Tech believers, meet evolution

"Macs suck," my son informed me the other day. Since we use both PCs and Macs at home, and since we flit promiscuously from one platform to the other, I wondered where this belief came from.

One source turns out to be Apple's recent "Mac vs. PC" TV ads, which for him have produced the reverse of the intended effect. He loathes Justin Long, playing the Mac, who was the dorky teenager Brandon in Galaxy Quest but acts like a hipster in the Apple ads. And he admires John Hodgman, the PC, who acts like a dork in those ads but, as his regular appearances on The Daily Show certify, actually is hip.

When I probed further, though, I found unmistakable signs of what my colleague Tom Yager, in his memorable 2002 column "Losing My Religion", called technology attachment disorder: "an unshakable, impractical devotion to a brand, platform, product line, or programming language."

As we've long recognized, and as the title of Tom's column reminds us, such devotion is a kind of religion. And although we know it's a force to be reckoned with, we assume that we cannot analyze or understand it.

What if we can, though? That's what the philosopher Daniel Dennett does in his powerful new book, Breaking the Spell. His early work on cognition impressed me decades ago. Later he became a scholar of evolution. Now he's exploring religion as a product of evolutionary processes at work in the domains of biology (genes) and culture (memes).

From a geopolitical perspective, this is clearly an important and timely subject. But because I write for InfoWorld and not Foreign Affairs, why reach for the third rails of evolution and religion? Because both are information systems that we, as information technologists, can understand in those terms.

Why, for example, is the group performance of ritual song and dance such a central feature of religious activity? In oral cultures, Dennett points out, there was only majority consensus to assure high-fidelity transmission of content. Group ritual, in other words, was an error-correcting code.

Shifting gears from how religions perpetuate themselves to why they do, Dennett extends Richard Dawkins' thinking in a challenging way. Thirty years ago, in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins gave us two great ideas: First, that evolution can be usefully regarded as competition among genes as well as competition among the organisms they encode. Second, that memes -- that is, ideas, beliefs, or behaviors -- are the cultural analogs of genes.

The "interests" of our genes are often aligned with the interests of their phenotypic expressions, namely us. But there are plenty of bad actors swimming around in the gene pool, replicating because they "want to" but serving no good purpose from our point of view. Dennett invites us to consider that the meme pool harbors a similarly motley assortment of swimmers. To survive in the face of relentless selective pressure, every idea or belief or behavior must deliver an adaptive benefit. Often we are the memes' beneficiaries, but sometimes only the memes benefit. The machinery of replication doesn't care one way or the other.

Marketers, when they are lucky, create memes that prosper by viral replication. But in the petri dish of popular consciousness, man-made and organic memes compete on their own terms. They don't actually have their own agendas but, if we want to understand how they produce belief systems in us, it may be helpful to pretend that they do.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jon Udell

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Brand Post

Shining a light on creativity

MSI has long pushed the boundaries of invention with its ever-evolving range of laptops but it has now pulled off a world first with the new MSI Creative 17.

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?