Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A Beaut Little Hurler

I had to make some tough decisions on my library borrowings Sunday: I've had a bit of a bibliomania rush over the past couple of weeks and picked up too many of those interesting volumes that turn up on the shelf just next to the book you went in to borrow in the first place. It's time for them to go back to the cultural lolly-shop, so that I can do some genuine reading. For sheer pleasure I've got Frederik Pohl's O Pioneer. Pohl is still one of the best writers of "hard" science fiction there is and he's in fine form in this book. It's also pleasant to read an American writer of hard science fiction who isn't a complete right wing twat - In O Pioneer, Pohl even goes so far as to slip in a few sly "anti-American" jokes about a Pentagon.

Another book I'm hanging on to, at least for time being, is Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine. I think it might be worth doing the rounds of the remainder shops and the second hand book stores to see if I can pick up a copy of my own. The hard-back edition is of a good size and medium weight; I think it's the sort of book where you can get a good long throw with a simple overhand action, which I much prefer to the frisbee style lateral spin you have to use to get a respectable throw with a paperback. It looks like the sort of book that would give you plenty of provocation too, which is always a plus when you're looking to set a new personal best for distance.

The irritants start coming early, starting on the second page of the foreword by Richard Dawkins (p viii). Here Dawkins provides a brief history of the 'meme' meme:

... Since 1976, when the word was coined increasing numbers of people have adopted the name 'meme" for the postulated gene analogue.

The compilers of the
Oxford English Dictionary operate a sensible criterion for deciding whether a new word shall be canonised by inclusion. The aspirant word must be commonly used without needing to be defined and without its coinage being attributed whenever it is used. To ask the metamemetic question, how widespread is 'meme'? A far from ideal, but nevertheless easy and convenient method of sampling the meme pool, is provided by the World Wide Web and the ease with which it may be searched. I did a quick search of the Web on the day of writing this, which happened to be 29 August 1998. 'Meme' is mentioned about half a million times, but that is obviously confounded by various acronyms ... The adjectival form memetic, [Rhymes with emetic, doesn't it? Sorry, I needed to take a cheap shot, just for the break. Now back to the tedious task of transcription]. however, is genuinely exclusive, and it clocked up 5042 mentions.

Dawkins goes on to provide scores for a few other recently coined words and phrases: spin doctor (spin-doctor) gets 1412 mentions, dumbing down 3905, and so on. Dawkins then asserts (although I'm not sure how he arrived at his figures):

Of the 5042 mentions of memetic, more than 90 per cent make no mention of the origin of the word, which suggests that it does indeed meet the OED's criterion. And, as Susan Blackmore tells us the Oxford English Dictionary now does contain the following definition:

meme An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

Well, whoopy-do, 'meme' is in the OED, and it only took 22 years to get there. Now you'd think that the bloke who made up the word might have something to skite about, wouldn't you? Whoever he is, he's nearly up there with the egregious Stephen Potter (gamesmanship and one-upmanship), Lewis Carroll (chortle, and possibly one or two others), George Orwell (doublethink and, possibly, ungood and doubleplus ungood) and the legendary Dubliner who won a pub bet by getting quiz into the English language within the space of 24 hours. Can you guess who it was?

There's no real need to, if you've already read Dennett & Hofstadter's The Mind's Eye or if you just carry on reading. Dawkins drops a final modest hint on p xvi of his foreword and Blackmore drags the shy originator rightout onto center stage on page 4:

The term 'meme' first appeared in 1976, in [drum roll] Richard Dawkin's [cymbal] best-selling book The Selfish Gene.

Yes, it was Richard all the time. I bet you never guessed. You have to admit it, he's such a clever boy. I'm not going to say that the rest of the book couldn't possibly be any sillier than want I've read of it so far (which is a little more than what I've written about here) because I strongly suspect that it will. Intellectual football anyone?

Afterword: Having finished O Pioneer on Sunday night, I can thoroughly reccommend it. Pohl is in fine satiric form throughout. As a bonus, he gives us a hero and heroine who actually develop through the course of the novel, rather than arriving fully formed in the first chapter, straight off the standard science fiction hard man and beautiful woman production lines.

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