Monday, October 24, 2005

Two Books I've Got To Read

A common refrain I continually hear is how busy everyone is -- so busy there's no time to read blogs. I guess what's ironic is that I think of the ITscout Blog as a reading filter for busy people. I explicitly try to pass along only particularly interesting, eclectic information, combining elements from a variety of sources.

At this past week's PopTech! 2005 conference in Camden, Maine, there were two books mentioned that I've absolutely got to read.

The first is Suketu Mehta's book, MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found. A fictional work, Suketu's writing won the Kiriyama Prize, and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. He has also won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.
There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.
We Americans are horribly provincial, often limited in our perspective by being terribly self-centered. Globalization requires that we must learn more about other people's world view. In the 19th century, Britainnia both literally and figuratively ruled the world as "the sun never set on the British Empire." Then, in 1875, the United States seized the title of being the world's largest market. We've held that position ever since. But, as many pundits have suggested, America may fairly soon be seriously challenged by Chindia, a term often used by Vinnie Mirchandani. (By the way, did you know that after the recent acquisition of MG Rover Cars by Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp. (SAIC), there are now zero British-owned car companies?)

The second book that grabbed my attention is almost thirty years old, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. The phrase "selfish gene" was coined by Dawkins as a provocative way of expressing the gene-centered view of evolution, which holds that evolution can be viewed as acting on genes, and that selection on organisms or populations almost never overrides selection on genes.

One of the keys to life is replication. DNA is a replicator machine. Sometimes, though, the copies aren't exactly perfect. Most of the bad copies are simply discarded. But, occassionally, the new bad copy is better in some way than the original. An organism is expected to evolve to maximize the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). Dawkins describes biological organisms as "vehicles" used by their genes for making more copies of those genes, regardless of the effect they might have on individuals or species. Genes that help the organism they are in to survive and reproduce also improve their own chances of being passed on; so most of the time "successful" genes will also be beneficial to the organism. Darwin cannot be faulted for the absence of the gene as the unit of selection from his explanation of evolution since the basic mechanisms of genetics weren't understood at the time.

What totally captured my imagination about this book was a concept Dawkins popularized called memes (which rhymes with dreams), a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to genes. A meme consists of some sort of a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics). Memes are contagious ideas, all competing for a share of our mind in a kind of Darwinian selection.

In essence, according to PopTech! speaker Susan Blackmore, "first our planet was infected by life (DNA); then the planet was invaded by a second replicator: meme machines."

Examples of memes are ideas, catch-phrases, tunes, clothes fashions. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

It sure seems obvious to me that when architects talk about patterns, what we're referring to is essentially the same as what's described above as memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it.


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