Books: Metamagical Themas

August 20, 2010 |  by

by Douglas Hofstadter, 1985

So we’re slowly building our view of memes. This is the book (a collection of columns for Scientific American) that first introduced the word memetics. Hofstadter is something of a modern-day magician, an Escher of words and phrases. His tricks are the paradoxes of the mind, the bendings of reality. Metamagical is filled with little bits like:

“This sentence contains exactly threee erors.”

It also has a great quote on the unconscious influence of memes, taken from Allen Wheelis’s The Scheme of Things. In reading it, just replace “the scheme of things” with “meme.”

The scheme of things is a system of order…We live within the space defined by its coordinates. It is self-evidently true, is accepted so naturally and automatically that one is not aware of an act of acceptance having taken place. It…is chanted in school, proclaimed from the White House, insinuated by television, validated at Harvard. Like the air we breathe, the scheme of things disappears, becomes simply reality, the way things are.

That’s a pretty big meme he’s talking about…but in general it could apply to any meme. I’m reminded that memes come in all sizes – some more dominant than others. For now, let’s call the big ones major memes, the smaller ones minor memes.

The power of ideas, says Hofstadter, is their ability to convince us to spread them. Here, it isn’t the truth of the idea that’s important, only its hook – its ability to compel. He uses as an example:

“The whales are in danger of extinction.”

If I’m hooked by this idea, it’s like I hear an alarm sounding. There’s a feeling of: I have to tell somebody…I have to do something. Being hooked is all about passing it on. The “best” political ideas are based on this. So here’s the question:

Why are some people hooked, and others not?


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