The word "meme" has been fashionable ever since Richard Dawkins popularized it in his bestseller, The Selfish Gene. In this TED lecture, philosopher Dan Dennett expostulates on memes and how their incessant spread could have unintended consequences. Memes can be thought of as information "viruses" that replicate by the dissemination of ideas. For e.g. all established religions use missionaries and proselytization to gain converts or "meme vectors". Not all these are beneficial to us - consider the example of fanaticism that warps our sense of altruism and forces us to commit heinous crimes in the name of protecting the faith. Another crucial aspect of memes is that they follow the same principles of natural selection that drive the evolution of species. One consequence of "the survival of the fittest" is the relentless extinction of "unfit" species. While we may deplore this aspect, it is important to remember that nature is amoral and we accomplish nothing by imposing our moral standards on it.
Dennet argues that the spread of modern (which is Western at this point) technology has expedited the invasion of modern memes to places which do not have immunity to these virulent ideas. He draws analogies to the European colonization of the Americas where European germs decimated the majority of the indigenous populations. It is thus important for us to foster an open society where we get exposed to various meme strains helping us to build the necessary resistance against any unforeseen virulent ideas. An interesting test case is how India and Mexico was affected by Western colonialism. Although the two countries adopted the colonizer's language (English and Spanish), that is where the similarity ends. In India, English is used for official communication while in Mexico, Spanish has become the language of the common man. While Indians still look back to their ancient civilization and take pride in their traditions, the average Mexican has become a Roman Catholic who aspires to work and live in Spain. Thus the Spanish colonization was more insidious as it not only took over the natural resources of the colonies but also colonized the people's minds. Nationalist struggles may evict the invaders physically but who will cleanse our minds of their dangerous memes?.
There are several literary works that deals with memes. For e.g. Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash revolves around a Sumerian information virus. On a similar vein, I wrote about information transfer in The Calcutta Chromosome.