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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Memes of E-Learning and the Internet: Source-Memes, Contagion, and the Next Big Cultural Meme

Audio file / podcast.

When Richard Dawkins and David Dennett first proposed that Darwin's theory of evolution could be applied to culture, there was no way to easily explain how and why certain robust ideas appear seemingly simultaneously throughout a culture, and then begin to influence the culture and evolve with it, ultimately affecting its survival.

Memes are convenient ways to explain the emergence, influence, replication, and persistence of ideas, even if one does not completely accept the evolutionary theory mechanisms that support the concept.

A meme is an idea, but a remarkably robust one with sufficient complexity to be able to adapt itself to many cultural settings and situations. The elements within the idea have the capacity to produce copies of themselves, and can show up in different forms as they are modified by their environment (Holdcroft & Lewis, 2000).

Now, more than thirty years after the publication of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, the concept has entered popular culture. Perfectly illustrated by the movie, The Matrix (dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), one could think of the Smiths as one meme -- the physical manifestation of or a metaphor for the ways in which society enforces conformity and punishes those who seek the truth behind what lies beyond a glittery false consciousness comprised of consumer products, etc.

The self-replicating idea of the meme was conceivable before the Internet. For example, one could envision the replication of an idea or an image into diverse cultural contexts, and the introduction of the idea into completely foreign territories, if one pictured turning on a television, or tuning into a radio show simultaneously in a government office, a small home, a luxurious estate, a car, a remote village, and a fishing village. However, there were limits to the dissemination methods because they were not interactive. Mass media before the popularization of the Internet was limited.

Now, with interactivity, and with RSS and instant postings via feeds, the cultural meme propagation process that Dawkins and Dennett proposed is a reality. The cultural meme emerges in its new form, which has been modified by the environment. It gets its "15 minutes of fame" and then it submerges again for the next adaptive speciation event. The only thing that changes is the time between iterations, speciation, even extinction. It may not be 15 minutes. It could be the meme's 15 seconds of fame. Either way, the mechanism is working.

Dennett gave examples of "distinct memorable units" (Dennett, 1995, p. 344) in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). Some of the ideas he listed were general, some more specific. Each involved a complex cognitive process as well as associated action or physical or artistic expression. The ideas included: arch, wheel, calendar, alphabet, vendetta, impressionism, perspective drawing (Holdcroft & Lewis, 2000, p. 164).

It would be interesting to look at the memes of e-learning and the Internet and to see how they influence each other.

Internet memes:

social networking
tag clouds
peer networks
search engine
customizable start pages

Obviously, there would be more, but those are a few that come to mind. To apply the same approach to e-learning, it is interesting to list possible e-learning memes that come to mind.

Current e-Learning memes:

e-learning (a meme unto itself)
learning management systems
instructional design
content on-demand
posting on discussion board
learning styles and preferences
learning style assessments

It is hard to say if the ideas listed above are bona fide memes. For the purposes of this analysis, it's useful to say that they are. So, with that in mind, the next step is to consider how memes propagate. Cultural ideas travel from one cultural context to another, and appear or are generated within a cultural context. If they are valuable to the survival of the culture, they will modify themselves in a special way.

For example, the idea of evolution by natural selection emerged not only in natural science, but also showed up in Herbert Spencer's work. He used it to explain how and why individuals prevail and others do not. The "survival of the fittest" catchphrase persists even to this day, more than a century later, continuing still to be a useful idea in our culture.

Meme Contagion

So, if the e-learning list is exposed to the contagion of the recent Internet meme list, one can safely assume that aspects of the Internet list will show up. The e-learning memes will modify -- adaptively speciate -- to accommodate the insistence of the cultural idea, which will encode itself into the idea it is affecting.

Simply stated, we can predict that the rigid structures we currently see with e-learning content and delivery will adapt. It will metamorphose quickly and will result in a shedding away of some of the manifestations we now see in e-learning. One can safely predict certain behaviors among the memes.

Future e-learning memes (results of contagion between current Internet memes and e-learning memes):

MySpace learning space
peer-to-peer content on demand
folksonomies for content providers (schools, colleges, universities)
discussion tags
learning preference search engine
vodcast assessment on-demand

It will be interesting to see if memes become self-replicating in the world of the Internet. Perhaps they already are via Google and other search engines. It will also be interesting to see the new developments in access, connectivity, and software. When hyper-optimization, compression, and zipping of files can occur, who know what the new frontiers will be. Perhaps we will be able to store sound files via nano-particles in our forearms, or better, in our ears.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford UP.

Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin.

Holdcroft, D. and H. Lewis. (2000). Memes, minds, and evolution. Philosophy (75): p. 161-182.

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