Tuesday, February 17, 2009

They Died, Died, Died

Of all things, the influenza pandemic of 1918 has provided a number of interesting little psychological examples in various parts of my book -- everything from demonstrating that we manage "information workers" the same as ditch diggers to showing that much of the personality testing field is little better than astrology. Events of massive death are always going to produce lots of psychological effects we don't see elsewhere, I suppose.

On my local/government access cable channel, a little show periodically goes by consisting of local medical/government officials sitting in a room talking about planning for the next influenza pandemic. While most of their constituents are watching "ER" or "Desperate Housewives", these people they've never heard of are discussing how to decide who will live and who will die (due to rationing of ventilators), what military options there will be to enforce quarantines, what businesses they may have commandeer to have space to separate the just-waiting-to-die crowd from the still-might-survive folks, how to handle the potential number of corpses that will exceed current mortuary capacities, and so on. It's surreal, but surreal like a tsunami -- you can talk about it and plan for it, but most folks won't take it seriously until it hits and it's too late.

Cheery Little Musical Memes

Hearing me talk about the Pandemic periodically over the months, my wife recently started humming a little ditty she claimed was about the Pandemic, where the lines tended to end in "and they died, died, died". I had never heard of such a thing, and couldn't believe that such a song could span the period from those with strong memories of 1918 and today. But sure enough, she finally dug it up, and here is a Youtube rendition. This tickles my curiosity, because I'm currently mining the literature of "memes", and of course I'm aware that some believe the little song named "Ring Around the Rosie" is about bubonic plague, though others argue it cannot be. Is it possible that worldwide plagues generate memes in the form of music to be passed down?

As with much thinking about memes, this can quickly lead to mushy thinking. But there may be some merit. This meme's survival advantage is easy to allege: those "infected" with the meme are more likely to remember the seriousness of the last plague, take news of a new plague more seriously, and therefore take steps to survive and be in a position to pass the meme on. It's interesting that "The Flu Pandemic Song" contains substantive information about the plague, including its virulence and modes of transmission.

In Gregory Benford's "Deep Time", he ponders the problem of leaving a message ("Stay away! We dumped our nuclear waste here!") that can span thousands of years successfully. It turns out to be a difficult task, for which we have few successful examples. The "Ring Around the Rosie" example suggests memes just can't usefully span that length of time, since we can't agree on what it means. However, the Christianity meme has made it 2,000 years, and though Jesus would surely be shocked at the difference between Evangelical American Christianity and his own teachings ("Let me get this straight -- thou thinkest I would support war and the death penalty?"), clearly some of his original memes have survived in at least a vaguely recognizable form.

Software and Memes

Of course, the reason I'm studying memes is to see whether I can say anything useful about what they have to do with software and psychology. Mostly, I see roads I don't care to go down. Yes, viruses and computer viruses exhibit some shared behavior, as Dawkins recites. Yes, we can simulate evolutionary algorithms with software, just as we can simulate most anything with software. Yes, the right software could be viewed as a "replicator" in the evolutionary sense, and maybe it will take off when the Singularity gets here and we can all download our minds into machines (though surely some unlucky souls will be assigned toaster duty!). Yes, this could all turn into scary stuff to think about (and it is presumed that Skynet will kill Steve Talbott first).

But none of that interests me. I'm an engineer and what I'm looking for is whether the hackneyed idea of memes and the simple evolutionary algorithm that underpins it has something practical to tell me about creating better software.

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