January 28, 2006

Memes and Outlooks in Greg Egan’s Diaspora

By the year 2975, humanity has split into three main groupings: fleshers who have opted to remain on Earth in a physical form, the citizens who either uploaded themselves into supercomputer polises with introdus nanoware or who were born in the polises as software, and the widely mistrusted gleisner robots who are busy exploring the physical solar system.

The question which animates Parts One and Two of Greg Egan’s Diaspora is: Just how deep do memes go?

[warning: there are a few plot spoilers here, but not many more than are contained in the blurb on the back of the book. This post also only deals with Parts One and Two of Diaspora – the Earthbound prelude - and does not scratch the surface of the truly mind-boggling tale of the Diaspora itself. Neither does it touch on Egan’s hints that allowing exponential growth to take place is the highpoint of idiocy...]

By 2975, the fleshers and the citizens have mutated into smaller subgroups. Flesher populations have diverged to such an extent, due to various genetic experiments and mutations, that they are becoming new species unable to communicate with each other. One branch of humanity, the bridgers, has actually taken upon itself the task of communicating between the varieties of humans:

‘We call ourselves bridgers. When the founders came here from Turin, three centuries ago, they had a very specific plan. You know there’ve been thousands of artificial genetic changes in different flesher populations, since the Introdus?’ She gestured at a large picture behind her, and the portrait faded, to be replaced by a complex, upside down tree diagram. ‘Different exuberants have made modifications to all kinds of characteristics. Some have been simple, pragmatic adaptations for new diets or habitats: digestive, metabolic, respiratory, muscular-skeletal.’ Images flashed up from different points on the tree: amphibious, winged, and photosynthetic exuberants, close-ups of modified teeth, diagrams of altered metabolic pathways...

‘Often, habitat changes have also demanded neural modifications to provide appropriate new instincts; no one can thrive in the ocean, for example, without the right hardwired reflexes.’ A slick-skinned amphibious flesher rose slowly through emerald water, a faint stream of bubbles emerging from flaps behind vis ears...

‘Some neural changes have gone far beyond new instincts, though.’ The tree thinned out considerably – but were still thirty or forty current branches left. ‘There are species of exuberants who’ve changed aspects of language, perception, and cognition.’

Inoshiro said, ‘Like the dream apes?’

Liana nodded. ‘At one extreme. Their ancestors stripped back the language centres to the level of higher primates. They still have stronger general intelligence than any other primate, but their material culture has been reduced dramatically – and they can no longer modify themselves, even if they want to. I doubt that they even understand their own origins any more.

‘The dream apes are the exception though – a deliberate renunciation of possibilities. Most exuberants have tried more constructive changes: developing new ways of mapping the physical world into the minds, and adding specialised neural structures to handle the new categories. There are exuberants who can manipulate the most sophisticated, abstract concepts in genetics, meteorology, biochemistry or ecology as intuitively as any static can think about a rock or a plant or an animal with the “commons sense” about those things which comes from a few million years of evolution. And there are others who’ve simply modified ancestral neural structures to find out how that changes their thinking – who’ve headed out in search of new possibilities, with no specific goals in mind.’

...‘The only trouble with all this exploration is ... some species of exuberants have changed so much that they can’t communicate with anyone else any more. Different groups have rushed off in their own directions, trying out new kinds of minds – and now they can barely make sense each other, even with software intermediaries. It’s not just a question of language – or at least not the simple question that language was for the statics, when everyone had basically identical brains. Once different communities start carving up the world into different categories, and caring about wildly different things, it becomes impossible to have have a global culture in anything like the pre-Introdus sense. We’re fragmenting. We’re losing each other.’ [73-5]

One of the privileges of science fiction is to be able to jump so far into the future that the ‘ethical issues’ contemporary homo sapiens agonizes over – genetic engineering, cloning, nanotech, AI - have become basic facts of life. Yet, as with all good science fiction, this leap forward also gets to the core of what is at stake in the contemporary anxieties.

It is fitting that the dream apes, the human population who have reprogrammed themselves to regress back to primate ignorance, have two characteristics in common with some branches of present humanity: they have opted to relinquish the ability to modify themselves genetically, and they do not understand their origins.

In Egan’s envisaged world, the refusal to evolve and the desire to retrogress, espoused from a stubbornly maintained moral high ground, are exposed as nothing more than disastrous cowardice and parochial intellectual narrowness. Even the open-minded fleshers - the bridgers and and experimental exuberants - are plagued with crippling paranoia and mistrust of non-flesher intelligence and information: when offered an escape from certain, imminent disaster they are ultimately more afraid of leaving their bodies that they are of death. The fleshers define humanity as having a physical body and living on Earth, but from the perspective of the coalition citizens this definition amounts to nothing more than an irrational, petrified clinging to absurd restrictions at the best of times, but which are utterly incomprehensible in the face of certain, involuntary death.

Egan’s ‘explanation’ for this fearful refusal to give up the physical human form comes in his subtle hints as to the role memes have played in shaping flesher history and in his his more explicit descriptions of how the polis citizens have consciously designed ‘outlooks’ to replace memes.

Polis citizens are immortal, which has its drawbacks. They have a lot of time on their hands, especially if they choose to experience time slowly and get more value for their ‘tau’. Plus they do not sleep, unless they are traveling for light years, from one side of the universe to the other. While some polises are committed to a principled relationship with the physical world, the citizens of Konishi Polis have abandoned the laws of physics all together and tend to occupy themselves with mathematics. The orphan Yatima is a born ‘truth miner’ who is being led astray by the more rebellious and artistically inclined Inoshiro.

'Yatima knew that Radiya, and most other miners, used outlooks to keep themselves focused on their work. Any citizen with a mind broadly modelled on a flesher’s was vulnerable to drift: the decay over time of even the most cherished goals and values, Flexibility was an essential part of the flesher legacy, but after a dozen computational equivalents of the pre-Introdus lifespan, even the most robust personality was liable to unwind into an entropic mess. None of the polises’ founders had chosen to build pre-determined stabilizing mechanisms into their basic designs, though, less the entire species ossify into tribes of self-perpetuating monomaniacs, parasitised by a handful of memes. It was judged far safer for each citizen be free to choose from a wide variety of outlooks: software that could run inside your exoself and reinforce the qualities you valued most, if and when you felt the need for such an anchor. The possibilities for short-term cross-cultural experimentation were almost incidental.

Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds: Regularities and periodicities – rhythms like days and seasons. Harmonies and elaborations, in sounds and images, and in ideas. Novelty. Reminiscence and anticipation. Gossip, companionship, empathy, compassion. Solitude and silence. There was a continuum which stretched all the way from trivial aesthetic preferences to emotional associations to the cornerstones of morality and identity.' (50-1)

Both memes and outlooks provide deep level stability for the intelligence they shape and motivate: intelligence derived from the furiously-adaptive, restless mammalian brain. Both have the potential to be architects of deep structure and determine behaviour on a fundamental psychological level; their scope and extent dependent on their programming. The difference seems to be that memes are parasitic replicators which take root in their hosts without their consent, while outlooks are used more like recreational drugs: their software is installed for a specific purpose, for example to keep an intelligence on task, or to appreciate a work of art. However, outlooks can be highly addictive, which is to say they have the potential to parasitise the citizens: Yatima scans the outlook offered by Inoshiro for its parasitical potential; parents in the polis frown on the use of certain outlooks by artistic-minded youths...

When Yatima and Inoshiro clone themselves and embed the clones in empty gleisner robots they have found on Earth, they come across ‘a small piece of corroded metal’ in the undergrowth.

“ ‘Replicator!’

Yatima turned back and angled for a better view; the interface made vis body crouch. ‘It’s just an empty canister.’ It was almost crushed flat, but there was still paint clinging to the metal in places, the colours faded to barely distinguishable greys...

... Inoshiro spoke in a hushed, sickened voice. ‘Pre-Introdus, this was pandemic. Distorted whole nations’ economies. It had hooks into everything: sexuality, tribalism, half a dozen art forms and subcultures ... it parasitised the fleshers so thoroughly you had to be some kind of desert monk to escape it.’

Yatima regarded the pathetic object dubiously, but they had no access to the library now, and vis knowledge of the era was patchy. ‘Even if there are traces left inside, I’m sure they’re all immune to it by now. And it could hardly infect us-‘

Inoshiro cut ver off impatiently. ‘We’re not talking nucleotide viruses here. The molecules themselves were just a random assortment of junk – mostly phosphoric acid; it was the memes they came wrapped up in that made them virulent.’ Ve bent down lower, and cupped vis hands over the container. ‘And who knows how small a fragment it can bootstrap from? I’m not taking any chances.’ [66-7}

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the discovery of memes is on the eve of its thousandth anniversary in 2975. Memes have come a long way since their conception in The Selfish Gene. The pandemic meme plague hinted at in the passage above suggests that by the time Yatima and Inoshiro visit Earth, meme transmission has evolved considerably beyond the description of meme transmission given by Richard Dawkins in 1976:

“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. `Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like `gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with `cream'.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”


By 2975, meme transmission appears to have become more sophisticated than mere imitation via language and concepts. Yatima and Inoshiro stumble upon a meme canister which spread memes via biological weaponry: viruses coated with memes. The memes were far more virulent than the biological viruses they traveled with. This is not surprising, as Dawkins informed us memes are evolving at a rate which leaves genes ‘panting behind.’ Yet if memes have evolved considerably in the manner of their transmission, their symptoms are basically the same as they were in 1976: they latch onto the economy and sexuality: “Distorted whole nations’ economies. It had hooks into everything: sexuality, tribalism, half a dozen art forms and subcultures ...”

In 2996, when the fleshers face certain death from a gamma ray catastrophe, Yatima and Inoshiro return to Earth as clones in gleisner robots with the aim of persuading fleshers to upload. The resistance they meet is basically memetic:

“Francesca moderated the responses. The first came from the representatives of an enclave of statics; he spoke a dialect of English, so the interface slipped the language into Yatima’s mind.

‘You are shameless. We expect no honour from the simulacra of the shadows of departed cowards, but will you never give up trying to wipe the last trace of vitality from the face of the Earth?’ The static laughed hmuourlessly. ‘Dis you honestly believe that you could frighten us with this risible fairy tale of “quarks” and “gamma rays: raining from the sky, and then we’d all file meekly into your insipid virtual paradise? Did you imagine that a few cheap, shocking words would send us fleeing from the real world of pain and ecstasy into your nightmare of perfectibility?’ He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’

Even with the language graft, Yatima could make little sense of this, and the translation into Modern Roman was equally opaque. Ve dredged the library for clarification; half the speech seemed to consist of references to a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators.

Ve whispered to Francesca, dismayed, ‘I thought religion was long gone, even among the statics.’

‘God is dead, but the platitudes linger.’ Yatima couldn’t bring verself to ask whether torture and slavery also lingered, but Francesca seemed to read vis face, and added, ‘Including a lot of confused rhetoric about free will. Most statics aren’t violent, but they view the possibility of atrocities as essential for virtue – what philosophers call “the Clockwork Orange fallacy”. So in their eyes, autonomy makes the polises a kind of amoral hell, masquerading as Eden.’

It is intriguing that Egan’s citizens view a pessimistic view of human nature to be a lingering symptom of ‘virulent Palestinian theistic replicators’. This goes against Hobbesian and Burkean pessimistic-conservatism, and the Pinkeresque mapping of human psychology, which present homo sapiens as bundled with all sorts of nasty ‘passions’ or bio-programs in a ‘state of nature’ prior to the arrival of memes.

Pinker’s argument in How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate is, to put it crudely, that the human brain evolved to be pessimistic because of the adversity and turmoil human ancestors had to contend with in the distant evolutionary past. The emotions are weighted towards pessimism: there are four negative emotions (fear, anger, disgust and sadness), one neutral emotion (surprise) and just one positive emotion (joy), and this imbalance is part of our ancestry for the simple reason that negative emotions tend to save lives. From the perspective of contemporary evolutionary psychology, memes cannot take all the blame for human pessimism. In fact, evolutionary psychology has to admit that Abrahamic meme replicators contain a great deal of truth in their picture of the soul as a battleground which a permanent set of (largely negative) desires are forever competing for control of.

Egan seems to be suggesting that memes have the capacity to insinuate themselves far deeper than we are aware, to the point where even science is still unwittingly conditioned by residual meme code buried deep in the structure of the human psyche. In Diaspora, memes and outlooks do not merely occupy a host intelligence – they rewrite and shape it at a fundamental operating level. The question then becomes: how could a ‘scientific’ brain that is infected with deep traces of Abrahamic replicators not find evidence of negative, pessimistic programming when it searches its evolutionary past?

Obviously Egan’s citizens know far more about feedback processes than we do. Maybe it goes a bit like this: At some point in the distant past meme-replicators were conceived of, readily accepted and transmitted because of their apparent compatibility with the programming of the human genome. Once they took hold and they unloaded their packages, however, feedback processes would eventually enable them to rewrite the structure of the mind, to some extent at least, at the level of the emotions. Any mind still based on the basic ancestral structure is incapable of truly ridding itself of guiding meme subprograms until it redesigns itself in a post-Introdus polis.

However, even in the Polis the temptation of outlooks is too great for some:

‘Inoshiro smiles beatifically and held out vis hands. A white lotus flower blossomed from the centre of each palm, both emitting identical reference tags. Yatima hesitated, then followed their scent.

It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it, you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.

Yatima said numbly, ‘You were smarter than that, stronget than that.’ [149]

January 22, 2006

All About Oil ...

When we finally return to the Blob, this micro-sketch by Frank J. Gaffney of US energy vulnerability - and worse - will be worth recalling.

We are funding both sides in this war for the free world, as our petrodollars are enabling much of the threat we most immediately confront. This is an intolerable — and unsustainable — situation.

Posted by CCRU-Shanghai at 10:57 AM | On-topic (24) | TrackBack

January 14, 2006


OK, this is quite partisan, admittedly.
Still, the basic question seems sound enough: Is the end of uncontested 'Liberal' (= leftist) cultural dominion provoking a reactionary Statist crack-down on the freedom of expression?

Brian C. Anderson made his name with the discovery of 'South Park Republicans.' Anyone interested in the 21st Century culture wars will find his archive at City Journal extremely stimulating.

Posted by CCRU-Shanghai at 12:08 PM | On-topic (17) | TrackBack