I've just got back from
TED 2008, where I
presented some ideas on "Memes in the Cosmos". Getting a
new replicator is always dangerous for any planet because it means a new evolutionary process
is let loose. We humans are earth's
"Pandoran species" who let the second replicator - memes - out of
the box. We then became meme machines, protecting, copying and
working for memes.
Earth now has three replicators - genes
(the basis of life), memes (the basis of human culture) and temes
(the basis of technology). I argued that the information copied by
books, phones, computers and the Internet is the beginning of this
third replicator and consequent new evolutionary process. We already
have plenty of temes. We are on the verge of having true teme
machines, that is machines that carry out all three processes of
copying, varying and selecting information without us. This new teme
evolution is fast, and powerful and we would do well to try to
At the moment temes still need us, but if
teme machines became self-replicating then we humans would be
redundant and they could carry on without us. The two talks before
mine, by Craig Venter and Paul Rothemund, suggested that this step
is closer than I had thought. This is important because temes
currently use us to propagate themselves. In the process they are
sucking up the planet's resources and threatening to make it
uninhabitable. If anything of our civilisation is to survive then
either we have to ensure that climate change and environmental
degradation do not kill us off, or self-replicating teme machines
must appear before this happens.
When thinking about civilisations on
other planets we should not concentrate on intelligence (as in
SETI) but on replicators. In 1961
proposed his famous
equation to estimate the number of civilisations in our galaxy
capable of communicating with us. Instead I proposed a new equation
- the number of planets times the fraction that acquire a first
replicator, times the fraction that acquire a second replicator,
times the fraction that acquire a third replicator. For it is only
with temes that a planet can send out information into the cosmos
and hence communicate with anyone else out there.
Every new replicator brings its dangers,
which might explain why we have not yet heard from any other teme
creatures. Life here on earth pulled through the first step, we
humans pulled through the appearance of memes and hence culture.
Will we pull through the third step? I don't know.
Within hours these ideas were already out
on the web. See, for example,
or a Q and A in
Wired. Within a couple of days the word "teme" brought up
several hundred relevant Google entries. So the teme meme seems to
be spreading. But help please !!!
I don't think "teme" is a very good word.
I wanted a word that would describe information that is copied
outside of human brains by some kind of technology. These are
technological memes, or techno-memes, or .... an obvious
abbreviation is "teme" but it's so easily confused with "team"
(indeed Wired mis-spelt it this way). What about artemes (artificial
memes - but really they are no more artificial than we are). Or ...
Dozens of new names were submitted but
none seemed to stand out. My favourites are Thremes and Tremes. I
have used these a couple of times but this seemed only to spread
confusion. So - with some regret - I think the name stays at Temes.
Trying again! I have got fed up with
people not being able to spell 'temes' (understandably). So I'm now
trying 'tremes'. This is, itself, a little memetic experiment. Let's
see whether 'tremes' does better than 'temes'.