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Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie: Book Review

Virus of the Mind

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Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie is the first popular book on the market exclusively about memetics, the study of infectious ideas. I've been looking forward to it since I first heard rumours of its existence in alt.memetics almost a year ago.

I have to confess that at first I was disappointed with the presentation style of the book. It seems to be aimed at an audience with a high-school reading level, with key points highlighted in boxes and illustrated with cartoons featuring Eggbert, on oval happy face with spiky hair. Later I came to the conclusion that Brodie is probably capable of a more sophisticated writing style, but consciously chose to give it wider appeal in a deliberate act of memetic engineering.

In fact Brodie takes many opportunities to apply the techniques he discusses which serves not only to lend weight to the theories, but should also theoretically increase books sales. :) For example, he named the book Virus of the Mind rather than, say, Introduction to Memetics because it will catch more people's attention due to their association memes. (I, of all people, certainly can't fault him for that!)

It is difficult to discuss memetics in depth without veering off into deep philosophy. Everything that exists, everything with a name, everything we know corresponds to a meme including memes themselves. What is truth? What are we? What should we do? The new science of the meme sheds light on all these questions and Brodie doesn't shy away from tackling these issues head on, but always remaining practical and open-minded.

The book covers a great deal in its 230 pages. Starting with general definitions, it goes on to describe how memes are like biological and computer viruses and how they evolve in their respective mediums. One chapter introduces evolutionary psychology (the subject of Robert Wright's excellent The Moral Animal), and how the ancient memes of "sex" and "danger" are still very much shaping our culture today. Another chapter covers how we get programmed (infected by new memes), and how these techniques are used by governments, corporations, cults and religions. (I paid special attention to the chapter on how to start a cult :)

It was refreshing to see how charitable Brodie is towards religion, even after describing in detail how it is really a cultural power virus, evolving to take advantage of the natural "push-button" memes of its adherents including "security", "sex", "belonging" and "crisis" through memes like "tradition", "heresy", "evangilism" and "repetition". He concludes that despite all that religions are still very useful because they give purpose to otherwise meaningless lives (sound familiar?).

I suspect even someone already well-read in the area of memetics will find new insights in Virus of the Mind. Brodie is obviously a bright guy who has thought a lot about how to teach people about memes in order to create a future by design. Virus of the Mind should be on every Virion's reading list, I've already put it in my Top 10.

— David McFadzean

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