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.

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Jon Udell

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