I am something of a follower of the history of technology, and it has often seemed to me that inventions we rely on today were practically unusable in the form they had at the time of their invention. It almost seems that the inventor was imitating some kind of "form" that they [sic] had seen in a vision of our day and age, and simply copied it. An invention we use today might work quite well (or seem to), but its original incarnation, while perfectly recognizable, seems or is totally impractical.
One example that leaps to mind is the toothbrush. Somebody in China got the idea to "attach" pig neck bristles to a bit of bamboo, and then somebody in Europe "attached" some horsehair to a bit of bone or wood or something. One wonders what sort of brush-making technology existed at that time (a few centuries ago).
Another example is the automobile. Human clothing fashions are probably another. 'Nuff said, I think.
It makes me think of the "cargo cults" of the South Pacific islands. These people fashion outfits and airfields to look like those used by WWII navy flyers (9) when plane after plane full of supplies would land, to try to make the planes come again.
We could go back and forth about the "technology" that led up to the toothbrush ("chew sticks," etc.), but consider the memetic implications of the advance of technology as illustrated by my silly little image of an ancient inventor (10) being given a glimpse of the modern age and mindlessly imitating the form of the devices they [sic] see, without really understanding how the device is meant to function -- only what it looks like and how it is to be used.
That's precisely what micromemetic theory tells us should happen. Humans imitate things for the sake of imitating them, and inventions spread throughout the population because they are easily imitated, not because they do a lot of good.
But where does that leave us?
I suggest that many human inventions started out as an idea that was:
a. easy to make, not impossible to imitate the manufacture
b. had a use pattern that was distinctive, also imitatable
c. was purported to have properties (1), easily explained (2)
One demonstration of the memetic motivation for technology would be to research inventions which were super-popular at the time of their invention, but which went out of style and were forgotten. I'm not talking Sony Betamax versus VHS, since the VHS still exists (3), but inventions which were popular and well-known, but which quickly disappeared without being replaced by anything in terms of a similarly functioning or similarly touted product.
I suspect that there are many of these things, and that we would laugh to learn of them nowadays. Of course, unlike the Betamax, which we know existed, we would not a priori know that such inventions existed without digging for them.
But Things Work Well Now, Right?
Yes, and how did that happen? My idea is that once somebody invents something, and it's catchy, a virulent memeplex, easy to make and use (4), then people keep making it, and along the way different people make changes to the idea. The memeplex continues to become more complex, after people are already convinced to copy it and use it (even if it's useless).
There's also the political and marketing angle to consider. If a memetic nexus can pump a new idea out to their [sic] subscribers, or invoke an idea already in the public consciousness (5), proposing that existing technology be employed (and greatly improved) in order to do it.
Summary and Conclusion
It seems that many inventions are not only not as good as they are today when they first appear, they are barely if at all usable. Memetic theory tells us that humans will imitate fabrication and use regardless, down to the most superficial details (6). Once an artifact is "born," and memetically viable, it will continue to be made, may get steadily improved along the way, and it may actually become useful and effective in its originally stated purpose down the road.
This may be the primary process whereby inventions come into our lives, i.e., by a sort of random progeneration followed by haphazard, minor modification (8), all the while humans imitating their fabrication and use in classic memetic fashion. The inventor has a vision of how to make something, and an idea of what it is meant to do, and these may be (and it seems they often are) not always very closely related. The inventive "genius" may be much less common, and may be nowhere near as necessary to the promulgation of technology as we might hitherto have supposed.
(1) such as "it cleans your teeth!" Or, it imparts status, like with the original cars or even bicycles, e.g., it's "modern," or "expensive," or "the owner/operator is sophisticated (or an early-adopter -- a prized memetics trait, by the way).
(2) As in (1), the reasons for having it, using it, etc., can easily be communicated to others, and these descriptions do not "mutate" such as to lose their memetic value (virility) as they are copied.
(3) at least for the time being. And I'm also not talking about VHS tape being replaced by DVDs, either. I'm talking about things which were big at the time, but disappeared completely and were not replaced by anything. This might be along the lines of the "electric health" gadgets such as one saw from the 1890s through 1920s in the US, depicted in the film The Road to Wellville.
(4) This is relative. A rocketship or a nuclear reactor may not be easy to make or use, but the idea behind each is clear, as is the use. For example, the concept of a rocketship would not be so distorted as to result in some people winding up with grain silos with liquid hydrogen tanks inside them, for example. The big thing in memetics is that the idea not mutate, either in its form or use, over time.
(5) The rocketship might again be a good example. Jules Verne wrote of space travel by rocket (or artillery shell) as early as 1865. Robert Goddard was experimenting with rocketry as early as 1913.
(6) e.g., color, or "fluting" on columns which are made of stone/concrete (7)
(7) c.f., Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
(8) and sometimes even "improvement"...!
(9) helmets made of palm leaves, light batons to direct the planes in made from bamboo sticks, etc. Imitation of the form and use, but not understanding how it actually works.
(10) or "cargo cultist" (9)
模倣子 Memetics Essays
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