1966) then adapted for use in design practice (Norman, 1988). 'Affordances' are the range of possible ways that a given design can be utilised, according to its intrinsic formal nature or properties. Specific affordances create the conditions that enable a given design to proliferate. A successful design will have affordances that are sufficiently attractive to an initial set of consumers. They must also be capable of instigating 'contagious’ habits that attract increasing numbers of consumers to the same (or similar) cycle of acquisition, usage, and dependency. Thus we might expect there to be a process of gathering change that may eventually lead to a critical state. In such a situation, positive feedback loops would serve to augment tendencies to 'self-continuation' up to, and beyond the 'tipping point' (see Gladwell, 2002).

Synergies Between the Natural and the Artificial

What we hope is that these would facilitate reciprocal benefits (rather than disadvantages) whose value would appear to emerge spontaneously from the whole system. By focusing directly upon the mechanics of both the artificial and the natural, we create a much richer debate around which a fuller understanding and subsequent implementation of the contextually dependent models might be formulated. This marries both the natural and the artificial: which when brought together, create a dialogue that becomes specifically pertinent and essential to the furtherment of any valuable development of memetics - as a culturally informative and structured subject. It transforms the memetic from the philosophical realm and places it into the actual practices of design.

The idea of 'the idea' as a human construct

Although the Darwinian model of evolution introduced a less mechanical and static model of living organisms, memetics nevertheless became associated with a mindset rooted in a neo-Platonic belief system. In escaping from the historical problems inherent in orthodox memetics it is helpful to establish design-memetics as emphasising the 'idea-of' something as a basis from which the 'natural' can be reclaimed. Here, it is important to distinguish between Plato's belief in the 'idea' as always having been a type of 'design' from God, and John Locke's (1689) revolutionary idea of the 'idea' as something that commonly emerged from the individual minds of mortal human beings. The designer is concerned with ideas-of artefacts and the visualization and subsequent manifestation of these ideas-of. The memetic – (thus termed; in order to subtract from the evolutionary conflict and confusion between the gene and the meme) can be re-employed as part of the cognitive structure for and of - both the newly emerging and the established designer alike.

How Can Memetics be Adapted to Metadesign?

In order to serve the needs of (ecologically-minded) designers it will be necessary to acknowledge the past and putative futures of the artefact. It is important, therefore, instead of maintaining the strictures that enable us to understand evolutionary systems, we can develop the idea in accord with the way that metadesigners might want to work in the future. By this method the evolutionary component becomes more visible. What remains for the design-memetic is a valuable basis from which to build a new structure. Any similarity between the evolutionary-memetic and the design-memetic, may then becomes defined at the level of algorithm. The evolutionarily conditioned substrate – for the memetic, thus becomes neutral. The analogue of the evolutionary dynamic then takes on the role of a useful tool or metaphor to be used only when and where it is of valuable aid to the debate. But it is not anymore the primary and only guiding law around which the memetic has to operate, or else run the risk of becoming redundant or unworthy.

Design Memetics Reside at an Interface

Design is commonly seen as a particularly creative process. As such, it is highly subjective. However, if we regard the memetic as a site of ‘Universal Darwinism’ the memetic instead becomes a way of thinking about the world and our place within it. We might, rather, think of it as the conditions for interplay between individuals’ and their (material) world; and how these conditions facilitate cultural emergence. As such, the memetic can therefore be regarded as a set of potential models or states (i.e. 'ideas-of' things), in rapport with the proximal conditions that we construe as their environment. It is at this point that our efforts will be aimed.

Peter Spring & John Wood
November, 2005

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