Genes, memes, temes and decor

Not to belabor talk of my new den, but I wasn’t kidding when I described the space as opinionated. It knows what it wants, and I’m just carrying out orders. Or at least I considered that idea after recently revisiting Susan Blackmore’s August 22nd New York Times blog post, The Third Replicator. Blackmore, a psychologist and Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, has written several books about consciousness, including The Meme Machine, Conversations on Consciousness and most recently, Ten Zen Questions. Allow me to butcher her recent New York Times blog post concerning temes by first trying to define her concept, which she calls a third replicator after genes and memes.

It starts with genes

Genes make humans who we are by encoding protein to express DNA (i.e. our underlying human code*) essentially creating the body. Over time, a tiny subset will be copied with errors or mutations. Most mutations aren’t successful enough to survive, but some, like walking upright, losing our tails and language, are successful enough to take hold and mutate further over the course of millions of years. Tiny changes add up. So while we still have a tailbone now, we probably won’t if we stick around long enough. Many theorize that life is just an efficient way for genes to replicate themselves, that living things are essentially just gene factories.* If meditating bores you, pondering this concept may also help to tame the ego.

Lucky Brand jeans are my favorite.

So what are memes?

Just as genes are the mechanism that enabled bacteria to evolve into more and more complex forms of life, memes may be the mechanism that explains how tribalism and witchcraft evolved into more organized forms of government and religion. Memes are the genes of information, and they express themselves through culture, religion, music, trends and of course, decor. Like genes, memes evolve by copying, and also like genes, they use us to do it.  A good example is that classic kid’s sleepover (and adult corporate retreat) game where one person in a group whispers to another until everybody has heard it. The last person says the secret out loud, which is inevitably followed by laughter, because what each person heard is usually a little bit different with the last person hearing something completely different than what the first person said. Tiny changes make a big difference in the end. In the game, there’s often a provocateur who deliberately changes the sentence to make it funnier, dirtier or just to add a personal rhetorical flourish, but that’s the point.  Artists and designers are society’s provocateurs, agents of change, drawing from the past to create something new.

Then what the heck are temes?

According to Blackmore, the Internet can now, or will soon be able to, replicate data automatically – no human intervention required. Programs scan and search for the most prevalent ideas and then copy them further. Supercomputers are far faster than us, so even if they don’t achieve consciousness, they will have progeny, which will evolve so quickly they will ultimately overwhelm the human-generated stuff. It’s positively bacterial. Of course, a small percentage will have errors. It’s natural selection of the technological variety. There’s only one problem: literally speaking, humans aren’t necessarily part of the equation anymore. Genes and memes need us to perpetuate themselves, but temes do not, which makes us expendable (cue the organ music) or at the very least, even more pointless than before. But what if it goes further and genes and memes are besides the point too? What if their purpose is to create the anatomical and cultural conditions that would enable the creation of faster and faster processing systems (i.e. computers) in order to create temes, which are the real point? If I were a curious universe, that’s how I would do it. (If you were a universe, what would you do?) Former GE CEO Jack Welch believed companies should be on the cutting edge, lest they become obsolete. But if Blackmore’s teme concept has merit, it begs the question whether human advancement has actually caused our own obsolescence? If so, how do we get in on the ground floor of the teme business?

Cholera bacteria from an interesting Newsline article.

Is this post a joke? What does this have to do with decorating?

What’s this have to do with decor? Maybe nothing. Or maybe memes explain not only why the long arc of history bends toward justice but also how cave drawings became the expensive peacock wall covering available at Schumacher. We’re still here, so we’re probably not completely irrelevant yet. We’re still posting our favorite articles to Facebook and Twitter, videos to YouTube and photos to Flickr, where they will be seen and copied by others. According to Blackmore’s theory, automated replicating systems will index them and copy the most popular information. Note: Tematically at least, I’m well aware this post is an evolutionary dead end. As with genes, there will be errors, and new concepts will emerge as if by magic as an entire universe of electronic information emerges from the digital noise. It might seem depressing, but at least we’re establishing the template.

Schumacher’s peacock wall covering. It would make such a splash in my very tiny entry hallway. I would write many, many posts about that.

Design Rules: Don’t feel bad about copying an idea, but for the sake of the universe, it’s important to tweak it somehow

Add your own touch. For example, I was infected with a meme during a visit to Open House stars Don and Jackie‘s Rogers Park Victorian a couple years ago. Hanging in every room is a framed photo of that room, which I think is a really weird, cool idea that I’m planning to try in the den. But as you might expect, the demanding room wants me to customize the photo idea to better suit its specific vibe and Hitchcock elements, so I have an idea. If my innovation is successful, it will be copied and modified, and 100 million years from now, it might be a grain of code in one of the virtual rooms being created by giant supercomputers. Um, that’s it. Have a Happy Halloween!

Foe more information, please check out Susan Blackmore’s website and Facebook page.

Above: The den.

Top photo: A framed photo of Don and Jackie’s kitchen hanging in their kitchen.

* DNA is just a form of information, right? So that leads things into a much stranger direction.

* But really, who cares if we’re just gene factories? Why do we have to be the point of everything?

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7 Responses to “Genes, memes, temes and decor”

  1. Tate, u were right about the paint color on the walls. Just right but with a life of its own. My personal favorite is the pedestal table, which I think could make a room by itself.

  2. I don’t know what to say about genes, memes etc., other than, I enjoyed the read and will carry it around in my brain for several days. Love the picture of the room in the room idea…especially if it was any picture taken by you! Happily, I have a few of those…Lucky jeans…lucky me!

  3. I’ve been aware of memes pretty much since Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976 in “The Selfish Gene” If you were an avid reader of Co-Evolution Quarterly you heard about these things. Temes sounds like cyborgs. Any Battlestar Gallactica or Star Trek TNG fan will follow right along with you.

    OK, so now you know I’m a sci fi geek, as well as being rawther old. Loved the post. Now back to Dr. Who.

    Happy Halloween

  4. decorator dave 01. Nov, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Tate, the conversion of your tasteful extra room into a tasteful den really seems to have taken you lots of effort! I thought that my method of constant tinkering was an easy thing to undertake but reading the ‘Saga of the Den Decor’ makes me realize that it really does take a lot of effort for a lot of people to end up with something good. I had a grand idea about a month ago that I needed about half as much crap in my life and have been purging. It feels good. Maybe I really do only need three or four pieces of furniture and a lot of empty air in my living room….but I am going to have to take a cue from you and carefully consider what those pieces are. Need a blue patent wing chair? Wipes down with windex.

  5. Dave, actually, refinishing the desk was the really hard part. Once it was finished, I painted and had the room put together within a week or so. BTW, you keep saying you’re going to purge, but I think your place looks beyond amazing the way it is.

    Liza: Strictly speaking, I’m not a “sci-fi” geek, but I’m a geek all the same.

    Laura and Melly, I appreciate your comments!

  6. Robert Stordalen 01. Nov, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Tate, the above picture of your den at night very very nice.

  7. Thanks for this analysis of nearly-rhyming 5 letter words. I think I get where Don and Jackie are going with the framed room photos, but Cor! I would be scared to take photos of the rooms in my house right now. The phrase “book research in progress” should pretty much convey the state of the premises. Your den looks fantastic, please don’t ever do any book research there!