On Information, Musical Memes And Earworms

by Thomas Brett


For James Gleick, author of the recent book The Information, information has a life of its own independent of us.  In a recent interview on On Point radio he says::

“We live in a world where information passes from machine to machine.  We know that when it’s stored in material forms and when one machine talks to one another, something is happening there that doesn’t need human intervention.  And so it makes sense logically to speak of information as independent of us.”

“Then you start thinking: That snippet of music has a life of its own (…)–when you can’t get a song out of your head or when an idea takes hold of you…”

Gleick then goes on to describe these little pieces of information that can self replicate as “memes”, a term he borrows from Richard Dawkins (who coined it in his book The Selfish Gene).  Memes, says Gleick, have “a living stability and the ability to mutate.”

It’s interesting to think about information and memes in the context of those little bits of music that somehow lodge themselves in our heads every once in a while.  Recently, I had a song by Bruno Mars pop into my head one morning.  I didn’t ask for it, and I like to think I don’t even like this song and can’t remember when I last heard it, but no matter: there it was on loop mode in my head.

There’s a name for these kinds of cognitive itches: earworms.  Any music can become an earworm and I suppose that constant exposure to a song might help the earworming process along, but oftentimes earworms just appear full blown.  Also, earworms are kinds of (sonic) memes and as such are intensely contagious.  In fact, it has often happened to me that I have “caught” an earworm from simply hearing my wife sing a snippet of a song at home.  Moments later I find myself humming the same song without knowing why.  I only realize what has happened when she rightly accuses me of “stealing” her song (!) But as Gleick points out, that’s in the nature of information/memes/: it’s independent of its hosts/transmitters.  In the case of earworms, perhaps we are all just nodes in a vast network helping musics circle the world.

You can read an article on earworms here.

On a different note, Gleick also weighs in on the challenges posed by the flood of information that’s easily accessible with our digital devices. He makes an incisive point when he notes:

“It’s harder than ever to be original when you can instantly find out
what everybody else is doing.”

On the other hand, as connected information-breathing citizens, we have responsibilities too:

“We need to think of ourselves not just as passive consumers of information, but also as its creators and its guardians.”

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