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Sounding Off: Memes

Kendall Wrightson
Published April 2002

A former SOS Apple Notes columnist applies memetics to the perennial Mac/Windows struggle.

Applying the theory of memetics to the Apple vs Microsoft saga, we discover that, in the battle for memetic supremacy, Microsoft has all the best memes. First coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), a 'meme' is a replicator, an idea or concept that competes to find space in our minds and, if successful, begins to shape our culture. Like genes, memes strive to ensure their own survival by replication, propagating through society infecting mind after mind. And their latest trick is to invent the Internet, allowing memes to spread themselves even further, and much faster.

SOUNDING OFF April 2002: Kendall WrightsonIn her book The Meme Machine (1999), psychologist Susan Blackmore describes many of the other tricks memes use to get themselves copied. One such trick is for memes to band together for mutual advantage into 'memeplexes', and Blackmore suggests the world's religions are good examples of memeplexes. She also notes that, in order to be successful, memes do not need to be true, and that false memes can sneak into memeplexes under the protection of true ones. As an example, the Windows memeplex contains the meme 'There's hardly any software available for the Mac,' which is false, but supports Microsoft's best meme, 'It's the industry standard,' which is verifiably true. This latter meme has remained true for many years, and its longevity is an important factor in the success of spreading itself, and therefore the other memes, in the Windows memeplex.

Apple's best meme right now is probably something like 'Apple offers innovative design.' But its best ever meme, 'Macs are better than PCs,' has effectively died, even though it might be true for some applications. And here in the music industry, the best Windows meme, 'It's the industry standard,' was untrue. In fact, it was an Apple meme until quite recently, and some may argue it still is. What the Apple memeplex needs now is some new, true memes of the 'Bloody hell, have you heard what Apple has just announced?!' variety, which would lead to the re-emergence of the 'Macs are better than PCs' meme.

With this in mind, let's examine the evidence: firstly, speed. By the time this article reaches the newsstands, Apple may have produced faster Macs; but Apple's current PowerPC processors cannot match the 2GHz+ speeds of Intel PCs running Windows XP. Now, I'm not taken in by what Apple call the "Megahertz myth"; we know about the lower pipeline count on the PowerPC, and we know Intel processors spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for their pipelines to flush. But consider which of these two memes is likely to succeed:

  • (a) 'Windows PCs run at over 2GHz.'
  • (b) 'Macs run at 1GHz, but are effectively twice as fast for some applications because of the PowerPC's more efficient design and its built in Velocity Engine.'

No contest: (a) wins every time.

Secondly, a brilliant and true meme I've used many times in recent years goes like this: 'With a Mac, the audio I/O is built in; you just download Pro Tools Free and off you go!' However, since the PowerMac G4 model known ironically by the code name of "Digital Audio", this is no longer the case. You need to buy an internal or external peripheral to get audio into a G4 (unless the audio already exists on a storage device). And the same is true for iBooks and the new iMac.

Thirdly, there's OS X. If you want to spread the meme of your product name, using the Roman numeral 'X' to mean 'ten' is a bad move. How many people do you know who are infected with the meme of calling Apple's latest operating system 'OS ex'? And OS X is very much a work in progress; at the time of writing, version 10.1.2 is the latest and has some significant problems. For example, it's considerably slower than OS 9, there are many interface issues still to be resolved, and the main MIDI + Audio sequencer applications (Cubase, Logic, Performer and Pro Tools) have yet to find stable homes on OS X (although Emagic have announced availability).

There are many more negative memes I could infect you with, but the issues I've mentioned here are perhaps the most significant for the music industry (and besides, I'm getting close to my word limit).

So do I have any positive Apple rumour memes to spread? Well yes — one. But let's get my 'How Apple can dominate the music industry' meme out of the way first. Build a G4 Mac with audio inputs and MIDI I/O, create 'iStudio' (a MIDI + Audio sequencer with the functionality of Pro Tools Free, using the new OS X MIDI and audio APIs), making it free like all the other 'i' apps, and sell the whole thing for less than £1k including VAT.

In conclusion, the positive Apple rumour meme I want to spread is culled from a small news item from MacUser late last year: 'Motorola has created new PowerPC microprocessors running at speeds of hundreds of Gigahertz.' Survival advantage guaranteed with that one.

About The Author

Kendall Wrightson is a freelance writer and lecturer at London Guildhall University. He was also Sound On Sound's monthly Apple Notes columnist several years ago.