Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Is cheating part of the F1 memeplex?

Predictably, the hyperbole is beginning to flow, and suggestions are being made that the allegations against the Renault F1 team constitute the "biggest cheating crisis in the history of Formula One."

Perhaps a bit of perspective is required here. In fact, an understanding of cultural evolution may be beneficial. Whilst the concept of a replicating unit of cultural information, the meme, has received an extremely mixed reception amongst social scientists, and the similarities between memes and biological genes are limited, the concept still provides a fascinating way of looking at certain cultural phenomena.

A culture is essentially a system of minds interacting with each other and an external environment. The manifestations of a culture are the behaviours, information, and physical objects generated by that system of interacting minds. Minds store information both internally, in their own memories, and externally, in the form of written documents, and more recently, in the form of computer memories. Any system capable of storing information will become a potential host to replicating units of information. Human minds have become the hosts to replicating ideas and beliefs (memes), whilst networks of computers have become the hosts to replicating sets of computer instructions (computer viruses). Memes are often found in combination, and these replicating sets of related memes are called memeplexes.

Each commercial company has an evolving culture, which is at least partially independent of the employees working in that company at any one time. The culture of the company is a type of memeplex, defined by the specified policies, regulations, structures and processes of that company. Each successive 'generation' of employees will inherit the policies, regulations, structures and processes inherited by their predecessors, but with some degree of variation, large or small. This is a form of cultural inheritance and evolution.

The memeplex of a commercial company will be modified by two factors: Firstly, each generation of employees will possess their own memes as a result of their parental and scholastic upbringing, and their experiences in other companies, and they will inject these memes into the company's overall memeplex, thereby modifying the culture of the company to a greater or lesser degree. Secondly, a commercial company exists in a competitive environment, and its own survival is dependent upon how well it adapts to, and shapes that environment. The memeplex of each individual company will therefore be modified by the behaviour of other companies and organisations, which in turn possess their own distinct memeplexes. The commercial world is a battlefield of interacting memeplexes.

It is important to note that this type of cultural evolution does not generate the unique lineages that can be found in biological, genetic evolution. For a start, whilst the genetic evolution of non-microbial life forms primarily involves vertical transmission of replicating entities, from parent to offspring, horizontal transmission of information can be just as important as vertical transmission in cultural evolution. For example, in a commercial context, horizontal transmission takes place when employees join a company from other companies, and bring different memes with them that they acquired from those other companies. Moreover, although the creation of subsidiary companies is analogous to the biological generation of progeny, companies are also frequently subject to mergers and acquisitions, a process for which there is no (non-microbial) biological analogue. The existence of mergers and acquisitions in the past history of a company is inconsistent with the existence of a unique cultural lineage. The memes contained in a company's memeplex at any one time are therefore unlikely to have a uniquely traceable origin.

As another example, each sporting team or club has a cultural identity which is often independent of the team members who play for that team at any one time. In this case, the memes consist of skills, standards, strategies, tactics, and codes of conduct. In the case of football culture in particular, there is an excellent example of the horizontal transmission of memes. In South American and Southern European footballing cultures, there has traditionally been a much weaker taboo against diving than that found in the North European footballing code of conduct. The transfer of Southern European players to English football has consequently increased the prevalence of the diving meme in the English game.

Which brings us to Formula 1 and 'cheating'. There is a persistent meme in the culture of all Formula 1 teams, that finding loopholes or ambiguities in the sporting and technical regulations, is part of the game. As such, it has traditionally not even been considered to be cheating. Cars which generate downforce from cooling fans; underbody skirts which are hydraulically-raised prior to ground-clearance measurements; water-cooled brakes whose water tanks are replenished prior to car-weight measurements; 'rocket' fuels; cars which are underweight in qualifying; wings which deform under load to reduce drag down the straight; hidden launch control and traction control software at times when such electronic driver aids are banned; mass-dampers; teams that utilise design information stolen from other teams; double-diffusers; drivers who crash into other drivers to win championships; drivers who fake injuries to get races red-flagged; drivers who drag damaged cars onto the track to get races red-flagged; drivers who deliberately crash to bring out the safety car, etc etc. It's all part of the game, and has been virtually since the inception of the sport.

There are, however, other memeplexes which may threaten the survival of Formula 1 teams who continue to harbour this particular meme. These other memeplexes include beliefs such as the necessity and value of applying ever-increasing levels of surveillance in sport; the necessity and value of the absolutely rigorous enforcement of sporting regulations; and the necessity and value of ever-higher levels of safety in society as a whole. Even wielded impartially, such a memeplex is quite capable of threatening the survival of Formula 1 teams that continue to believe in the value of exploiting loopholes in the regulations. Wielded by agents that harbour vendettas, or seek to control the financial and political shape of the sport by eliminating other protagonists, it is a powerful memeplex indeed.

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