constantly changing stream of data, this informational flux in which we live, that sets us aside from all other animals. In addition to tried and trusted genes being bequeathed from one generation to the next as partially shuffled hand-me-downs, memes can be spread swiftly from any person to any other in either direction, whether from old to young, young to old, or peer to peer, without ever being absorbed into the biochemical make-up of the species. A large proportion of our behaviour in the modern world, from how to put on clothes in the morning to the operation of a supercomputer at work, is learnt via this form of instruction. We receive information from another human being who has often also learnt it from elsewhere, we absorb it and process it and, if circumstances turn out appropriately, we later refer to it to guide our behaviour. And as we receive one bit, we just as frequently transmit another, which we too have either learnt from someone else or originated ourselves. For the modern human, culture is a fast-paced trading system with a continual round of exchange, and information is its currency.
While there are significant upsides to revising one’s behaviour according to rapidly updatable programmes that can be selected or deleted at will, this ubiquity of data in human life comes with its pitfalls. The individual is primed to take instructions on board, genetically disposed to learn from experience and to track down and process new memes wherever they can be found. Failure to do so could mean missing out on cultural developments and falling behind society’s expectations, and this, in turn, could lead to serious consequences for the individual’s chances of selection as a mate or a peer. The sticking point is that learning is only as good as the information that is learnt, and this willingness to absorb data renders the individual vulnerable to that which is misleading, just as opening the gates to allow in the welcome leaves them open to undesirables too. In the world of cultural information exchange, these unappealing units are often innocently and inadvertently engendered by the occurrence of error, but a system of this kind also remains dangerously open to abuse by competitors. Human beings are not only the most learning of species, but the most deceiving as well.
Just as my erroneous directions may send you over the edge of a cliff, so may I intentionally mislead you towards the same messy end. Compounding this, since I have used the information exchange to instruct you rather than taking you there myself, I can be elsewhere as you plummet to your death, bewailing your sad demise to your family and friends, and painting in sombre colours the many ways I tried to save you