Cultural Viruses

There is a kind of information exchange or cultural programing that holds a particular interest for me as a technologist. 

We are aware that there are certain kinds of knowledge that stem from direct cultural context.  An example would be music or food.  These arguably are linked in some way directly to the land or culture they originated in.  And although when people move, they take these cultural tastes with them, they are visible even when they mutate into some sort of form.  An example would be that Mexican food in New Mexico is very different than in Texas.  Or that Cajun music originated in Quebec, and morphed fabulously as it entered the New Orleans parishes. In both cases, they can both be traced back to their origins, even while they have become their own cultural entities.

In contrast, there are other cultural characteristics that are transmitted through person to person contact.  How many of you use the same cleaning products or toothpaste that you used growing up?  How many of you have found yourself using a particular word with a certain inflection that you have noticed someone else using? 

This person to person way of transmitting cultural information, most notably through family relationships, is less visible and somewhat harder to trace - but it's breadth of influence and implications to larger communities are immense.

I would call these cultural viruses (also known as memes) - namely because they are less a factor of a larger culture in which we are steeped, and more a factor of person to person transmission.  Some cultural viruses are more contagious than others.

What fascinates me in particular about personally transmitted cultural learning (cultural viruses) is the extent to which they influence larger and more ubiquitous streams of cultural development.  What also interests me, from the standpoint of information technology, is understanding what makes certain viruses more contagious than others.

I see culture as a program, in the sense that it is a collection of algorithms that, within a context, produce behavior.  An algorithm, for non-geeks, can be defined very basically as a cascade of if/then statements that respond to an environment.  Emily Post's Book of Etiquette is a great example.  If someone invites you over to their house, a day or so afterwards, you should send them some sort of written thank you letter.  Or if you are a bridesmaid at a wedding, you should perform the following tasks.  A more fundamental form of cultural algorithm is if someone wants to shake your hand, you offer them your right hand.  Or when you first enter an elevator, you turn around and face the door. 

The larger collection of these algorithms creates a sort of program that could be seen as a personality.  The similarities between these different programs, both in a smaller group context, and in a wider geographical context, compose cultures.

What so what is it that makes a particular unit of cultural programing particularly contagious?

My friend Keely says 'that's true, too' with a certain inflection, and I can't stop saying it now.  I've tried.  She said she picked it up from someone else, and I've also noticed other mutual friends saying it as well.  What is it that makes this virus so easily transmitted?  Alternatively, what makes folks who suffered abuse as children 90% more likely than the rest of the population to inflict the similar behavior on others as adults - despite their best intentions not to?

There are models in the outside world that might give some insight into this inquiry: namely computer viruses and biological viruses.

Let's take biological viruses.  Enter Herpes.  It's an annoying virus that the CDC estimates around 25% of the adult population in this country has,  That is an amazingly successful transmission rate.  What makes it successful?

  1. It doesn't kill it's host.
  2. There is no cure.
  3. It uses a vector of transmission satisfies a basic human need that is pleasurable.
  4. It is undetectable during part of the time that it is contagious.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it's a start.  Let's compare it to the example above of Keely's incredibly contagious phrase.

  1. It doesn't kill it's host.  This is clear. 
  2. There is no cure.  An alternative way of understanding this, particularly with  viruses other than herpes, is that the 'cure' is so expensive either in
    terms of energy used, or money, or time, that the cost of the cure
    outweighs the difficulties associated with the virus itself.  With respect to Keely's phrase, or any particularly compelling phrase, there is a posibility for me to enroll in some sort of deprogramming therapy such as The Complex Trauma Algorithm, or Emotional Freedom Technique, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that would involve a huge time expenditure, and that would likely also cost a lot of money in terms of paying a trained professional.  Not worth it.

  3. It uses a vector of transmission satisfies a basic human need that is pleasurable. This particular phrase, 'that's true, too', with the inflection that accompanies it, communicates a very specific emotion or experience
    that is not as well stated with any other expression that I know of.  Not to mention that she always smiles when she says it.  The method of transmittal is also very pleasurable as it is used primarily to lighten up a conversation; a way to bring in humor.
  4. It is undetectable during part of the time that it is contagious.  I did not even notice that I had started saying this, until a friend pointed it out.  In other words, we use language in a way that is in many ways unconscious.  Guarding against developing certain accents or phrases is very difficult because we use language as a tool, and often times are unaware of the particular expressions or words we use.  Some people say; 'like' at the beginning of every sentence.  Some people say, 'you know what i mean' at the end.  These elements of speech are often undetectable to the person speaking, unless they are pointed ouot.  And to break the habitual use of these expressions is very difficult. 

This is not a conclusive list, but it's a start. To understand what makes a particular programming unit or algorithm successful is something that has ramifications beyond mere mental masturbation (which there is nothing wrong with): fields like marketing, communication, politics, grant writing all depend on successfully and compellingly transmitting information in a way that will be receptive and will alter behavior.  It's something that we might all take a closer look at in the interest of personnal effectiveness and success.