by John Gaines
A closed-loop meme is a concept used as a form of cultural shorthand between a select group to express a concept or emotion as a form of shorthand. Although all memes function as a form of “cultural compression” in terms of abbrievating a concept to those “in the know”, closed-loop memes are unique in that the symbolic language they use is almost impenetrable to outsiders.
One of the most famous uses of closed-loop meme in science fiction occurs in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, in which Picard must communicate with an alien being who communicates only in narratives from his species’ mythic cycle. Picard ultimately solves the problem of communication by understanding the common features of the alien’s narrative descriptions and the Epic of Gilgamesh. The episode details the difficulties of cross cultural communication and the necessity to finding a common thread between cultures to connect them; without an understanding of the Gilgamesh legend, Picard could not have solved the puzzle of understanding the alien’s speech, which was entirely a form of closed-loop meme referencing its own legends.
The concept of a closed-loop meme is often used as an intentional safeguard of knowledge between members of a subgroup to prevent infiltration from outsiders. In Life Sentence, the first book of the Domremy cycle, the religious group of Dissenters use a symbolic language called Crop Talk to communicate with each other to prevent their messages to each other from being decoded by the authorities. The main character, Klein, is introduced to the language of Crop Talk through a friend, and his communications in Crop Talk with the Dissenters form a major part of the novel’s plot.