From Meme Virus to Virus Meme

I love the term “meme virus” which has itself “gone viral”. The idea of memes in general is pretty brilliant, as we’ve needed a good why to tease apart ethnicity from genetics. People who confuse these too usually end up sounding racist. They can’t tell genes from memes.

I teach a literary curriculum laced with mathematics. Think of STEM providing the shoelaces. My small band of followers, adherents of similar ideas, believe in using science fiction has a hook, to drive discussion of simulations and modeling. Without simulations and modeling, there’s really no planning for the future.

One of the science fiction stories I run with is War of the Worlds. I introduce it for several reasons, including because I want to focus on H.G. Wells, its author. I also want to look at some of the artworks that derived from this story, most of them visual depictions of the “tripods” attaching humans. However lets not forget the famous audio art project developed from said novel: the reading by Orson Welles on Halloween, in 1940.

The virus was already suspected by the time Wells wrote the work, as something yet smaller than a bacterium. However, clear visuals of the virus would appear well after the artist conceptions of tripods (the alien attack vehicles). Remember the martians’ final undoing was microbial life. They had ill-prepared immune systems. What struck me though, was how closely the tripods actually resembled the virus machinery. I point this out in Martian Math.

Once the virus was X-rayed, and diffraction patterns gleaned, its icosahedral symmetry became clear, as did the mathematics of its constituent proteins. Buckminster Fuller became involved, as an early discoverer of an icosahedral numbers generator, as we might call it today. The cuboctahedral numbers were the same, and Fuller could explain that too, by means of his Jitterbug Transformation. For a short while, it appeared like Fuller’s meme stash was about to go viral. However, by the time Scientific American got around to summarizing the story, Fuller’s role had been heavily downplayed.

Fuller latched on the virus meme for another reason, aside from the number sequence 1, 12, 42, 92… the icosahedral shell numbers. He was interested in where “alive” biological processes met with “dead” mechanical ones, and whether these two sides of the fence might be unified. In discovering the virus, hadn’t vitalism discovered the fact of no boundary, between living and unliving? We could say “it’s all alive”. We could say “it’s all dead”.

Or perhaps we could say life is metaphysical and the rest is physical?

The implications were philosophical, insofar as a philosophy allows itself to be shaped by empirical findings. The better ones usually do.

Nowadays, the virus itself has become emblematic of the meme. Instead of “meme as virus” we have “virus as meme”. The virus itself, as a meme, embodies flavors of five-fold symmetry, mixed with STEM. It’s a symbol of science, but also of the memetic potential of simple ideas.

Appropriately enough, the virus as a delivery system for RNA-DNA, has the potential to aid in the propagation of cures. Some viruses might be “good” in other words, and ditto for some meme viruses. Their streamlined design connotes “efficiency”, a term often paired with “deadly”.

In between the pure virus and the spread of memes, is the computer virus, which actually spreads in the form of running software, which depends in turn upon hardware hosts. The “computer virus” meme further catapults the whole idea of a “virus” to another level. Do we have any “good” computer viruses? Just think how good software spreads, even more effectively than bad, virally, one might say virulently, by means of cloning.

Why the focus on H.G. Wells? For one thing, he worked at staying aware, we might say today “in a high state of consciousness” between the World Wars. He tried his best to encourage positive meme viruses, the kind that would build our immune system. Anti-nationalism would have something to do with it, what some might call globalism. But then what is globalism? I’ve been taking up this meme as well. Today it’s fashionable to consider “globalism” something bad, a negative. As surely as yin becomes yang, we’ll be seeing a positive version to consider.

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