Is a memetic epistemology possible?

hello, here is a draft intro for one of the chapters of my current thesis on the social epistemology of memes. i would love to get your feedback on it. for a more reader-friendly version which can be commented upon, please see the google doc.

@sergio.mon this might interest you!

–jay was here!

«Ought implies can». Just as in ethics, our responsibilities as cognisers are circumscribed by our cognitive capacities. Technology, being a salient way of extending our cognitive capacities (Russell 1959, 91; Clark & Chalmers 1998; Goldman 1999, 161-5), thus becomes of prime interest to epistemology. A memetic epistemology is not only possible, but necessary. The Internet presents numerous epistemically novel situations (Goldman 1999)– among them the unique epistemic challenges posed by memes. From the effects of search engine personalisation (Goldman 2008; Simpson 2012; Miller & Record 2016) & algorithmic content curation on social media newsfeeds Nguyen 2018) to the rise of automated Wikipedia editors de Laat 2015, the modern Internet user faces various epistemic challenges that lack any «IRL» parallel (Miller & Record 2016, 3; Lynch 2017; Smart 2018). Perhaps many of these issues can ultimately be explained in terms of more worldly epistemic problems. Even so, the question would remain: are our current epistemic strategies well-equipped for the online world?

In this chapter, I argue that the specific challenges provided by memes not only demand new solutions but also necessitate revisions to our «offline» epistemology. I will develop & defend a notion of memetic testimony in order to characterise the unique ways in which we gain knowledge through memes. In the preceding chapter, I argued that memetic ontology cannot be understood without reference to memographic practice. Many of the ontological idiosyncrasies of memes arise from the unique features of meme communities. In the same way, a proper understanding of memetic testimony will invariably require recourse to the notion of an epistemic community. This, however, is nothing new. The notion of an epistemic community (Zollman 2011, 338; Zollman 2013; Vähämaa 2013) or a «knowledge economy» (Greco 2016) has been previously discussed in contexts not relating to the Internet (see also Assiter 2000, Anderson 2012). In any case, the very idea of social epistemology entails attention to the epistemic behaviours of groups of people (see, e.g., Fricker 2013).

Herein, I will draw on certain socio-epistemic principles in order to develop the notion of memetic testimony:

  1. Social contextualism: First of all, while testimony is an interaction that happens between two parties, it is an interaction that happens in a social context. The analysis of testimony, including that of testimonial justification, must make reference to this social context insofar as the factors relevant to justification involve aspects of the social context. Likewise, in my analysis of memetic testimony, I shall appeal to the memetic communities that form the background of the examples of testimonial interactions (Academebook [elaborate]; cf. Habgood-Coote, forthcoming). It might be objected that the examples that I choose are not representative of most people’s interactions with memes, & are cherry-picked so as to support the agenda of a memetic epistemology. This leads me to my second point.
  2. Architectural sensibility: The Internet in particular highlights our awesome power to engineer & redefine epistemic environments. Epistemic environments can be designed & deployed much faster than in real life. Analogous projects occurring in «meatspace» are often limited by locality, reliance on institutional support, & other practical obstacles (Lynch 2017, 9). A digital epistemology therefore inevitably attends to the very architecture of the platforms on which epistemic interactions are occurring (see, e.g., Hinman 2008; Fallis 2011; Conein 2013; Riedlinger & Rea 2015). Are they well-designed? Is the user experience structured in such a way as to support epistemic virtues such as intellectual autonomy, humility, & rigour?
    Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, for instance, has garnered much controversy for its role in exacerbating political polarisation (Bleiberg & West 2015). The issue here is fundamentally epistemic: the method of content curation falls short of virtues such as the aforementioned (Nguyen 2018; 2020). Efforts at curbing the spread of misinformation that focus on the individual (e.g., attaching warnings to potentially misleading content) have not only failed but in some cases backfired (Pennycook et al 2020; Yaqub et al 2020). For this reason, some theorists have begun to turn to more holistic strategies of combatting misinformation that shift the onus for avoiding epistemically misinformation from the individual (Wihbey, Kopec, & Sandler [forthcoming]).
    Granted these concerns, we might then ask what are the roles of memes in online epistemic environments? How might platform architecture affect the kinds of memes that are circulated on it (Her 2017)? What are the social norms surrounding memes, & can they be engineered to promote positive epistemic ends (Frost-Arnold 2014, 78; Smart 2018, 49; Habgood-Coote forthcoming)? Thus, even if memetic testimony ultimately turns out to be a rather limited phenomenon occurring under rare conditions, by studying those conditions we might glean some guiding principles for the construction of epistemically virtuous online spaces (see especially Zharova 2021a).
  3. Socio-epistemic anti-reductivism: Lastly, we should not rule out the possibility of emergent epistemic differences between levels of analysis. As a paradigm, social epistemology does not merely consist in extrapolating the principles of epistemology simpliciter beyond the level of the individual. It’s not only that certain issues of epistemic concern can only be studied from a level of analysis that focuses on groups. Certain aspects of social cognition may be entirely invisible from the ground level of the individual (e.g., the wisdom of crowds effect; Surowiecki 2004), & which defy the general principles that can be drawn at this level. The concept of Mandevillian intelligence, for instance, refers to a kind of collective cognition which is predicated upon the cognitive shortcomings of individual members of a group Smart 2017, 4171. This radical notion anti-Millian is inspired by the theory that individual cognitive faults (e.g., forgetting, distorted recall) can have prosocial effects, in turn enhancing group fitness (idem, 4173). Similarly, collective cognitive performance might benefit from certain epistemic vices on the part of individuals. Apart from accumulating experimental evidence [citations needed], there is also emerging philosophical work on the value & function of epistemic vices in an epistemic community (Driver 1989; Eckstrand 2019; Frost-Arnold 2020; Astola 2021; Bland 2022; Peters 2022).

All of this is not to relegate the value of Internet literacy (e.g., Miller & Record 2013, Heersmink 2018; Kotzee 2018) &, more broadly, individual epistemic responsibility. It’s simply to recognise that the knower is not no one, they are not nowhere, & they are not alone (Goldman 2002). The above three points underscore the indispensability of a systems-oriented social epistemology (Goldman 2005) in studying memes. Accordingly, notions of epistemic agency (Palermos & Pritchard 2016), responsibility, & the countervailing notion of practicability (Miller & Record 2013, 123-7; Miller & Record 2016, 3) must be understood at the individual level, with respect to system architecture, & at the level of their interaction (Battaly 2018; Heersmink & Knight 2018; Smart 2018a, 49; Habgood-Coote forthcoming, 4). Having outlined the social epistemological foundation for the present chapter, I shall now turn to introducing testimony.

1 Like

I think we can not only have a memetic epistemology, but it is essential. Here is what I found most interesting about your socioepistemic principles of memetic testimony:

  1. Social contextualism: I think meme researchers should be more critical of the notion that "typical" memes and memecultures are inherently more trustworthy sources of evidence. Memetically literate users sometimes use memes in highly unusual ways, but these are technical innovations worth inspecting more closely, not anomalies to evade. That being said, I know what testimony is but not what memetic testimony is.
  2. Architectural sensibility: Similar to how memetically literate users can meme in ways normies can't, most people can't take advantage of "our awesome power to engineer & redefine epistemic environments". Most people can't engineer very much online, and most of the time it isn't worth the opportunity cost for them to not opt for existing tools that roughly fulfil their needs; so most people use social media instead of setting up their own sites (Additionally, most people are competent IRL "engineers" when it comes to face-to-face interactions). I think it would be fruitful for you to look at what kinds of epistemologies people doing webdev or gamedev have within their actual practices.
  3. Socio-epistemic anti-reductivism: It's unclear to me what you mean here, mainly because I'm not sure whether you are referring to the researchers' own epistemologies or the memecultural participants'. Also, I think that while "the knower is not no one , they are not nowhere , & they are not alone", memetic content (either potential or actual) always have to reckon with the ambiguity and indeterminacy of the audience, even in cases where the audience is persistent and nonymous. From an interview with Special Meme Fresh in 2016:

In its great controversy, long boy has highlighted a major difference between Special Meme Fresh and large parts of its audience. The latter, as a growing subset of the general weird Facebook and meme communities, experiences memes in terms of running gags and cultural references - each meme is available for reuse, and is appreciated when it is applied to a new cultural context with the same method. SMF, by contrast, posts memes in a constant context with ever-developing jokes - every meme is disconnected from the one before it in all but name. For the page, nothing is as funny when said the same way twice; for the audience, everything can become funnier after the first time you say it.

Riffing off this: I remember that for a high-school project, I once re-made a meme I had once seen to better reflect what I was trying to highlight about that specific type of meme. I would say this kind of “producing testimony” is probably stretching/crossing the line. But where is the line? If that meme had been made by a friend of mine, how much less would I be stretching the line? What if it was made by someone in a private chat or group I’m part of? What about a 5M follower “private” Instagram meme account? Surely not in that case, but it seems that the line is blurry regardless.

1 Like

I think "the line" is less of an interesting issue than the concept of testimony in memes itself. Remembering and reproducing memes that you have seen before, and even "collective memories" of memes, seem like very interesting topics indeed.

If you're interested in the philosophy of memory generally, this bibliography is an invaluable resource:

1 Like