21 02 2009



Memetics is a controversially debated evolutionary theory of culture. The basics have been introduced by the notorious popular scientific writer R. Dawkins (1976) in his book "The Selfish Gene" as an analogy to genetics. In his view, a "meme" corresponds to a "cultural gene" that determines "cultural evolution" through its "cultural fitness." The theory affected people in either a fascinated or an averse way. This is partially because of Dawkins’ rather extreme social Darwinistic thinking and anti-religious attitude: "Religion is an evil virus of the mind." (Dawkins 2006).

Although memetics is widely regarded as an immature theory (Blackmore et al. 2000) – I agree –, it has nevertheless migrated as a fundamental paradigm into what is called "sociophysics" and "econophysics" and, more relevant for the general public, into "viral marketing" (Hermann 2004). The propagation and survival of trends, ideas, opinions, and so on – i.e., of memes – is described within the memetic approach on the basis of epidemiological models. The analogy between the propagation of memes and the spread of viruses motivated the notion of "viral marketing", which is often synonymously used for "Guerilla marketing." Innovative measures that are often related to the networked structure of the internet like the famous "Moorhuhn" video game or YouTube’s "lonlygirl" phenomenon try to brake up traditional marketing design. At a first glance, nothing reminds to advertising. Instead, the activities appear like art or other subversive activities. A gradual dissolution of the borders between art, science, and economics can be observed. Analogously, there exists an increasing community within the arts called "Guerilla art" (e.g. Bielicky 2007), which also explicitly refers to viral dynamics of word-of-mouth.

Innovative measures in marketing and design are accompanied by dynamical models and monitoring systems in order to predict trends and to intervene accordingly. IT and the internet are vital for the viral marketing success. There is no doubt that the internet has the potential to support enlightenment. The reverse of the "medal" is the growing risk for the society to be "designed."

The memetic models enfold their significance in the internet due to straightforward access to empirical data. As a result of the easily detectable and traceable trend and opinion propagation in society, represented by the blogosphere, viral models of cultural evolution have the potential to become powerful tools for the control and the "design" of culture, like genetics can be used to design desired species – for better or for worse. A good piece of design, a work of art, even the work of net activists, may be an integral part of a control strategy – whether intentionally or utilized.


Memetics and its derivatives first and foremost care about the propagation of cultural entities on a population level. Another scientific angle of vision on culture is (seemingly) more individual based. What do we find aesthetic or beautiful? And why? In 1933 the eminent mathematician and physicist George Birkhoff (1933) introduced a mathematical notion of aesthetics. He called his concept "aesthetic measure". He opened a trend in mathematical aesthetics to derive a measure for beauty as a function of order and chaos, or a function of complexity.

Birkhoff’s formula for beauty reads B = O/C. Thereby, Order, O, and Complexity, C, are determined through a curve analysis of the shapes of the objects that constitute the work of art. The curved boundary of a vase, for example, can be divided into inflection points, maxima and minima and so forth. The number of these moments are related to complexity, whereas the number of those moments, which obey symmetry relations to other moments measure the degree of order. If one estimates Birkhoff’s beauty of the pottery of a certain ancient culture, for example, then the single pieces have a value of B within a narrow variance around a certain mean that is typical for the culture.

Both Max Bense’s information aesthetics, worked out during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the recent synergetic approach confirm Birkhoff’s finding that a well balanced complexity between order and randomness seems to find our admiration (Bense 1972, Casti and Karlqvist 2003). According to these approaches, the patterns that we find aesthetic are results of self-organizing processes. Roughly speaking, they have to match the "eigenstates" of the brain’s dynamics. Birkhoff’s descriptive measure as well as later variants rest upon apriori symmetry assumption. They are excellent candidates to be used for classifications of artisan work of different cultures or main stream trends in society, but has not the slightest significance with respect to the meaning of art and aesthetics beyond the colloquial meaning of the concept.

So far, human artists are not obsolete. There do not exist concrete implementable models for creative processes let alone solutions for patterns that we find aesthetic (probably robots do), which is an absurd task anyway since bots do not participate in a hermeneutic process. However, one can use pattern recognizing systems like neural networks to identify or classify patterns and structures found in works of art. Although it is intended to capture individual aesthetics, the algorithms relate the problem back to the population level, i.e., to statistical ensembles. Moreover, it is a retrospective view that integrates historical facts in the sense that aesthetic patterns are learned from authorized or renowned artists. Such adaptive systems are usually endowed with Bayesian learning algorithms or comparable variants, that update knowledge in an iterative circle between prior and posterior knowledge. Although this is less than a dialectic principle it can advantageously be used in many problems of text interpretation and anticipation like spam recognition, for example. Some modelers claim to be able to mimic the hermeneutic circle with such boots-trapping algorithms, as they are called (Mallery et al. 1987). Recently, brain physiologists reported evidence for finding a Bayesian algorithm acting in the human brain (Ma et al. 2006). This is, in my opinion, a categorical mistake. Bayes’ algorithm integrates the past and allows for predictions in stationary cases. It is not, however, processual or generative. Nevertheless, Boven and Hartmann seem not to recoil at the idea of deriving a Bayesian epistemology (Bovens and Hartmann 2003) based on a method that relies on stationarity or ergodicity. Instead of repeating existing convincing arguments against the possibility of creative artificial intelligent algorithms, I refer to the work of J. Weizenbaum (1982) and H. Dreyfus (1999).

In principle, such artificial intelligent algorithms can be used to endow artificial artists (bots, robots) to produce artificial art (e.g., the Drawbot project by Paul Brown et al. 2006 or the Poetry Machine by David Link 2001). Brown, an artist, aims in eventually constructing a bot that is capable to produce autonomous works of art that cannot be identified with his work. Of course, Brown’s contribution as an artist has to be seen in the concept of building the robot and in the meta problem of questioning the role of an artist or interpretation in general. This interesting issue is not further deepened in the discourse in hand. It is rather the rising format of "art&science" that leads to open problems that I want to address here.

Let us for a moment stick with the Drawbot example. According to available online information the team consists of four persons, one of them is the well-known cognitive scientist Margaret Boden who’s hypothesis is "the mind as machine" according to her recent book (Boden 2006). Does the pronounced goal of the project for her has also to be taken with a large grain of salt in favor of the meta level? It seems, that this leads to a paradox unless art and science becomes indistinguishable or science is merely a rhetoric and ironic issue.


Art has proven to be able to counteract against each attempt to be defined. This can be seen as a kind of meta definition. At least it was a leitmotif of avant-garde art according to Boris Groys (2005). He says: "The avant-garde art saw itself as the embodiment of the pure negativity, as the medium of destruction and annulment of all traditional, mimetic, naturalistic art forms." Independent of whether this characterization meets with considerable approval in art history, it is used with increasing frequency in scientific reasoning. Wolfgang Tschacher and Martin Tröndle (2005), for example, formulated an extended model of entrepreneurial and organizational processes using the antagonistic force of art to drive innovations. One has to await whether this is more than an old insight that a certain fraction of art can act as corrective in other fields like science or economics.

My own approach within science that I call "performative science" rests upon a similar purpose of negotiating with the arts in order to integrate the model and its corrective. In a self-critical way I have to confess that this leads to the bad aftertaste of being close to Verdinglichung (reification) of art. If performative science became the thing it would undermine its own idea. Verdinglichung here is used in Heidegger’s way. I tend to condense it as being detached from physical involvement and responsibility as well as a reduction of Dasein’s contingency. Science and technology cannot capture the process of Dasein and has, therefore, a tendency toward Verdinglichung, whereas art has the potential to twist out from it. A propositional logic opposes a performative logic.


Now I try to assemble the above pieces. One can observe a crowing community distinguished by an "integrative thinking" respecting art, science, and other fields of culture. Having a system theoretical background, I emphatically promote negotiations between the cultures as a result of sensing the limits of system theory but also the pitfalls of the celebrated magic formula of "systems thinking." There is, however, in my opinion a too strong tendency toward leveling the distinct areas of generating and scrutinizing knowledge. As the aforementioned synergetic example shows, system theory to a large exent still pretends to treat all aspects of culture in a comprising way. Bense’s demand for a "philosophy as research" and the old cybernetic pretension to democratize society is still alive.

In this respect, I want to point to an interesting hypothesis brought in by Boris Groys (2003): "Since the 1970s we have been living and functioning in a post-revolutionary system of art. According to G.W.H. Hegel (1770–1851), all post-revolutionary societies are characterised by the fact that they prescribe rational goals, procedures and strategies to their members, and demand explanations, justifications and precise plans from them. It is obvious that our present art system functions precisely according to these rules. The claim of a single artist that his or her work is an unpredictable, creative act, seems obsolete, and is not taken seriously by today’s art world. […] it was precisely the radicalisation of the notion of creativity by the revolutionary avant-garde that has historically led to its integration into the ‘system’." Although the Hegelian point of view is certainly disputed in humanities, it nevertheless seems that the sientist’s view de facto is a Hegelian one.

In 2004 the fascinating installation called "Listening Post" by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin (2004) was highly distinguished by ars electronica’s "Golden Nica." The installation brings the memetic flow in the internet to the senses. It is a good example both for a sophisticated tracking technology as well as for a successful appeal to the senses. It is only one eminent example of works of art that drives science and technology. The installation not only contributes to a theoretical understanding of the evolution of culture (cf. for example Cohen 2006) it also stimulates progess in monitoring systems for memetic surveillance and control of the blogosphere (Lima 2005). Compared to rather sophisticated monitoring and tracking systems meanwhile available, the "blogviz" tool by Manuel Lima has been outdistanced in a few years only. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the asthonishingly eleborate models for "viral dynamics" of memes contained in recent technological products. Seminal works are cited in (Lima 2005 and Hermann 2004).

The basic idea behind the monitoring tools is to detect the network structure of society, or at least of the blogosphere, through applications of graph theory and adaptive evaluation algorithms. The dynamical models of information propagation derived from memetics are mated with topic mining methods that try to judge how the users can be affected in an optimal way. Users are supplied economically at the optimal nodes of the network with their desiderata and they distribute them voluntarily, thereby doing uncounciously the marking agencies job. All this rests on an affirmative and non-falsifiable logic. Dubiously, the agencies speak of enlightend citizens and veritable methods since everything is done voluntarily.


The progress of one of the most important annual festivals for electronic art and technology, ars electronica, speaks volumes. The last festival in 2007 under the motto of "Goodbye Privacy" starts to correct the previously dominating attestation of a democratizing effect of the internet. To a large extent, net art and net activism are cogs in the systemic wheel. The activist collective Übermorgen claims in an interview that they basically are interested in experimenting with the technologically feasible – they call this "freestyle basic research" (Pettauer 2006). With respect to their "Amazon Noir" hacktivistic work they claim not to be interested in any political issue. A bizzare aspect is that they sold the algorithm, which allowed the download of books, to the affected online bookseller along with the commitment not to make it public. The interviewer in (Pettauer 2006) speaks of a possible "next level hacktivism": Activities that never happened. Übermorgen confirmed that they experimented with such things but not in the case of "Amazon Noir," as they claim.

Starting from an analysis of the movie "The Matrix" as a mirror of society, Peter Sloterdijk speaks of a "cybernetic irony" that can be observed in our current Western society (Sloterdijk undated), especially with respect to the internet. For the time being, as a hand-waving argument using the few examples from above, I want to hypothesise a correlation of blurring the boundaries between art, science and economics and the increase of cybernetic irony as a result of a multi-valued ontology. Moreover, the "democratizing" effect of the internet is foiled by a representationalism that reduces Being to data. In line with Heidegger I call this "Verdinglichung" (reification), a concept that is worth being revived in the present context. Heidegger diagnosed a general tendency in science and technology of Verdinglichung and a crucial aspect in the arts of being able to twist out from Verdinglichung. This results from the performative character of art, which contrasts with the representational character of science and technology. From my observation I suspect a growing loss of performativity in contemporary new media art. Although the concepts behind many ("ready-at-hand") interactive installations aim at increasing performativity they rather reduce it as a result of an increased cognitive load. Art is often more striking and performative when shifting from the state of "ready-at-hand" to a detached state of mere "availability." In any case, mere interactivity is definitely not a viable solution.

If one accepts performativity as counterweight to the representational approach in science it becomes clear that memetics in its extreme considerations of being able to capture processual aspects of Dasein in a representational way, is a categorical mistake. The tendency in the ongoing discourse to level the "cultures" should be substituted by a theory of negotiation, which can be called a third episteme beneath art and science. The internet, which does not have a rhizomatic structure in itself, presents us with a challenge that we should encounter in a rhizomatic way, to use Deleuze’s expression for the negotiation between the poles that constitute a difference. To conclude, instead of repeatedly insisting in far-reaching equality of art and science, I promote to strengthen the difference. However, not as an antagonistic pair within a system perspective but rather as a system vs performative perspective. This is the main driving force of cultural evolution.


Bense, Max (1972): Einführung in die Informationsästhetik. In: komm.inform. 2: Interner Informationsdienst für Studenten, Dozenten und Angestellte des Fachbereichs Gestaltung Fachhochschule Darmstadt. Sommersemester.

Bielicky, Michael (2007). Go Public/Guerilla Screening. (Accessed Sept.15, 2007).

Birkhoff, George D. (1933): Aesthetic Measure. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Blackmore, Susan, Dugatkin, Lee Alan, Boyd, Robert, Richerson, Peter J., and Plotkin, Henry (2000): The Power of Memes. Introduction and Critical Discussion of Susan Blackmore`s Book. Scientific American, October Issue, pp. 64-73.

Boden, Margarete (2006): Mind as Machine (2 Vols). A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bovens, Luc, and Hartmann, Stephan (2003): Bayesian Epistemology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Brown, Paul (2006): From Systems Art to Artificial Life: The DrawBots Project at Sussex University. Position Statement. Available at: (Last accessed Sept. 15, 2007).

Casti, John and Karlqvist, Anders (2003): Art and Complexity, Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Cohen, Irun R. (2006): Informational Landscapes in Art, Science, and Evolution. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 68/5, pp. 1213-1229.

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Groys, Boris (2005): The Mimesis of Thinking. In: Donna De Salvo (Ed.): Open Systems – Rethinking Art c.1979. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 50-63.

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2 responses

21 02 2009
Graham Douglas


Thank you for this stimulating paper.

Could the growing transdisciplinary Mind Science be regarded as moving towards your “theory of negotiation” ?



12 10 2009

digital art actions using digital technologies in a systems approach, you might enjoy and be interested in this one:

Angel_F is a child artificial intelligence. it is the digital son of Derrick de Kerckhove and the Biodoll, a digital prostitute. Angel_F acts as a spyware collecting texts from internet users and uses it to synthesize language. it has been seen in performances worldwide, some on activist issues such as intellectual property and freedom of speech.

angel_F also participated to the internet governance forum in rio de janeiro in 2007, where it was the only digital being present: it made a contribution in the digital freedoms workshop

angel_f has a blog, where it expresses itself using its surreal generated language, also triggering generative reactions on several social networks where it expresses its multiple identity.

here is the address:

on the blog it is also possible to interact with little angel_f, and to explore its digital mind

there is loads of documentation about angel_f on the web, including the videos in which its digital dad, de kerckhove, publicly recognized it as its digital child


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