The Selfish Meme and The Future of Technology


It should be no surprise that, in tracking the technology business, the world’s best thinkers borrow from the lexicon of biology and the natural world. After all, both follow an evolutionary, heuristic, process with all sorts of connections and shared metaphors. For example, the cultural equivalent for a gene is called a meme: an idea or replicator which, if perpetuated, spreads the originator’s memes (ideas), like sexually reproduced genes, and selects for all sorts of phenomena from software platforms to the company we keep. Since genes, the parts of DNA that define all living beings, are basically strings of code, their comparison to software is a common theme. The question here is, if social networking is indeed as exciting and transformational as its pro-meme folks predict, will its success be because it is as selfish as its biological analog, the gene?

In “The Selfish Gene,” the famous tome from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in the early seventies, we learned how this analog “the meme” would spread like wild flower if the conditions were right. Just as plants produce flowers and brilliant colors to attract bees, not other plants, so that the bees can do the work of spreading the plant’s seeds and leading to the plant’s success, new web applications, from guys like Evan Willams and Biz Stone, founders of Twitter, are made available for free to attract users who will spread the word and produce enough critical mass to make investment bankers, not users, serve up a nice little IPO so they can head for the mountain top.

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Bringing Web 2.0 to the Enterprise:
Leveraging Social Computing Technologies for ERP Applications

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So, if you thought the Twitter thing was just going to remain free and catchy forever, they will eventually have to cash in their markers – those millions in angel fund investments it has been burning through – and show its selfish DNA. Either that, or will they wilt on the vine, like the extinct Neanderthals, or like hundreds of other great memes that had to pay the vig for failing to learn evolution’s singular law – adapt at all costs or perish.

Memes have no inherent selfish motivations, which is probably the real reason the large browed Neander folks perished in our ancestor’s mist. Many great memes responsible for the success of the Internet provide little evidence that selfishness is at work. Look at the very generous and community minded Craig Newmark and his fantastic and simple idea, The Internet would not be where it is today if it weren’t for the appearance, at least, of these kinds of community interests over selfishness. Unlike TV, the Internet does not have to cost millions to get online and you don’t need to feed hundreds to maintain it. Nothing has inspired so many to create new wealth.

In short, some have learned that the fittest can still succeed without destroying the competition. Though Newmark’s popular community based service had no visible signs of the selfishness or blatant coercive strategy demonstrated by well known giants of technology past and present, he is being blamed for the demise of the printed newspaper, as if digital want ads were somehow selfishly plotting to put them out of business. The unconscious amongst us actually are convinced that by reading the printed word, you are somehow better informed. And, to the disbelief of many, they are pushing billions in taxpayer money to stave off the future, and cling to the destruction of the past.


Selfishness in the world of new technology has also been toned down since the folks at the wheel learned a little bit about collaboration. Just as Dawkins warned, “any society that carries universal selfishness to an extreme would become unbearable,” some corporations have learned that you can get far more in the world of technology, if you consider learning and teaching more about collaboration and making friends, than acting as ruthlessly as some of the giants of our industry have acted. Of course, those driven solely by quarterly earnings reports are mimetically static – what even Darwin would have realized was a recipe for extinction.

In my last piece, I asked whether or not technology actually made us smarter. In some new wave Lamarckian fashion, technology changes the pulse of intelligence, and, if Steven Gould were still alive he surely would have written how this punctuation in the way we process information demands we use more of our underutilized grey matter. Steve would have been right in the thick of the social scene, and, I’d bet, he would have predicted that social networking is no fluke, but a bottom-up relentless kind of anarchy that is a result of folks enjoying their work, as long as it’s on their terms.

Yet, as I read today’s Sunday NY Times article by Damon Darlin we see again a tidy little piece about how while tech has given us “so much” it has drained our culture of yet another cherished unique human experience, serendipity. I don’t know about you, but while I still hear a lot of complaining, I have yet to have anyone say they felt serendipity was simply being drained from their lives.

Yet success emanating out of the social networking leaders lends one to believe that a paradigm has in fact shifted. The latest obvious example for the technology world is LinkedIn which has very quietly and very tastefully created an amazing business-to-business networking tool, without eliminating any of its cohorts. In fact, they have exhibited a great deal of right-brained adaptive ingenuity by establishing alliances with many new and rejuvenated startups, and they have developed many API’s which are creating more jobs and offering a better world to its workers and customers.

Collaboration is not new to Western business, just look at the long slog for Open Source and its cohorts. So why the intense fear by big corporations as was iterated again this morning in an interview with Red Hat’s Matthew Szulik by BBC’s Peter Day: “To conventional business people, the collaboration among inventive peers promoted by the open source movement is dangerously close to anarchy.”

Will there be hearings? Will they be made public or will the folks who now have all the resources simply try to do a catch-and-release, and buy the hot apps out then let them whither on the vine rather than embrace their real benefits?

Social networking just like open source software, by default, demands collaboration, and, to that end, this blog is a perfect example of how people can find common ground and share situations that allow everyone to get a win. The twelve-year-old Tek-Tips forum and Eng-Tips forum may be two of the oldest social networking communities, and we have not exhibited any selfish behavior to our knowledge. What we have been asked for though, is a new place to gather to look at our world at a macro level, which includes bottom-up as well as top-down dialog and a place to hear what our community has to say about it.

Whether you are a system administrator or Matthew Szulik, we’d love to hear how you, and any others, who have been on any part of this amazing ride the last twenty years and have survived. Whether selfishly or simply by making fortunate discoveries by accident, your stories are important to us. In our brave new world, we look forward to working together with all our neighbors and making new friends so we can create a more permanent level playing field that will help the world get better connected, and stay better connected.


About Hawk

Founded with the goal of providing the best solution to getting important technology products and services to the IT community on a permission basis. The goal has always been to streamline the information acquisition process and adapt the marketers to the buyers.

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2 Responses to The Selfish Meme and The Future of Technology

  1. Hugh August 6, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    with due respect, I think that your interpretation of a meme is different than mine.
    I suspect that whether you personally are selfish or not has little bearing on the matter. You are not the meme, you are a tool that the meme uses. Similarly, although the Founders of Twitter may have invented the meme, it now has a life of it’s own, and uses the founder’s resources for reproduction. It may flounder if the founder’s finances hit problems, but I suspect that it is well enough established that it will find an alternative tool if needed to survive.

  2. Hawk
    hawk August 6, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Twitter may have a life of its own, but whether or not it becomes a public life, as in funded IPO, will depend on how its owners invest in its future. It was a great idea, meme, but it has no inherent means of creating wealth. It was just an analogy but I felt it was appropriate given any app’s duality of purpose – to provide users value and to provide its owners a living.

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