Urban Memes

Decoding cities DNA

What is a meme?

The word “Meme” has become very fashionable recently with the appearance of Internet.

Video of cats playing piano?

Many unknown cats have actually became worldwide stars after playing some piano or jumping into some boxes because Internet has widely spread their images around the world. If you know what I am talking about here, i could then say that 1) you have spent to much time in front of your computer and 2) we share some common memories of a cultural artifact (here a stupid video).

Meme as a unit of cultural memory

Of course, our views about this or that video could differ to a large extent, but we still share a similar parcel of culture. That is what we called a meme. For thousands of years, mankind has created legends and great stories, spreading it around and building what we nowadays call culture. The Canadian writer Fernand Dumont once wrote : "Culture is the house where we live together". This house is made of bricks and those bricks are called memes, made of particles of human history. Meme are the units of our cultural memory.

Meme as cultural encoding

The term meme has been coined by a guy named Hawkins in a book named The Selfish Gene. What he states is that memes act as DNA for our culture, they are the hidden code that creates what we are, the inherited background of each human group and society. During the last 20 years, a field of study called memetics has emerged to interrogate this idea of a potential cultural DNA through meme studies. The recent apparition of Internet has lead to a huge gain of interest in this field, from media studies to sociology.

There is no cultural evolution

For our research here, I have to state that I absolutely disagree with the Darwinist and evolutionist theory of culture that stabds behind most of memes studies lead so far. Same assumptions have been made 100 years ago about society and the great work of sociologists since has turn it obsolete. As anyone can be a specialist of culture, there is no “culturalogy" so it should be part of the mission for this project to show the absurdity of a so-called "cultural Darwinism".

DNA code organs, memes code society

In the present state of DNA Genome decoding, we know for sure that DNA plays an important part in the transmission of specific structure for our body and mind sets. We also know that less than 1% of the DNA is considered as “coding” which puts away a huge 99% of “non-coding” or ”junk” DNA that is not considered in DNA studies (2). This incredible DNA black box has its equivalent in the field of meme studies : people often study culture as an abstraction. When DNA code organs, memes should also be coding our reality that is : our direct environment.

The 3 types of memories

For any living beings, we can easily identify 2 kind of memories: 1) the genetic one stored in DNA, 2) the sensitive one stored within our body (brain, nerves…). The paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan (3) after looking at millennial civilizations all his life proposes that a third kind of memory exists : technology. Indeed, from the roughest silex to the latest smartphone we can envision the long path of human history. This technological memory though is foreclosed. We know that each tech progress is accompanied by a skill loss, that has now moved into the technology itself. But this technological memory can be inherited without direct transmission.

Towards a general organology

To study at a larger scale the relationships between those 3 kinds of memories, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler (4) offers to lead “a general organology" defined by "the study of technical organs in their dynamic relation to psychosomatic organs and social organs." Considering this structural scheme, what we would like to achieve could be a dissection of those techno-social organs in order to extract their genetic information : memes.


1 : Dawkins, R. (1989). The selfish gene (p. 352). Oxford University Press. 
2 : Bardini, T. (2011). Junkware (p. 280). U of Minnesota Press. 
3 : Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1964). Le geste et la parole .Albin Michel.
4 : Stiegler, B. (2005)  De la misère symbolique, T2 : La Catastrophe du sensible. Galillée