Memes And The Catalog Syndrome (posted by Fabien Villard)

The Catalog syndrome

The Catalog Syndrome is this special way of solving problems with only technology: we have a technology so no matter what the problem really was, it’s solved. Why spend a lot of time in analysis and thinkings about a problem when we can jump in a technology which is obviously made to solve it? More and more often our first response to a problem is a technology. And in a lot of cases this is the only response. Technologies are chosen from lists aggregated in big families called “environments”, hence the term Catalog syndrome. Take a number of example:

  • Copyright problems? DRM technologies. Even when it has been proved that it can not work.
  • Legacy applications are not service oriented? Encapsulation technologies. Even if it only hides obsolete systems behind an unmanageable camouflage layer.
  • Knowledge management problems? A blog, a CMS or an EDM product. Even if we don’t know what documents are needed and by who.
  • Security issues? There is this huge collection of security related technologies. Even if we have no idea about processes, risks, roles, responsibilities and duties, etc.
  • Integration needs? ETL or EAI or even Web Services. Even if we have no idea about the information that have to pass from one component to another and especially the semantic of data handled by the different systems.
  • Business Process Approach? Business Process modeler or drawing program. Even if we don’t know how to integrate the resulting descriptions into the automated system.

During the last decade I kept asking myself: where does this technocratic tendency come from? Is this inevitable? I think some researchers in other domains have answers. Perhaps not ultimate answers but surely some hints to understand how we as humans may have come to such behavior.


Darwinism theory states that evolution works with three main principles:

  1. Genes replicate themselves. Different mechanisms accomplish that depending on the type of body the gene leaves in.
  2. They reproduce with variations. A lot of mechanisms are involved that create variations: chemical, radiations, repairing mechanisms, gene grouping, gene deactivation and son on.
  3. Genes are selected by natural selection. Selection acts on the phenotypes presented by genes: in the huge number of variations, some are more compliant with the natural context they have to live in than others. More compliant increase their chances to reproduce and hence tend to increase in number passing the new form from generation to generation.

So genes are called replicators. And with the three previous principles we have an abstraction of what a replicator is.

Is there another replicator?

Think about ideas. And stories, songs, legends, theories, fashions… All this things are transmitted. One person passes them to others by a number of mechanisms, basically: the emitter duplicates the information from his own mind to an intermediate media (writing a book, making a photography, performing a song on stage, telling a story, discussing…). The media is then used by targets to reproduce the information in their own mind. Each information element is reproduced from mind to mind. The information element is called a meme (this is a strange word for French people, because it is very near the word “même” which means identical). Learning, earing, seeing are ways for our brain to start the imitation process. So memes are copied inside one brain and from brain to brain by imitation.

Guess what: copying involves variations. There are a number of mechanisms to explain variations in copying memes: bad earing, misunderstanding, bad singers, creation desires and innovation, bad memory, interactions between memes (mixing, replacing, cutting…) and so on. All these mechanisms take place in our brains where the memes live.

Our brain has a limitation on the number of memes it can hold. Despite the fact that we can think about a lot of things (using the “discursive” thinking for example), we cannot embrace all ideas and information elements that our brain may be in contact with. So memes can be seen as fighting to survive in brains. Some memes are more compliant than others with the context made of all memes leaving in a brain at one time and so they will have more chances to survive (be reproduced). Brain is the natural selection context where memes are selected according to survival capabilities.

So we have:

  1. Memes replicate themselves by imitation.
  2. They reproduce with variations.
  3. They live in our brains where natural selection selects those that will survive and those that will disappear.

Hence memes are replicators.

It has been shown that it is very probable for memes to have an impact on genes. But it is another story.


Genes are arranged in complex groups with strong links between them and heavy interactions. This is shown by links between elements of the phenotype. By grouping, genes can create complexes with an increased robustness that benefit to all the intervening genes. In the same way we see groups of memes that are more robust together than the separate ones. A theory, for example, which is a very complex group of memes, has a lot more chances to survive than its components. Even if the theory is false (proved false by another complex group of memes). Or a faith supported by a long history of believers and reference books. Complex groups of memes are called memeplexes.

As we have seen, memes and memeplexes reproduce by imitation. So a robust memeplexe should be easier to imitate than non robust ones. An easier to imitate meme will have more chances to survive in one brain and to pass from brain to brain (It’s out of scope to define what “easy to imitate” could be).

Back to the beginning

Just compare two things:

  • A pure idea expressed verbally or written in a book.
  • A technology that implements such an idea.

Which one is easier to reproduce? The pure idea has to be read, understood, explained, rewritten in other words or contexts. On the other hand a technology is there, with the idea hidden in it, and with apparent results and benefits, directly, without understandings, explanations and rewordings: it is easier to reproduce. Hence the technology is a more robust memeplexe that will have less difficulties to survive and pass from mind to mind by copying.


On The Origin Of Species – C. Darwin
The Extended Phenotype and The Selfish Gene – R. Dawkins
Wonderful Life – S. J. Gould
The Meme Machine – S. Blackmore

Internet articles

Viruses of the Mind – R. Dawkins
About memes – S. Blackmore
Meme replication and the memetic life-cycle – F. Heylighen

One Response to “Memes And The Catalog Syndrome”

  1. 1

    Excellent and very clear introduction that deserves to survive in our brain and to spread across the community!
    We can add to the conclusion by linking this approach with a “marxist” analysis. Indeed, one of the factors that explain the stregnth of technology (against ideas!) lies in the capital that the vendors can summon.
    The memetic theory gains strength and likeliness when inserted in a broader scope, linked together with psychological, sociological and economical disciplines. It provides us with a simple collection of rules (as you stated it): that’s a pretty good starting point for simulation and verification. Therefore, at last, we have a scientifical (I mean: formal) way for studying the social reality.

    Regarding Praxeme, I would not dare to voice the claim that Praxeme is a memeplex, but, at least, we can consider it as a sign – signal, clue – of a specific memeplexe… This memeplexe is much more of a paradigme which Praxeme is based upon.

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