Memetics is useful in practice, but it falls short on scientific theory. Primary because there’s no generally accepted definition of a meme. “I know it when I see it” isn’t good enough. We need mathematical models of memes, like we have with genes. Genetics has sequencing machines and CRISPR for gene editing. We can’t yet categorize memes at scale, make testable predictions about what ideas will succeed, or reliably modify them to create desired outcomes.
The human brain is a meme-recognition machine. I can show you a picture of Bat Man, sketch the Bat Symbol, or type out B-A-T-M-A-N, and you know all three reference the same thing. Simply mention the meme and you recall related trivia: he drives the Bat mobile, lives in Wayne Tower and has a butler called Alfred. The human brain is great at recognizing clusters of abstract concepts – wealthy playboy, masked vigilante, dead parents – and grouping them by theme. Once we spot the pattern, we can see it everywhere.
I can tell you that Iron Man (1963) was Marvels’ response to DC Comics’ success with Bat Man (1939), and that means something to you. I can say that Zorro is Mexican Batman, and Scarlet Pimpernel is French Zorro. However when you attempt to quantify where this meme begins and ends, it’s a struggle. None of these concepts have objectively measureable properties, like scientists would need to do its work. My concept of Batman is slightly different to yours, based on how much of a fan I am. Someone who read the comics will have different memories and associations related to Batman than someone who only saw the Zach Schnyder movies. You can’t point to a part of my brain and go “that’s the Batman meme”, and identify that same sequence in the brains of others, like we can with DNA and genes.
Batman, Iron Man, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel are all stinking-rich, mask-wearing, crime-fighters, but why those attributes? The match is clear to us, but hard to define scientifically. Zorro rides a horse. Batman lives in Gotham. Iron Man’s suit can fly. Scarlet Pimpernel married a french actress. Their differences add up to more than their similarities, and yet we know they should be grouped together. Are there other examples than the ones we noted? It’s hard to know, as the Baroness Orczy, author of Scarlet Pimpernell, never confirmed if she got her ideas from another story, or if it was based on a true story.
Why is it so important to be able to define where a meme starts and stops? Well we’re limited by the number of memes we can remember and have been exposed to. There are all sorts of patterns that would be more obvioius if we were better at programmatically categorizing them. I know personally of 4 billionaire, playboy, orphans, but there may be many more. As time goes on, connections fade, as fewer people get exposed to the older memes like Scarlet Pimpernel. Perhaps there will come a time when the trail goes cold at Iron Man, and most people will credit Stan Lee with the orginal idea.
If you could quantify memes you could track patterns and time the market. You couldn’t copy the Iron Man concept today, because it’s so prominent in popular culture you would be considered a hack. However there will be a window in the future where only the older generation get the reference, and the new generation will see you as an innovator. Being able to detect when this opportunity will arise, would be valuable. Iron Man 1, 2, and 3 grossed $500 million at the box office, and contributed to the Avengers $1.5 billion. It’ll continue to print money until it’s time for the next reincarnation of this meme to inherit the throne.
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