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Rhys Lindmark: Hello listeners. Today, I'm excited to chat with Susan Blackmore. Susan is a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth who researches consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences. She wrote the excellent book, The Meme Machine. Sue, thanks so much for being on the show, and welcome.
Susan Blackmore: It's a pleasure. At least so far. I think it's a pleasure.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly. Beautiful.
Susan: I'm going to be in trouble.
Rhys: Haha. Thus far, it's a pleasure, but who knows how it’s where we're going to go. Yeah, so I think for me, I want to focus a lot today on just like memes, but before doing that, I mean, your background is interesting because you do have this curiosity towards all these different things, and so I just kind of want to understand, like for you, what is the through-line that ties all of your work together?
Susan: Well, I think, you, hitting the nail on the head because the word curiosity sums it up and I know this is way, way, way off memes. But, as some listeners will know, 1970, as a young student, I had a dramatic out-of-the-body experience. In fact, I would say now it was a mystical experience of all sorts of strange things and doing the kind of oneness with the universe. That drove me into parapsychology, which is a dead-end, in my opinion, you never get anywhere with it. And giving that up, I came to realize that actually, the big question in my mind was, well, consciousness at all.
Then I realized they were people in what's called consciousness studies struggling with it. The deep problems of dualism and how does mind relate to matter and how can they be one and all of that, that's driven me ever since. Psychedelic experiences have been a lot of that and now there's research that actually relates what's going on in the brain to those experiences, that's fantastic, and we have the neuroscience to understand why out-of-body experiences happen and which bit of the brain is doing it and so on.
So that's taken me along, but the curiosity is although fired by that, still, and that's still the thing, I, you know, late at night having a smoke, I'll be thinking, you know, my mind going, and then I'll be thinking about consciousness and what's it doing and how's this, you know, those are the questions, constantly, that propel me. But then, the whole meme thing began because Dan Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea came out and I'd always been fascinated by evolution theory because what Darwin saw is so simple, so elegant, explain so much and yet it's still counterintuitive, which is why in your country, there are people who don't believe in evolution. How can you not believe it?
Well, the reason people don't believe is because they don't understand. If you get the idea of the evolutionary algorithm, you know, you just have to copy something lots of times with variation and then select, and then copy again. Once people get that, you know, then I think it's very, very, very hard to go back to believing in God and God a creator, and so on. So that book kind of threw me and a student wrote me an essay on memes and consciousness, at that time, and I was ill in bed with chronic fatigue at the time when that happened.
I was in bed for nearly a year, staring at the ceiling or reading incredibly slowly, because I could only read for quarter an hour or something before I, and reading that book so slowly and then rereading The Selfish Gene from which of course the idea of memes came. Reading that incredibly slowly over a few weeks. By the end of that illness, I had a book in my head to write, and that was The Meme Machine. So, you know, where is that the thread with all the other things? I don't know, just, I think I have the great gift, not God-given, given by evolution, unlocking whatever of just being endlessly curious and not being able to just let something go if I don't understand that.
Sorry, that was a very long rambly answer, but curiosity is what sums it up. Oh, and another word, perplexity. My big textbook on Consciousness, it's like 600 pages or something or other, and which was a real, real struggle and it's now in three editions. It begins with the word perplexity and it ends with the word perplexity, and it also says what I often say in lectures on consciousness. You know, I want your brain to hurt. Well, brains don't hurt. I want your head to hurt. I want it to hurt more and more, as this lecture goes on and I want you to go away from this lecture, I can’t bear, because it's that difficult. So curiosity and perplexity will do as an answer.
Rhys: That's cool. No, I love that. I think that on one side, two, it's like you had, you were living your life and you had this crazy experience that you didn't expect, and you were like, oh my God, and that kind of puts you on this weird path towards these things of, what was this experience? So then as you said, it's like, it pushes you toward this realm of consciousness and there is something weird about. I do think that saying perplexity is a good, it's a good catchall for the kinds of things that curiosity is a fit for.
Where you're like, whoa, what is this thing? How do these memes work? Or how do these, how does consciousness sort. Those things are things that make your head hurt because you're trying to rid about it. You're trying to understand your own experience, you’re like, this is weird. This is hard to kind of wrap your mind around and then once you kind of, it's something that like for you and for I, it's like, oh, we're kind of attracted to it in this delightful way. So, yeah, I think that's very interesting. I'll keep perplexity in my own mind as I go forth in life.
So thinking about memes on the meme side of things. I mean, Dan Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is so amazing. It feels funny cause as I'm reading these books on memes, there's yours, there's his, there's a lot, you know, 70s, 80s, 90s, you know, after Selfish Gene, but then it's kind of died out. How do you see the field of mimetics over time? What has it like, how has it evolved? It kind of feels like it died or something like that. Tell me a little bit more about that progression, as for me, as a youth coming into it.
Susan: It hasn't died, but it's pretty sick. No, no, that's very unkind to us. Sorry, mimetics, I don't mean that. I would like to take two different threads. One is the popular thread and that, of course, when in 1976, when the Selfish Gene came out, and the idea of memes was invented by Richard Dawkins, that there was barely internet. I mean, that was that long ago. So there was obviously no such thing as internet memes and he was talking about, well, I suppose I should define a meme because many people think that internet memes are the only kind of memes.
So memes are any kind of information that is copied with variation and selection between people. That can include between people and a computer and back again, or a book and back again or whatever. So all of the words in your language, everything we're doing now is, is mimetic transfer. You know, we're throwing memes back and forth at each other. The things that you learned by yourself or yourself are not memes, memes are information that's copied and passed around in culture.
So what happened then was once internet means really took off, then that people began to think that that was all, all that memes work. That's very interesting to me because actually, they're a very good example of the evolution of information because internet memes, you know, the millions and millions, I don't know the latest speakers on how many images are uploaded into the cloud every day, but it's an awful lot and very, very few of them ever get copied and certainly even few are get copied like millions of times.
So they are a good example, as long as people realize that's all they are, that all of culture is made up of memes too. So at the time, I think both Richard and I were a bit pissed off that people that thought that, but actually I'm quite happy about that. So there were an awful lot of books as you well know, not the sort you're talking about, but the latest great cat videos or, you know, whatever it is, books about that kind of thing.
The other thread is the academic thread and I have often asked myself and in the given lectures entitled why isn't memetics thriving or something, or what's wrong with memetics or something like that. My answers never very satisfactory, but I think a huge number of people, even academics and clever people who ought to know better simply don't get it. They don't get it as, I think, well, it does. Why don't they get it? I suppose, that you have to be willing, which I think you absolutely would be the kind of things that you do are really about. The idea is that information is actually driving its own change. That's a very scary idea to people, but that's what it comes down to, really. Then there are a whole lot of social scientists who hate the idea that evolutionary theory would come into there because it's been threatened in various ways, in other ways in the past. So they don't want Darwinian ideas coming into sociology and whatever. Quite a lot of people, not everyone.
Then on the other side, there are some biologists who are scared of the idea of this kind of spoiling people's understanding of Darwinian thinking, you know, it's all about biology. Darwin was primarily about biology, although he did talk about the evolution of languages and the languages becoming extinct. So he's certain, I think where Darwin alive now or brought back with incredible technology, you know, he will think this is great. But what really is the problem? I mean, those are problems, but the real problem as for Darwin is that mimetics has not been able, till now, to come up with really good predictions of things or findings that would not be found on any other theory and that come out to be so, and unless you have that in any scientific field, you can't make any progress.
Now that's interesting because as I said, it was so with biology and it was a long time before the coming together of genetic and the discoveries of understanding of genetics and bringing that together with Darwin’s ideas. I think the same thing is probably happening now with mimetics. We're creeping our way towards finding predictions that you would not expect on other theories of culture, and the really critical point about mimetics is the selfish gene in it, remember that? What about the selfish meme?
It's that ideas spread for that own benefit, not necessarily for us and not necessarily for the genes. They can be favoring both those things, but they don't have to, they can just be entirely selfish. That's where I think where we are looking and need to look for evidence that shows that mimetics does better than other theories.
Rhys: Yeah, that's fascinating. I think...
Susan: Well, that's a terribly long answer and I got carried away on this subject.
Rhys: No, I think that all these answers are actually not long, but are just informative. And I think that for me, it's an interesting, and you've also been thinking about this for a long time. So I think that there's some of it is that folks kind of don't get it and they're just kind of anti, oh, it's like what's the information wants, things itself, that's kind of weird. Then it kind of encroaches in another fields in this kind of awkward way, kind of the universal acid of Darwinism and, and ain't nobody like that. But I think you're right to point out that the predictions are really why it hasn't taken off as a field. I do think, yeah, it's weird. I mean, I think too, for me, as I'm writing this book on What Information Wants and how the current, you know, to some extent, updating the memetics or whatever for the network team and organism and the network timeline that we have now. It's like, I don't know, it's kind of a funny thing where it's I'm talking about this thing.
That's kind of been not relegated, but people are a little bit more skeptical of it if you talk about it in other ways. It's like cultural evolution or things like that, then people are like more game for it. So I don't know. I think there's, I just think at the frame, the other thing for me, why I'm so bullish on is because so much of our, as humans are frame on life comes from our perspective, like humans are the main agents in life and humans are doing our thing. Humans are doing our thing. It's like, wait a second, what about the genes? Or especially here, what about the memes? Actually, instead of thinking ourselves as agents, let's think about the information itself as the agent and you might not, you know, sure. It might not give the best XYZ or it might be, you know, we have to have like both of them in our minds. In general, like just taking that frame to get us less egotistical, I think is a really powerful kind of move, in space. So what do you think by the way about…?
Susan: Can I ask you a question?
Rhys: Yes, yes go for it.
Susan: When you talk about what information wants, of course, I love that because that's how I feel about it and think about it. But of course, as you have been saying, people hate it and they don't understand it. How do you get that across? Because I have trouble with it in the same way, probably, they don't want, in the sense of sitting there having a conscious experience of, oh, I'm lonely, you know, of course, that genes are just bits of data and whatever. How do you personally get that over to people to get through their resistance, to that idea? Because for people that so often it's like, well, it's obvious that information can't want anything. That's obvious and they blocked their mind to it.
Rhys: Yeah, that's a great question. So I guess one of my answers is I haven't done that much of it. I haven't tried saying it that much. I haven't formed the idea that well, and battered it with lots of people. I think that my general thing is that I guess, what I say is something. I think that the nice thing, as you kind of know too, is that memes themselves, like internet memes, are a helpful way to talk about information wanting things.
So you're just, okay, and like for me, as an example, me too, you can think about it as a, that thing spread so widely because it had based within it, it was content with distribution built in. Everybody who saw that was like, okay, great. I also want to spread this more because it's kind of an invitation dish to share.
So I think that something like that, or like challenges might be an example of TikTok dance challenges, where you come in and the challenge itself is saying, hey, spread me, spread me. Don't forget to spread me, so I guess I think that, how I do it is by, slowly getting people in with internet memes as a thing that has the spread me or copy me thing built into it.
Then from there, kind of going deeper and deeper with people into the like rabbit hole of, okay, we can think of things like religions, like that, but instead of having really good copy me, attributes, which they do, they have, you know, like Catholicism is really good at having more kids. But also religion and other things are really good at getting themselves into the financial infrastructure and accessing money and energy, and so whether it's them, or maybe again for the kids these days, something like Bitcoin or WallStreetBets, you know, something like Bitcoin is a meme with kind of retention built in where you kind of you have Bitcoin as a meme and it is good at spreading, but it's also really good at people who have it make more money or whatever.
So they are, it can kind of like self perpetuate instead of falling out like so many other memes do. So I guess what I do is use current day things.
Susan: But, but everything you're saying there...even I with my view, a sort of reward in saying, yeah, yeah, but it's all about human agency because we're the ones who pick up this meme and not that meme and so on. The difficulty is I think to move from we made all these memes. We made this machinery, the computers and the servers and everything to do it. So, you know, we're in charge, we’re the important ones, we're the ones who do have that I want because, you know, this is my mind and, you know, so I'm the agent and everything you've said, that will be the way a lot of people come at it. The shift people have to make, to really engage with this is a shift to, ah, we're agents, they are agents, the memes and the genes. These are agents all competing to throw information around their kind of, they're not exactly equivalent to us, but in that sense they are.
That leads you into something else that terrifies people. I know this from, you know, 20 years or however long it is of talking about it. The thought that our wants and decisions and so on are just information going on in a clever brain. And, you know, it's not because we've got this soul or spirit that wants things, you know, some sort of, you know, inner self that is the power that has agency and makes the choices that we have free will, we have free will, but the memes don't. Is the simplest way of putting that response, and of course, I'm very, very happy to say, and we don't have free will, all this stuff, this isn't the machine. This thing here, my desk is a machine and it's throwing stuff around and the difference is only in complexity and structure and so on. Not in its fundamental nature of agency.
Rhys: Yeah, I like that. I think you're right to push back on. And even as I said, I think it was like, yeah, I'm still kind of centering the human as much. And so it's like, you kind of want to go from centering the human talking about the internet memes to like, wait a second, let's think about, you know, a catchy song and see the world from the catchy songs perspective. If you're a non catchy song, well, you just don't get into people's minds, you know, and so you die off, but if you are a catchy song then you're transmitting from mind to mind and you're excited by that.
Then people are going to remix you and you get pop music or whatever. So I think that starting to talk from the perspective of the information or the meme is a crucial reframe. Then I think, I don't think it's, you're saying here that makes me think about how your work might relate to my work is that I think yours is connected, you know, given the curiosity and perplexity that you have, is more connected to like the consciousness and free will and philosophy of mind side.
I think for me, I think that my work is more directed towards how to moderate a social media platforms, and how we should think about information flowing on them. And so it's less kind of, so hopefully, this to say, I might try to dodge the like free will question and might try to like lead people towards the, instead of thinking about social media platforms as a bunch of humans, let's think of it as the information on the platforms and what the information self wants and how we should like moderated or sensor it or whatever. Does that make sense?
Susan: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It does make sense. Yeah, good for you because I couldn't do that. I am not engaged with social media or in the modern world, you know, in some ways I'm just, you know, old out of touch person, which is odd, given my enthusiasm for everything we're talking about. Where do people find time in their lives to do this stuff? I don't know. I think I've got better things to do.
Rhys: That's a better, that's a better use of time. Yeah. I mean, so how do you think about, one thing, I think, I mean, and maybe part of this conversation is this, you know, not, not extraction, but you know, like thinking about all the stuff that you know, and like connecting you into that world of the Gen Z, TikTokers or whatever. How do you think about the memes in a thing that you have thought of this idea of these tremes, these technological or this third replicator with bits? And that's something that I've been thinking about too. It's like, okay, you have these memes that go from mind to mind, but then you also have this like arrangement of bits in computers and like that can be transferred as well. So tell me how you think about tremes and how they connect to memes.
Susan: What you just said is actually a very good way of, I mean, you make it easy for me to answer by what you just said because I think what happened to me and over many years, and I came to this idea after all in 2008, that's when I gave my TED lecture and it was just before that, that I was asked to write for a NASA book on cultural evolution in the cosmos. And I, you know, one of those emails you get, you know, and will you write a chapter on, what, how could there be cultural evolution in the cosmos? And that's set me thinking and out of that came all these ideas, but the spark before that was, I was beginning to worry what you said about the digital bits and the, how do they relate to mind to mind psychological information.
Is it just more of the same or is it something different? Only suppose this was kind of early on in the internet memes phenomenon appearing, and I'm thinking, is this something fundamentally different, or is it just another kind of meme? Tricky in an academic writing point of view, do they need a new name? I mean, should I call these just, you know, digital memes and they're still memes, they're all memes, or is something different going on? And that question I think was lurking in my mind for a long time before that question about the cosmos hit me and I really had to think it through.
I went for a walk with my daughter, she lives on a narrowboat and the river was too high to go for a trip on the boat. And we ended up walking one behind the other on this narrow path for quite a long time. And I was just thinking and thinking and thinking, and the whole ideas just kind of bred themselves, if you like. So where it went from there was to say, well, could there be another replicator? I mean, if you're going to give it another name, if there's something different going on here, I've got to have some principled way of thinking about being the difference because otherwise, I'm just throwing out names, people do that all the time, and it can be useless and then they fizzle out. The only purpose of doing it would be for something fundamentally different going on.
So I began to think about what happened when memes first appeared. Well, we know that in the sense that that's what meme theory is about. You have biology producing loads of different species and then one of those species becomes a copying machine. In other words, when early humans began to imitate each other and pass information, copy, vary, and select information, you know, fire-making techniques, or stone knapping techniques, whatever it might've been in the beginning, putting feathers in their hair, I don't know, whatever, that set off a new evolutionary process and that's what we call memes.
Could that process happen again? Well, when I thought about it that way, then it was immediately obvious to me I might be wrong, but that's what it seemed immediately obvious to me, that what has happened is of all these human meme machines, they began to produce books and cars and tables and glasses and pens and cups of tea and any endless things. But then they kind of accidentally, because they wanted to, you know, write letters and do whatever they want and talk to each other, quite accidentally in a way they produced computers that were capable of copying information with variation and selection.
So you've now got a new kind of copying machine, all the digital technology, but is that enough for a new evolutionary process? So there were two ways of answering that, one is to say, yeah, that's enough because it's digital and it's in Silicon and that's very different from this, but actually, I prefer to take a further step and say, well, those are memes because we're kind of in charge and we’re the main selectors, we’re the main machines dealing with them. But if it came about that the machinery we created was doing the copying varying and selecting without us, without us interfering. Then there would be a new evolutionary process taken off. And that's why I decided, originally it’s called temes and then people thought I was talking about football that is long gone, so I've never found a really satisfactory name. I've tried lots.
That's how I came to that idea. And when I did so, which is now nearly 15 years ago, I don't think it was true or if it was true, it was only very rarely or slightly true, but it's certainly true now. I mean, you know, such engines are a simple example, but you can go much further than that. I think out there in cyberspace, there's all sorts of stuff going on that nobody has access to. There's stuff being copied, varied, selected, there are bits of code, you know, going all over the place. We start started all off and control some of it, observed some of it, but there are unique things being produced, unique combinations of memes being produced all the time by the software that we've produced, and how much it can really take off without us seeing it? I don't know. I'm not an expert on how those things work.
I hope some experts will tell me, but it leads to this really quite worrying thought could say terrifying, that there's a new evolutionary process going out there using all the stuff that we produced, still in a sense in the same way that we're dependent on genes and biology for the memes that they're building on these meme machines. So in a way we’re essential and those machines we created are essential, but the whole process can take off for its own sake and that makes a big difference.
Rhys: Yeah, I think that was a good explanation. It's cool that like, you know, some of the nicest times when you're, when ideas come is when you're just walking around, you're like, okay, I guess I just got to walk with my own thoughts for a second and then it kind of emerges. I think you're right to say that there's, it is weird because in some ways, all of this stuff, you know, genes and memes and these like bits or these tremes or whatever you want to call them, that those are all, you can kind of, if you want to mess around with and kind of like collapse them all into one, or it's like, okay, you know, like the genes, technically the selection process is like natural selection, but now we have so much like unnatural selection with GMOs, like the ability to do bio, you know, bioengineering and mess with the DNA.
It's almost like how much is it, you know, how much are genes actually different than memes or whatever? Then also, similarly, how much are the memes actually different than, you know, this new kind of computer memes, like the tremes. And I think that, that question, I think your proposal is a relatively good one. It answers or it brings up the question that you said it was like, okay, if we have this new thing, which is instead of us actively choosing among them, which is how early internet stuff worked. It was like, oh, I like this picture, I like that picture. But now we have this new set of, you know, AI or machine learning that is actively doing the kind of selection process and duplication and copying process itself.
It's like, okay, that thing, is its own new kind of replicator, with its own new kind of, objective function, almost. And that's, I think what you're essentially doing is describing. What you're doing is describing from a memetic perspective, like AI safety concerns, like will this new replicator actually be aligned with human values or, how do we make, actually, make it the case that as it's going to go crazy, how can we make it aligned, you know, what do you think about that?
Susan: No, we can't. I think the answer is obviously no, and no. As we can with the climate, as we can with biodiversity, what we do has an influence, it makes the difference, but we're not in control and I think that's so yet, but to go back to what you were saying earlier on in that bit, there are clear differences in the substrate of the information. So genes are the information is the order of basis on molecules, memes are very much more complex. There are so many more different types, but speech and writing and all of these things, and that fundamentally based in the biology that we have of this kind of organisms. Tremes, at least for the moment are digital information and coded in Silicon machinery. So there's that difference. But you also hit upon machine learning.
Now, this is really important because I was hinting at earlier about how we may not be able to see what's going on. But at a very simple, it's not that simple, but the whole idea of neural networks and artificial neural networks, I mean, and machine learning. If you set up a neural network, then even a simple one with only three or four layers and you set it going learning a task, like the very early ones. It fascinated me all that time ago when the ones that could distinguish pictures of men and women or something, you know? Then when you look at what's happened to all the connections within the neural networks, you really don't know what it's done.
You know what went in, you know the decisions it made, you know that all sorts of connections change their strength. Just as is happens between neurons in our heads. But you don't know exactly what he's done that to do it, and the more complex the machine learning, the more that is the case. Now, if there's all this stuff going on all out there, and there's so many connections in that, you know, with the, the internet of things, there'll be even more so, but it's already masses of stuff. Then all this kind of learning will be going on that we don't know what it's doing and how it's doing. We may or may not see what the inputs were and what the outputs were and infer some kinds of changes that have gone on, but what we can't see it. One of the consequences of this to me is, is what I call this might be a really bad term, but this is the way I think of it as dark information, information that we can't in principle see. And the more there are these kinds of artificial intelligence systems working, operating on multiple machines, distributed about between different machines, sending information back and forth in the cloud, processing it, using it for machine learning, and so on, then it's selfish information. It's going to require energy and machinery and storage space, and we keep giving it.
We humans so want are ridiculous, trivial, endless email, rubbish, and social media stuff. Some of it's important, but you know, it's just proliferating all the time, and the better the machines we have and the more we love the technology, then the more we are willing to put fossil fuels, and time and effort and, destruction of the planet into producing more and more machinery. And why we, the natural thought for many people is we're doing it for ourselves. We're in control. We're making this, oh, if we do the internet of things, that'll be brilliant because then we'll be able to control our fridge from our car, whatever it is, but it's not for us. It's just, it's just the process of the dim of the information demanding more space to grow.
And as long as we keep giving it. So what I mean by the dark information is, at the moment because I think this is pretty recent, we probably, I don't know this and if anyone's listening, you can help me, please tell me. But we probably have a reasonable grip on how much storage space we need and processing power we need for the things that we know we're doing, we the people are doing. But if I'm right about this process, then it will be taking up both those resources in ways that we can’t see and what we would find and would be my prediction. It's always scary to stick your neck out on a prediction, but that we would find that we are building ever more stuff. There's some of it we don't know why we need to do it, that, you know, however much more processing power and storage space and energy, we give there's an endless demand for more, and we can't keep up with it and this would be pretty dire to add to the rest of the troubles of our poor planet.
Rhys: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. I think that that's a, what I'm hearing from you is that the prediction there is that we have the information that wants to continually consume more and more information and continue to take up space and it wants to continue to replicate and that we will get to the place we're already here, where we have, where it's already doing that. And we're building things that we're like, why are we even building this thing? It's like, oh, you know, I think that you know, controlling your fridge from your car is a great example. We can post rationalize into that and we can say, oh, we're doing this because it's more, efficient and, you know, look at how, easy to use, but actually it's like, that's just a rationalization of the information wanting more and more space and energy.
So, yeah, I definitely hear you there and I'll send you this after the show, but there's this cool company, Anthropic AI, which is looking and there's other companies who are doing this, they’re trying to find out what's actually going on in these neural networks. How can we make them less blackboxy? Because if possible than some of this dark training, this dark info or the info that we don't know what's happening into, you know, stuff that we can actually see transparently would be the long-term hope.
With that in mind, how do you think about, you know, kind of switching directions, maybe, we're not totally, it's like, you know, one thing in The Meme Machine is that you talk about, which I really enjoyed was, you know, at the beginning of genetic life, it's not DNA was the first replicator. There were these other weird survival of the best chemical reaction thing happening and then eventually we got DNA and eventually we got multicellularism and sexual reproduction, all these kinds of things and similarly with our kind of mimetic world, it's like it started just as, you know, you said, like putting a feather in your hair and like, you know, going back and forth.
Then we got language and then we got writing and the internet and all these things. If you were to continue that forward, how do you see the sub, and one thing that you talked about in your book was, you know, especially the fidelity piece where it's like the ability to kind of go back and forth and to have things replicate with high fidelity. How do you see the progression of memes and what the like substrate itself or what the kind of copying machinery will look like and it's kind of in state?
Susan: Do you mean the progression of the current stuff we have? Or are you asking a question about completely different kinds of technology?
Rhys: I think I'm actually asking about different types, which is like, if you imagine the world in 3000 A.D. or it's like, okay, what is, what does the stuff look like? What does the copying mimetic, copying machinery look like at that time?
Susan: Well, first of all, I think it's extremely unlikely that we will, there'll be humans around, maybe we'll have died out. I mean, this is an interesting question, really? Whether, the way I've described things so far, the whole system requires us. We are the ones who have to build the, the minds that dig up the, if you’re Chinese, the dig up the coal and ore that produce the batteries and things to run things electrically, electric cars and stuff like that. And certainly we are needed to build a new, to improve the machinery that we use on all laptops and everything else. It's quite possible that we will survive long enough that the machine we will be able to replicate itself.
And I don't mean replicate the information that it's throwing about. I mean, actually, replicate its own body, so that there'll be self-replicating computers and self-replicating robots and all that kind of thing. In which case they'd come a point when we were no longer necessary. Now, you asked about 3000. Well, I think it's possible that that might happen, or I think it's more likely, but who knows that we will still be needed at the point where this planet is uninhabitable by humans and we die out and then that would be the end of it but let's suppose it carries on. You talked about fidelity, I'm not sure why that was important in your question, but we should note that the increase in... The fidelity is very interesting because genes are copied with incredibly high fidelity. There are lots of mistakes made, accidental combinations, mutations happen, or, you know, there are mistakes and then there are repairing systems that put right mistakes that are made, and yet some still get through.
That's one source of variation, which you need for copying with variation and selection. But I think a lot of people forget that in sexually reproducing species, at least that's not the source of variation, the main source of variation is recombination of genes. So you put them in a different combination, you produce a different outcome. Then you get memes, and the fidelity is incredibly low, absolutely at the opposite end. So when people, as far as we can tell, when people first started copying sounds between them between each other, then there was very low fidelity.
Now, because we have words. So words evolved as a way of increasing the fidelity. If you go ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh or yih, yih, or whatever, you know, they're difficult to copy exactly those things or you might go in and you have a moing, moing, moing and that would be quite hard for somebody else to copy, but you start to make actual words and then you start to get reference and you can point at something and go bleh, and that's been done with computers as well with robots, I mean, that's been done seeing how reference can emerge to sound. So then the fidelity increases because work, do you have discrete words and you can combine them in infinite number of ways. So then you go on from there.
So if fidelity increase, increase, increase, increase in memes because of language and so on, but then there's a sudden leap when you get to digital replication of information, because that really is as close to a hundred percent as you can imagine. So then the question becomes what's the source of variation when you've got a hundred percent accuracy, and we at the moment supply a lot of that variation. So going back to internet memes, the fun thing about them is the simple thing is that there's millions of out there and some get copied and passed on and others don't. But the fun thing, of course, and there's special technology that makes this very easy is that people can take a meme, a visual meme or, or an auditory or any kind of meme.
And they can change it a little bit and send it out again. And there's all these willing people out there in the world wanting to do the work of the memes. By doing this and the process runs on that. I think I've gone far away from your, oh no, you, are you asking about 3000 years. I cannot see in my own mind as much as I've thought about it, what could happen as a fourth replicator? I've thought about that. And I suppose if you really push me and I pushed myself, the direction that I would go in is something like this. How does a self form? The self is a representation in a head of a being that doesn't exist that has consciousness and free will, that is in control, and so on. And it forms by the information coming together and clustering around because it's to the self is, is constructed by picking on a lot of memes and memes can, can help themselves thrive by being part of me. So if I want this and I like this, and I'm going to do this and those memes, you know, benefiting from myself and they all cluster around or in biology, you can see the transition from single cell to multicellular organisms as the benefit by being together rather than separately.
Or you can see this in great memeplexes, like religion. All sorts of awful, awful ideas and ridiculous pointless activities, and harmful traditions all thrive by being part of what God wants. So I'm just talking about the kind of inevitable mechanism that causes things to group together and have effects as a group. Now, if that's happening out there in the tremesphere where there's all this information going around, but it will create kind of artificial selves out there, artificial entities that have the desire to replicate the information within them and even maybe themselves and then they would be forming a new kind of world in which they are interacting with each other and competing with each other, to get more information, to get more control and power and what have you, and given that we would have made already have made, you know, cameras, and recording things, you know, that they can get all that information. They can affect us through the machinery we've made. They could be affecting us, or if we're all dead and we did reach that stage, then that would all be going on out there. And they'd probably be entities out there going, I wonder where this all came from.
What those funny little squishy beings with two legs. Well, no, no. How could they have been led to us? No, obviously not. God must've made us or whatever they be thinking. I don't know what they'd be thinking. Now, that is seriously wild speculation. I don't give it to you as a serious idea for what I think is going to happen. I answer it in the spirit of curiosity and perplexity when, you know, I'm a bit just really trying to push my own thoughts. That's the sort of direction they go.
Rhys: No. I love that. I think that there's and I just, you know, backing off the stack there for a second. I think that one part of what you said, which I think is super good and super good to realize is like when we imagine this long future. Yeah, how long do we stay alive? And I know like some of the experts say that you know, that humanity itself has like a one in six chance of like surviving until the end of 2100, just like very low, you know, very low. And so things are getting more intense, and hopefully, we'll be able to survive ourselves, but we'll see. I think one crucial part about that is that with this new third replicator, you know, AI or tremes or whatever, it's like, it’s ability, as you said, like right now we have this weird kind of metering mechanism on the machines, almost. Where it's like, we generally, like they don't get access to energy as they want. Like, we are almost to some extent ones that can kind of, say no, wait, you can't just self-replicate. There aren't that many self-replicating robots that exist today that are just like paper clipping and like creating more and more of themselves.
Information is doing a really good thing, but it's really cheap from an energy perspective to share these bits in these tremes. Then once those things get better and better at like actively getting into the energy infrastructure, that I think is like a worrying future when they can just self-replicate without caring about us. So just wanted to like double plus good on that. and I think that you're right, that, the other thing I want to say from what you said, there's a hilarious thing of we have these digital, internet memes or tremes that are copying. And it's like, oh, but it's perfect fidelity.
Well, luckily there's all these willing people who are doing the remixing process. So it's like, they've kind of inserted us as the weird, like kind of sexual reproduction or side of them, which I think is a funny thing. And I think what you're saying about the deep future is roughly, I mean, a lot of what you're saying, I think is directionally correct which is like these replicators. They essentially determined the eons of life. So we had genes as the primary replicator for 4 billion years, and then we've had memes as the primary replicator for 200,000 years, and now we're going to have these tremes or these bits as the main replicator and yeah, what they're going to do is increase their information substrate and make it better and get more access to energy and, will become these kinds of self-replicating things that will go into the galactic civilization and be able to copy themselves with energy and go forth. So I think that's all kind of, I think it's all weird, but I think it's all directionally correct.
So as we wrap up here, we're at the end of time, I guess I want to ask, well, maybe I want to ask, there's a lot of different ways that, let me ask this. The first, is that like, you know, for what advice would you give to young people who are looking to explore memes? Like how, how should you, how should they go deeper in this world? Or what kind of questions do you have or what, what advice would you have for young folks?
Susan: Interestingly, I think I would give the same advice as I would in my days in parapsychology. When I was investigating the SP and telepathy, you know, we'll eat these kinds of ghosts and what have you, don't do it unless you really, really, really, really, really want to. You know, memetics now is a fringe field. You won't find it easy to get grants or labs or anything, you know, it's really, really hard, but if they're going back to curiosity and perplexity, if you really are driven to understand this, go for it. But it's not going to be easy. So really my sensible advice would be as a professor, don't do it. Well, I was given that advice about parapsychology a long time ago by a man I greatly respected who was a professor of parapsychology and he said, don't do it.
And I did it anyway. And of course, I'm really glad I did it. Even though after less than 10 years, I had become convinced that there were no paranormal phenomena and the thing was a dead end. What a learning experience that was. And I learned one of the biggest lessons any scientist has to learn is how to see when you're wrong and change your mind and move on. I think if young people who know a load of stuff, I don't know all about the technology and the way it works and all sorts of other things. Academia is so exciting at the moment, so many ideas. I think there'll be some, some who will do that despite my warnings than anyone else's warnings, and amazing things will happen. But I can't give any clearer advice than that, caution.
Rhys: No, I love that. It's like, hey, watch out. This is a rabbit hole that you could go down and it's not necessarily in any specific, like as well-defined fields. So it's like, you know, kind of be wary as you go down there. So I think that's good life advice for like, you know, it's kind of like thinking about it's like, my mom would be like, hey, Rhys, how are you going to make money? You know, like, don't forget to make money, you know? So I think, I think that's always good life It's fascinating to hear, yeah, where you're at with all these things, and thank you so much again. What were you going to say?
Susan: I was just going to say, if you're driven by money, definitely don't do it. I never have been. I've been lucky enough to be able to survive sometimes slightly tenuously, but, that's never been, you know, what I was after. But I, I would just like to tell you one little story, which is a little bit of hope. Some researchers in Belgium did a study of the witch trials, that historians primarily, I think, and they asked the question whether which trials have a benefit to the murderous, whatever they're called, you know, the Spanish inquisition that the people who enforced all the horrible burning at the stake and all, was it to the advantage of the culture that they lived in, was it to the advantage of the people who were burnt at the stake, obviously not, what was it to advantage? And they came up with a conclusion from this study that it was to the advantage of those memes themselves. Now that popped out of historians. Somewhere these kinds of ideas are going to come out, where people can show that selfish memes is the best way to explain what's happening.
So, in addition to, what did that question I just asked was it doesn't matter really what field you're working in if you get obsessed by memes, that might just be the field where you can do something to propel memetics forward. So I kind of be more optimistic, have a go, but don't expect to get rich.
Rhys: Great. Yeah. And if you, and if you're excited by it, there's a small group us. Yeah, exactly. And if you do get excited by us, there's at least you can at least hang out with Susan and I, you know, if nothing else you can hang out with us. So again, Susan, thank you so much for your time today. So yeah, definitely check out Susan's book, The Meme Machine. Also, her other ones like Consciousness and stuff. She's also doing cool research on like copy bots these days, which are these like bots that kind of, say weird words to each other, like imitate each other, and then like a cultural evolution happens from that.
Is there anything else you want to tell our listeners as any place to find you on the internet, webs, or anything to check out?
Susan: Well, my website has everything that I think is, I mean, I always put up everything that I write. I put it on my website, which is susanblackmore.uk and my TED lecture is obviously the starting point for the ideas that we've been talking about today and there's a link on the website for that. So that's the place to go I would say.
Rhys: Beautiful. Yeah, susanblackmore.uk and thank you again, Susan, for your time today. And we will hope that we can, the memes within us, we'll be able to shape the tremes to kind of be aligned with human values as we go forth. So thank you again, Susan, and goodbye everybody.
Susan: That would be nice. I've enjoyed it. Thank you very much and good luck with your ideas on information that wants.