Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spokey Dokeys and the viral meme

As I walked home today I heard a sound behind me like a low-powered moped approaching. Then another joined it. And another. I turned around to see three young lads on mountain bikes pedalling furiously towards me. And the noise? It was caused by a trio of empty 2 litre soft drinks bottles. Each of the lads had squashed a bottle almost flat and then mounted it behind and below the saddle with the neck of the plastic bottle resting on the rear tyre. The faster they pedalled, the greater the friction between tyre and bottle and - due to the semi-flattened bottle acting as a sound chamber - the greater the noise. I was very impressed with their inventiveness as I watched them race past and my mind flashed back to my own wondrous purple chopper (careful now ...)
Yes, the Raleigh Chopper was the cool bike to have if you were a barely pubescent teenager in 1974 and I rode mine around Penzance like I was the King of Cornwall. But it wasn't enough to have a gleaming chrome dream machine. Oh no. It needed customisation. And in those days that meant spokey dokeys (those weird bead things that clipped to your wheel spokes and made a strange chattering, tinkling sound as you rode along - of course, us boys had to pick all of the pink ones out and throw them away), rubber tassels that plugged into the grips of your handlebars, and stickers taken from magazines. To top it all, it was de rigeuer to use a couple of old clothes pegs to hold a pair of playing cards to the bicycle frame in such a way that they caught the spokes as the wheels turned, creating a sound almost but not completely unlike that of a motorbike. This new trick with the plastic bottles is obviously the 2008 equivalent - the evolutionary offspring of the spokey dokey or card and peg assembly. But more surprises were in store ... A couple of hours later I was elsewhere in town and saw a bunch of lads who'd done exactly the same thing. They too had the scrunched-up-bottle-engine-noise-generators on their bikes and I wondered ... was I seeing a meme in action here?

Memes turn up a lot on blogs, or, at least, things that people call memes. A meme is actually something quite specific. A meme is an idea or behaviour that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the 'cultural sociosphere' in a manner similar to the contagious behaviour of a virus. The term was first coined by Professor Richard Dawkins as a behavioural analogy to the biological gene - the mechanism by which biological data is transmitted from individual to individual. One recent memetic example was noticed by the comedian and writer Sean Lock - the modern scarf knot. As he points out, people have been wearing scarves for centuries but then, seemingly overnight, everyone began wearing their scarves in a very particular way. Apparently, the scarf knot meme has spread throughout the entirety of British culture in a very short time. Another example is the Australian Question Intonation (AQI) - that rising note at the end of a spoken sentence that makes it sound like a question, even when it isn't. It didn't really exist in the UK until the arrival on our shores of Oz soap operas like Neighbours and Home and Away. Within a generation, it's become a common mode of speech for young British adults. And how quickly did we all learn the ludicrous dance steps to the Macarena and Whigfield's Saturday Night just a few short years ago?

The Queen of Meme is a lady called Dr Susan Blackmore and she has written much about the subject. Her most famous work is the excellent The Meme Machine - I commend it to you all. It had the same effect on me as reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. But beyond Blackmore's work there is a very strange, fringe-science world of memes ... the world of Morphic Resonance.

There are many mechanisms by which a meme is transmitted: word of mouth, media exposure, copying etc. but some memes seem to spread across vast distances and populations without any logical mechanism. One famous example often quoted comes from the 1960s when Blue Tits started to peck their way through the foil lids of milk bottles left on doorsteps. Within a matter of a week or so, Blue Tits were observed doing this all over the UK. How did they all suddenly, and almost simultaneously, 'learn' how to do this? And there are stories of sheep rolling over cattle grids in Australia a whole continent away from where the behaviour first started. There are even stories of cows in the USA who won't walk over a painted cattle grid even though they've never seen or experienced a real cattle grid.

In 1981, Dr Rupert Sheldrake put forward his controversial theory of Morphic Resonance. In this, he claimed that all living things are bound together by a 'morphic field' which allows them to share and benefit from the experiences of others. I know … it all sounds a bit like The Force. Or, at worst, some kind of New Age gobbledegook. But Sheldrake claims to have found evidence of its existence. He states that there are many examples – both in the human and animal worlds – of times when an entire species finds it easier to do something once one individual or group somewhere has mastered it; even though there is no physical communication between them.

During the 1920s, a Harvard University researcher called William McDougall was studying rats and their ability to find their way through mazes. What he found was that an individual rat could make up to 165 attempts to solve the maze before learning to complete it perfectly every time. Curiously, however, the offspring of those same rats would master the maze more quickly. And after a few generations, the rats could find their way through, on average, in fewer than 20 attempts. Sheldrake claimed that this phenomenon was due to ‘each generation of rats adding their pattern of learning into the ‘morphogenetic rat field’’ and, therefore, with each successive generation, the rats would ‘know’ which path to follow. Sheldrake also cites something called the Hundredth Monkey Effect, which suggests that once a critical number is reached, learned behaviour spreads instantaneously from one group of animals to all related animals in the region or perhaps throughout the world. The story first achieved public notice when Supernature author Lyle Watson told the story in his book Lifetide of a group of Japanese macaques. Apparently, one small group of monkeys began washing their food before eating and, soon, this behaviour spread throughout the entire troop. However, according to Watson ‘ … the researchers noted that once a critical number of monkeys was reached, this behaviour instantly spread across the water to macaques on nearby islands.’*

And Sheldrake claims that this happens in the human world too. For 250 years, campanologists had wondered whether it was possible to ring all permutations of seven bells following a certain bell-ringing pattern called Common bob Stedman triples. Then, on the 22nd January 1995, a team in London finally succeeded. Within days it emerged that two other groups, both working independently, had also solved the centuries-old mystery. Sheldrake says that such events are beyond mere coincidence. And he goes further, claiming that all of the physical laws of the universe might operate along the same lines.

It does seem odd that our ability to discover new and wonderful things has accelerated so rapidly. The first true humans – Homo Sapiens – appeared sometime between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. It took until 1903 for two of those humans to invent powered flight. But a mere 66 years after the Wright Brothers’ first faltering steps in aeronautics (their flight was a shorter distance than the wingspan of a Boeing 747), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon. Morphic resonance? Or the fact that communications have become more and more widespread and accurate, and that’s how people are learning from each other?

Since Caxton made mass printing possible, scientists and thinkers have been able to read what’s gone before and build upon the work of others. But Sheldrake maintains that some ideas simply ‘have their time’ and cites several examples that, like the bellringers, all saw the development of something new almost simultaneously but in different parts of the world.
So maybe the idea of strapping a squashed drinks bottle to your bicycle to make it sound like a moped is simply 'having its time' and we can expect to see this all over the planet in the next few weeks?

It's a fascinating old world isn't it?

* In recent years, some of the original research has been discredited by Elaine Myers. See www.context.org/ICLIB/IC09/Myers.htm for more information.
Blue Tit photo by Colin Sargent

18 comments:

Rob (Inukshuk Adventure) said...

In 1974 my Chopper was Orange!
I too did modification of pegs and playing cards. Oh how Bridge playing Mother used to complain.

Interestingly this was in Johannesburg, some 6000 miles away from Cornwall. Now that's interesting, perhaps I am after all telepathetic!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Or another curious case of alleged morphic resonance perhaps?

punk in writing said...

Gobbledegook is my word of the week. :D

We didn't have any bottles or playing cards when we wanted to pimp Jimmy's bike down at Saint 21 last month, so we made our own version with a thin piece of cardboard, duct tape and a staple gun.

That noise is still fun to make, even if you're 28, 27 and 45...

Katie said...

hmmm I work in the IP field... I think it's time I research patents regarding a squashed drinking bottle on a bicycle. If I don't find anything, tell those kids to get that idea patented! ;) they could make millions. haha

Debby said...

I look at this world sometimes and see so much that makes no sense to me. Perhaps if we all put our heads together and began to think rationally, it would speed around the globe via morphic resonance and the world would become a sane and sensible place.
*wistful pause*
Oh.
Wouldn't it be nice? I'm going to try anyways.

PS I lived in Podunk Pennsylvania, and we did the playing card/clothespin thing.

chris hale said...

It seems to me that a society is able to accelerate its development exponentially when (i) its members have enough to eat, and so can turn their attention to other things, e.g. philosophy, the arts, etc; and (ii) it has become relatively free from the bonds of religious thought, and individuals are unlikely to be strangled and burnt for believing that the earth is a sphere. This may, in part, account the rapidity of scientific development over the last century or so.

But it still doesn't fully explain why all those macaques tie their scarves in the same way.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Punky - Gobbledegook is great. I'm also rather fond of balderdash.

Katie - Get in there first and sue the little sods for infringement of copyright and patent. Get rich! (It'll help pay for all of that coconut porter).

Debby - Awwww. It's a lovely thought. I may be an atheist but I can't help but notice that every faith, religion and philosophy has a mantra that reads something like 'Treat others as you'd like to be treated yourself'. If we just all did that everyday ... wow.

Chris - All completely true. Except the bit with the macaques in scarves. Surely monkeys prefer a cravat?

chris hale said...

Nah, a primate prefers a tie, mate!

Stevyn Colgan said...

But would a chimp ask for a gimp mask?

Stevyn Colgan said...

And would they buy them from Primark?

chris hale said...

And would a Barbary Ape choose a Burberry cape?

Stevyn Colgan said...

There's nothing cuddlier than an Orang Utan in Astrakhan. Or Baboons in loons!

chris hale said...

Or gibbons in ribbons. Or macaques in slacks. Your turn...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Mandrills wearing espadrilles ...

Noooo! I must stop this now. Before I go all funny.

Me said...

My chopper was red.
All the rhyming - old cops at play!

Stevyn Colgan said...

I was so good too! I avoided all of the obvious jokes about girls on choppers!! Oh, I sort of blew it there didn't I? Oops. x

Me said...

Ha - you are forgiven....
Ye did not defend the olde though did ye!!

Anonymous said...

Morphic Resonance in humans?