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Crash Contagion

Paul Marsden
Graduate research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex



Using a memetic interpretation of the events following the death of Diana, this paper introduces memetics, by way of example, to social scientists and social researchers. It is argued that standard social scientific interpretations of human behaviour are overly rational and may ultimately be quite unhelpful in understanding human behaviour. The paper explores the possibility that memetics may provide researchers with a viable non-Cartesian conceptualisation of the human individual and behaviour. Substantively, the paper argues that much human behaviour may be a product of non-rational imitation and suggests that such an interpretation may help explain the mass hysteria following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

"It gives you a scare. Initially it just looks like a white mass."

"A shiver went down my spine. It was Di…Seriously top right hand corner. It’s just there"

"Princess Diana’s face is looking out of it. Everybody’s seeing her face looking out"

"We saw it, as clear as day. You know the pose, the one with her head cupped in her hands. She’s got the tiara on"

These people are referring, of course, to the visions of Diana that appeared to mourners waiting patiently in line to sign one of the Books of Remmbrance at St James Palace in Sepetember 1997. A vision, we were told by these tearful mourners, that was a copy-conform of Diana’s Vogue cover pose. The visions started the same day, in the middle of the planetary Diana’thon, that an Iraqi newspaper, the Babel, reported that Princess Diana had been assassinated by the British secret service.

Di’ mentia had seized the world’s press. The morning following Diana’s death, the Observer newspaper didn’t have time to cancel the article on Diana which concluded that "if her IQ were five points lower (she) would have to be watered daily''. The Sunday Mirror which following her death was creased with grief had just a few weeks earlier described Diana as "trivial and brain-dead". But the accident changed all that.

From Sunday morning, news-readers, sounding increasingly like narrators of a badly written romantic tragedy, delivered hour upon hour of repetitive commentary, only punctuated from time to time by solemn, ashen-faced "experts" who would advise us "grieve in our own way'" the death of this, the People’s Princess.

The media may have been suffering from Di’mentia, but the world was suffering from Di’mania. The deification and the arguments for canonising the icon Diana began well before the visions. With Diana's death, a cult has been born; a secular saint had been created by popular acclamation. Britain’s own Mother Theresa Lite, with the option on good legs included, was perfectly packaged for the age of the video-clip and the sound-bite. "The Queen of Hearts" became "the light of our life", "a candle in the wind" who possessed, as a member of the British House of Lords confirmed, a "genuine gift of healing".

Saturday 6th September 1997 was a world first, half of the human inhabitants of Planet Earth were wired up and tuned in to witness the most widely experienced event in our history. The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The funeral was broadcast live to over 60 countries in 44 languages with an estimated audience of 2.5 billion people.

Television stations dropped their scheduled programmes and replaced them with tributes to Diana. Pop radio stations decided that pop music was inappropriate, some stopped broadcasting altogether whilst others threw themselves into weeklong session of mournful "sombre music only..." One London radio station even offered free counselling to those in distress. The event temporally but fundamentally modified peoples’ behaviour. Elton John even took out his ear-rings, and the Union Jack was flown at half mast over Buckingham Palace for the first time. Millions of people converged on London for Diana’s funeral, more people were present than had been at the celebrations in London at the end of the Second World War.

It is our interpretation, as social scientists, to the reaction to the death of Diana that I would like to pause for a few minutes and reflect upon. Now, one obvious line of social scientific enquiry would be try to provide an account of why people responded in such a way to the death of Diana. We could explain their behaviour by referring to notions of self and identity, to internal states, to attitudes and dispositions. We could interpret the mass mourning as an example of how our inner human selves can sometimes break out of the iron cage of rationality in an alienating capitalist (post) modernity. We could look for the real, true and underlying reasons for the Diana phenomena interpreting it from within one of the plethora of theoretical paradigms that we as social scientists have at our disposition.

To take a brief example of how we can use inner states to explain our behaviour to the Diana phenomenon, I want to concentrate just on our immediate reaction to the news of her death. Clairvoyance and other X-Files-type phenomena aside, the death of Diana must have been temporally antecedent to our reaction to it. For each one of us, there must have been one fascinating moment between the time that the patterns of information reporting the death of Diana entered our heads and the time that we reacted or responded to the news. That fascinating moment was the moment when the electrochemical signal travelling up the axons of neurones in our heads became conscious thought. Cartesian psychology would have that in some dark corner of our brains where consciousness presumably ‘happens’, the signals were translated into the language of thought, a sort of ‘mentalese’, and were then projected as subjectively meaningful internal representations in our heads, to a special audience - the conscious self. (That same conscious self that "sees" the image of Diana when you shut your eyes and imagine her.) The incoming signal became conscious experience and we finally realised that Diana is dead. In this way, we, ourselves, the real, conscious selves, could then evaluate this shocking new fact from the control centre of the mind and send out instructions to our bodies and brains about how to react to it. And just how did we react to the news when we became conscious of it?

Some of you may have responded with emotional upset, some of you even may have taken your earrings out as well, whilst others may have just carried on eating breakfast. Your reactions will have been rich and varied, fascinating stuff for social scientists, but I am willing to bet that all of you, every single one here today, reacted identically in one very special way. Despite our preciously individual inner selves, I suspect you all reacted in a slavish, machine-like fashion to the news of Diana’s death with a response that doesn’t need the Cartesian crutch of that inner self to explain it.

You just had to talk about it. You had to communicate the news in some way or another to someone else. You may have phoned somebody in order to talk to them about it, or the subject may have come up in conversation at a later time, but the information that you received got itself passed on, copying itself, infecting another brain. It was almost as if the words in your head wanted to get themselves said, rather as if your mind had been infected with a virus, much like a flu virus, which in spite of yourself, spread themselves in a fit of verbal sneezing.

I think there is an alternative to positing homunculi, mysterious internal agents or selves endowed with all sorts of intentional, evaluative and emotional capacities in our brains to explain the Diana phenomenon. In any case, these sort of ‘explanations’ don’t really explain anything at all, they just take us down the tedious road of infinite regress: If you argue that we can evaluate information, and respond intentionally because we have selves, then how is that selves come to be intentional and have rational capacities in the first place? If our selves are looking on in the inner theatre of consciousness, who is looking in on their inner theatre consciousness? Do our selves have their own selves?

No, our reaction to the death of Diana does not need the theoretical and often circular crutch of the self. I think we need to understand our reaction as a symptom of having been infected with a virus; a mind virus. The death of Diana can be explained by the epidemiology of a contagion, a crash contagion that leapt from mind to mind infecting new brains. A virtual virus that hijacked the copying machinery in our brains to copy itself onto other brains through a process of communication. In this way the crash contagion spread through the population through a process of replication in a global game of Chinese Whispers, as if it was a virus.

Our behaviour following the death of Diana owes much more to epidemiology than it does to the reaction of some inner self. Just as virtual pets, Gameboys and Rubik’s Cubes sweep through, and leap between, schools in a manner virtually identical to measles or chicken pox, so did the Diana Crash Contagion. Whether the symptoms are spots, sneezes or the fixed motor behaviours associated with feeding your virtual pet or reacting to the news of Diana’s death, we need epidemiology and not internal agents to explain our behaviour.

A key issue in the spread of the Diana crash contagion was the role of the mass media as a vector. More generally, the mass media has been responsible for an explosive proliferation of all sorts of mind viruses that exist in today’s infosphere spread via radio, television, the press, intranets, internets, fax machines, e-mail and voice mail. Every year, your brain is assaulted by thousands of designer mind viruses trying to infect you in the form of advertisements. Our minds today are suffering from a chronic case of information overload, our brains are clogged up by virtual parasites, mind viruses that spread around the world at the speed of light, replicating at rates that make AIDS and meningitis appear quite unthreatening in comparison. And mind viruses can be just as deadly as their biological cousins, leaping promiscuously from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium, coding for all sorts of behaviour, whilst proving to be virtually unquarantinable (Dennett 1990).

The study of mind viruses is known as memetics, and the unit of replication, the mind virus is called a meme. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, a successful popularisation of a gene-centred Darwinian understanding of evolution. In addition to his now familiar metaphor of the human body as a gene-machine, Dawkins argued that we were hosts not to just to one replicating entity (the gene) but also another, virtual mind viruses that he called memes.

"A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene' . . . it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory' or to the French word même. . . Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm 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." (Dawkins 1989)

A meme is a unit of cultural replication, a cultural instruction if you will, that codes for the cultural equivalent of sneezing. Berman’s famous quote, "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you" illustrates the logic in a memetic understanding of human behaviour. For memetics, the human agent can be understood as a system of co-apted meme-complexes that have infected or been inherited in the brain. Our behaviour is determined by an innate disposition for mechanically and automatically executing and thereby replicating these instructions. From this perspective, a prerequisite for understanding this sort of imitative behaviour is being able to audit and understand the infection strategies of the particular mind viruses resident in our brains. According to memetics, the legitimate focus in the study of human behaviour is the message not the source. We, ourselves are held to be emergent properties of an infectious and interacting complex of replicating mind viruses, and our bodies are but vehicles that have evolved to help these replicators, replicate.

Daniel Dennett has summed up the memetic paradigm succinctly

"A scholar is just a library's way of making another library". (Dennett 1990)

From this perspective, memes have us, we don’t have them. We are simply user illusions, a neat shorthand for the emergent property of memes competing for space and salience so that they can get replicated. Returning to our reaction to the death of Diana, we have to understand that first rules of memes, or mind viruses - as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for anything: Good replicators or good ideas are not necessarily true, good or beautiful ideas, they are simply good at replicating. There need be no rational reason why there was such a massive collective reaction to the death of Diana, it was simply because the Diana crash contagion was particularly infectious, we were predisposed to imitating it. The challenge for memetics is to understand what it is that makes certain mind viruses more contagious than others, by understanding their structure and dynamics.

I know that it is more comforting to think that there are reasons behind our behaviour, that we consciously decide on how to respond to a stimulus, but often it just isn’t the case. Memetics argues that we don’t have to look for internal explanations for why we behave in certain ways, sometimes we can provide explanations by shifting our focus to the nature of the message itself. How is it that certain mind viruses are more infectious than others, for example, the meme or mind virus whose primary unfortunate symptom is an instruction for the host to go and jump of a cliff? What is the mechanism of infection? How do we develop immunity to some mind viruses and not to others? This is the focus of memetics: Understanding the epidemiology of mind viruses and their associated symptomatologies. Rather than ask why so many of us believe x, or why so many of us behaved in a certain way following say, the death of Diana, memetics asks what is it about our behaviour that made it so infectious, and how did it spread?

Mind viruses spread through a (Darwinian) process of imitation. We know for example that if a suicide is reported in the mass media, the suicide rate will rise in the following month. (Phillips 1986) A few people with poor immunity to this mind virus will become infected and display similar symptoms to the original victim - they will commit suicide. This is called the Werther effect, after Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of the Young Werther, which was banned in several countries after readers started imitating the hero’s suicide (Phillips 1974). We have all heard of copy cat riots, copy cat murders and various other "non-rational" behaviour such as mass suicides of the members of Heaven’s Gate and the People’s Temple. Conscious choice or contagion? The amount of violence that seen on US television screens correlates positively with US homicides (Phillips 1983). We know as well that suicide victims following a publicised suicide story will more likely than not resemble the reported victim (Phillips 1974). They are victims in very real ways, victims of virulent mind viruses, with symptoms much more deadly than a sneeze. Following the death of Diana, an event witnessed by nearly half of this planet, we can reasonably predict that some immuno-deficient individuals will imitate her behaviour and push up the car fatality figures for September 1997. The relevant statistics are not yet available but I would predict an increase in imitative behaviour among non-married couples. So watch out if you’re driving home with you partner tonight - you may suffer from one of the rarer but deadly symptoms of the Diana crash contagion.

And just as we are beginning to see the fruits of genetic engineering, the possibility of memetic engineering is emerging. Because of their substrate neutrality, memes may evolve in computers just as well as human minds, and the Prediction Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has been sponsored by US affiliate of the Swiss Bank Corporation to evolve memes that make predictions useful for currency trading (J. Doyne Farmer in Brockman 1996). Memes based on Darwinian algorithms have also helped design fibre-optic telecommunication networks, detect enemy targets in infrared images, improve mining operations, and facilitate geophysical surveys for oil exploration (Cziko 1995). And myself, I make my living out of memes. I am at the grubby end of social science, I get my hands dirty with industry - I develop marketing campaigns and advertising campaigns for multinationals. I build and engineer designer mind viruses, and my hope today is that I have infected you with a new meme, a meme that could be a useful tool in your new social scientific careers, the meme meme.

Paul Marsden.




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Cziko, G. (1995). Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution. USA; MIT Press (A Bradford Book).

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Phillips, D.P. (1983) "The Impact of Mass Media Violence on US Homicides" in American Sociological Review 1983, Vol. 48 (August) 560-568.

Phillips, D.P. (1986) "Clustering of teenage Suicides after Television News Stories about Suicide" in The New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 315 (Sep) 685-694.