Empire Killer: Memetic Entrenchment

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, a pop-history-ish book about why some cultures developed technologies that made invasion easy, a hypothesis of what amounts to geographic determinism is put forward. Whatever else you might think of the book, it raised the question of why China, with all of its early intellectual advances, failed to capitalise on their early advantage. This question is being specifically addressed here.

The book rather lamely puts forward the idea that a large united population is more vulnerable to the sort of regressive thinking that rulers may be prone to. It gives an example of early Chinese exploration towards the Americas being stymied by an Emporer decreeing no one should explore eastwards, and no one subsequently rescinded that decree. The author admits that this is an underdeveloped theory. Let assume, for arguments sake, that it is true that China has had less disparate cultures and ruling states over the centuries.

This idea applies to the fall of empires generally, so we'll get back to China. The idea is memetic entrenchment, which I think we all know deep down, but allow us to explore it here.

A meme (or memeplex, though I would argue that the term meme could be used for both) is entrenched if innovators or innovations in its field are stifled, marginalised, or simply not created. An innovation here being a superior, in a pragmatic sense rather than memetic, and one that would win out in a "fair" context.

This happens everywhere, but happens more often in large empires, and with those empires we see significant political and technological stagnation.

A non-empire example that is relatively easy to demonstrate, at least conceptually, is the tale of QWERTY keyboards. In this technological example, we can see that QWERTY did have a purpose (to prevent jams when keys were struck too close together). In future contexts where this was no longer a problem, QWERTY had memetic entrenchment. Everyone produced QWERTY keyboards and knew how to use them. Systems of production all the way down rely on QWERTY keyboards. Even if a superior, in a pragmatic sense, layout for a keyboard were released tomorrow (people suggest DVORAK sometimes, but I still only know one person who uses it routinely), it would cost a lot of retraining and retooling to switch everyone over, which presumably would cost more initially than any immediate benefit DVORAK would provide.

From this example, we see that the meme's adoption rate, which I shall call the meme's "mass", is very important to seeing it entrenched. It is easier to convince 10 people to believe some new thing than it is to convince a million (though, perhaps not in a linear fashion).

A meme's age is also important. It's been noted by philosophers, politicians, and psychologists that humans have an inherently conservative bias. However, an idea that is old, but has only a few adherents over time (an illuminati participation, say) is likely not entrenched. Thus, perhaps a measure of people-years could be introduced, a "pedigree" if you will.

Lastly, a meme has to have competitors in the same context. This has historically meant borders and shared language, but today we have the internet! However, competing ideas in the Middle East and the Americas are not truly competing. But the context of competition allows people to think outside their frameworks that they've been brought up in. Say, ideas A, B, and C are on equal footing in terms of mass and pedigree are less stable if they are in the same community than if each idea were presented in their own individual community. Stability being if a pragmatically superior idea D how likely would it be the original ideas A, B, or C are unseated or marginalised.

This is, of course, an entirely spurious assertion by me, but this was the last thought on this. The last idea could be called "relative community share".

I attempted to phrase these such that high numbers in all mass, pedigree, and relative community share results in a very tenacious meme indeed. And these memes are exactly the sort of memes that empires wind up with, simply as a natural result of certain memes winning out and becoming standardised.

This could explain, in part, the political and technological stagnation in Empires. But perhaps not. And this is, of course, disregarding the massive technological development over the last century (in a way). But then as an argument, one could argue forms of political stagnation in the USA, which is in many ways like an empire. The last constitutional amendment was a long time ago, and the USA seems to waffle back and forth on ideas that other countries have adopted a long time ago.

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