Sunday, December 13, 2020

What is a Meme? Trump is a Meme

First a couple of memories. One was my encounter with Bevis and Butthead. I was introduced to it by right-winger friends of mine, probably tending toward Libertarian, whose behavior and humor was kind of Buttheaded. I was taken aback, thinking maybe that I'd been all wrong about right-wingers. That they really do have a sense of humor. Maybe even edgy senses of humor.

Another friend, more of a Leftie, introduced me to the Simpsons. I thought it rather odd that the Simpsons showed up on Fox TV. Seemed against their brand. 

This all reveals my prejudices, and sure maybe Trump was elected as a kind of joke, the way that someone got a dog into Yale back in my day.

The most cogent theory I've seen about why so many people voted for Trump regards the evident fact that so many people were and remain sick and tired of being called out for behaviors which feel normal to them. They call it political correctness, but for sure it has become political now. Hillary sure blew it with her deplorables comment.

I used to drive out to the tip of Cape Cod quite frequently, out to its historically leftie tip. My extended family has a place there. We never stopped at the tourist tchotchke places, but then more recently when travelling with my daughters, we did. That was still decades ago.

I discovered that there was a mounting issue; that Chinese knockoffs of rather standardized craft works were undercutting the local artisans. 

Well, those local artisans had made their work into memes, and perhaps had even copyrighted them, but Chinese remain and always have been rather disrespectful of intellectual property. As far as I can tell from being in China recently, their reforms have mostly taken the form of happy announcement that what they are selling and what you are buying are fakes. 

Maybe there are penalties for being dishonest about it, or at least when selling to a Westerner. But there don't seem to be penalties for producing fakes. Indeed that's really what powers the Chinese economy. Their so-called meme-manufacturing depends on it. That was highlighted most prominently when hoverboards became a thing. Maybe there was a brand name on them by the time they got to the U.S., but they were hardly ever manufactured in one specific shop, or by one specific (accountable) entity.

Production could be ramped up almost instantly against demand because it was a bottom-up process. Newer small cities in China tend to form around some kind of manufacturing theme. That can mean that lots of manufacturers produce the component parts which designers might use to put together something that is hot within the theme. Or more likely, there is not specific designer and the thing gets iterated, bottom up, by a series of 'innovators.'

All that matters is that someone on the purchasing end really wants this new meme. (I nearly killed myself on my nephews hoverboard, being evidently too heavy or clumsy. It was as fun as flying a drone for me to watch him gracefully zip around though. Well, I've never flown a drone, but you get the idea.)

Anyhow, suddenly you couldn't take these hoverboards on airplanes because their batteries might explode. No quality control. Except later on, the decidedly mainstream Samsung had the same problem. They are not a meme manufacturer, though who knows? They may tend that way more than Apple does, but then you can buy seemingly bit-identical iPhones most anywhere in China for a lot less than the "real" ones. Do they fall off the back of the quality control truck? Are they meme-manufactured based on reverse engineered schematics? Some combination of both?

Then the airplane manufacturer's own batteries exploded once the new 777 (767? I don't remember) jetliner was certified. The fix looked really ad-hoc klutzy to me. Like something I might do.

The first real recognizable meme product was the pet rock. Now interestingly, these things were not all identical, though their packaging was. They were natural artifacts, of the sort that anyone could pick up anywhere. They had no intrinsic value, which was the point. 

As my good buddy who let me help him swap the reels in the drive-in movie place where he was the projectionist would comment back in my relative youth, when you buy cereal the packaging is worth more than the contents. It sure is true that if you try to buy packaging alone, it does always cost more than similar packaging with stuff in it. Anyhow, the cost of cereal has skyrocketed to right the craziness (???).

Lots of pet rocks were sold, probably on the same model that Hallmark sells a couple of vapid pages for prices similar to the cost of a book. Nobody expected the Pet Rock (c) to last and it didn't.

Meme's are a lot more complicated than genes. Or maybe they're just more evident in the macro world. Like the difference between macro and micro economics. Ha! As though economics can be related to hard science!

Anyhow, Trump is certainly a meme. He was packaged by so-called 'reality TV' as a good decider, so that became many peoples' meme. Meanwhile, we on the left have suffered four years of really painful trauma as the media can't help itself from pushing the Great Meme in Charge in a different direction. Not everyone was fond of pet rocks. Not everyone would have found it charming or even amusing to get one for Christmas. It might have felt like that storied lump of coal, which at least contained some heat value. 

Meme's goal, like the goals of genes, is to replicate. Well, you know they don't have goals. I guess you might call it their nature. Whether China is better at promoting meme innovation or the West is is the contest of the ages just now. Magically balanced for the moment, just the way the pro and anti Trumpsters remain, and maybe even as the genders are.  

With the genders, it's about sex and genes and the magic of evolution. More or less. What if it's the same with memes? The sex ratio isn't magic. It's how evolution works. But I've always thought that the two party system was rigged by 'the system.' What if the system is also nature?

More importantly, how do we get off this dangerous razor's edge (they used to call me Larry Darrow in college. It was a meme at the time - looking for oneself; something that in fact I've never indulged in, though I was surely different from my much more goal directed peers). 

I think we've all just about figured out that rational argumentation changes nothing. Except for maybe our blood pressure, in the wrong direction.

I received a tiny bit of note once as a young Chinese teacher, with a short article I wrote to be published for a conference I attended. I remember the conference mostly for sitting next to the son of the guy who "invented" (according to him) Alcoholics Anonymous on the bus ride back. I remember a train ride for a similar reason, when I sat next to a madam Quakenbush, family of the eponymous nutcracker; a business also mostly destroyed by Chinese knock-offs, as far as I can tell.

Anyhow, my article was about how learning Chinese and about Chinese civilization and culture was like gaining binocular vision; your understanding of the world would be one-dimensional without it. I still hold by that.

But the eyes have to get it together, unlike the wandering eyes of lizards. The bicameral mind of man, but I'll have to avoid that digression for now.

I had a bad winter in about 2009-2010 (I think it was). During a stroll in very subzero weather here in Buffalo with my sister, I felt as though a plug had been pulled and crumpled to the ground. I thought it must have had something to do with the bracingly frigid air hitting my lungs. I sat on someone's stoop until I felt a rush of wellbeing, and got up to continue the walk. But I had to crawl up the steps to my apartment and crumpled again on the floor. 

It was Christmas eve. The second time I'd nearly died on Christmas eve and spent it in the hospital. Frankly, I felt relieved. Off the hook. I'll bet a lot of people would. But I also have mild PTSD (sorry, very politically incorrect to make such an analogy, but it seems to fit here) on Christmas eve. I can't help it.

My nurse-practitioner sister - thank goodness she was there - asked if I needed an ambulance. Sure did. It turned out to be a pulmonary embolism, and I well remember the shrinking tunnel vision on the endless ride to the hospital. That reminded me of the time I drowned and felt my entire life present to my mind in an instant. Thankfully didn't get that far this time, although maybe it's something that can happen only once.

A few weeks later, something apparently unrelated happened. Not unrelated to me, but to my doctors (to me, Christmas eve is significant - to them it's random). Doing laundry, I lost my vision. That had happened once or twice as a child (when I sat embarrassed at the dinner table waiting for it to come back, keeping my eyes down) and again as a young adult (when a doctor friend of my wife was excited to witness a migraine in process) so I wasn't terribly alarmed.

But I couldn't see the numbers on my cellphone to call 911. My vision came back enough to take a walk to the ER I realized that my entire field of vision on my right was gone. Not in my right eye, but as in I had to turn around nearly backward to see if traffic was coming from my right to cross the street, and even still I crossed slowly waving my arms.

I still had depth perception. I still had binocular vision. Once again, the doctor was excited to see a classic revelation of what a TIA could do. He knew the locus of the clot with near absolute precision. Textbook.

I'm rather glad I've never achieved more than a modicum of note for my thoughts. I sure wouldn't want to be a one-word meme, the way that Trump and Elon and Zuck and Jobs and Bezos and even Bill surely are now. I wonder what it feels like to be a meme. I mostly doubt that these are even humans in any sense that I could understand. The replicator has overtaken the self, which seems to be what we all crave most of the time. 

Well, they aren't the meme, these single-named behemoths. The meme is something like what a super-successful startup entrepreneur has to look and act like. What a drag, man! That's what I'm glad I'm not. It would feel like a straightjacket on my soul. Look at the contortions Elon has to go through to seem human. As though he weren't a money machine.

As far as being President, I think it should be clear to anyone that Reagan set the bar. A vacant actor, but he made us all feel good. Obama, too, contributed to the meme that became Trump. Now the big O just seems a little too full of himself. Like, 'nobody can say I'm a nobody' and so I'll be and look relaxed in my skin. JFK for sure. Even Nixon, though his actual humanity dragged him down.

There's a balance left and right, see, male and female. Both sides working the memes, er I mean the memes working both sides. And you thought it was some natural balance between progressive and conservative? Silly you. Just like me, you want to blame Trump on the failure of public education. The failure of parenthood. The failure of the family. The failure of community. The failure of religion. 

When it's actually not a failure of anything. It's just the success of memes acting as memes do, as is their nature, which means riding on top of emotionally driven minds for the sake of, well, nature. We're evolving!

Now Daniel Dennett seems pleased with and by the promise of  'top-down design,' which means human design, which means artificial design. That's the bone I have to pick with him, since I find the divide between natural and artificial to be as dangerous (and as artificial!) as the divide between mind and body.

In ancient China - and to a certain extent in modern China still - there was a balance between the cultivated worldliness of Confucianism, and Daoism, the self-so retreat from the contrived world of cultivated pageantry and poetry into the world as it would be if we humans were to flow with it instead of swimming against it. Somehow it was all more civilized than our conservative/progressive divide. Well, the one percent is always rather civilized now isn't it?

Trump is hardly civilized. 

Anyhow it's the finance industry driven by digital tech that's created the soup we live in now. Civilization be damned.

So at what point do the culture-building memes that Dennett (and I!) celebrate turn sour? When do they move off in a destructive direction?

I want to offer a couple of clues. First one is, of course, the advent of artificial intelligence. My beef with Dennett is really about computing as a useful metaphor for mind. Meme production has stepped out from engagement with the continuum of life. It's running on automatic, just the way that chemical processes do in the vacant and dead parts of our cosmos. 

Consider how recently it was that we were all excited and engaged in the quest to get to outer space. Sure it was all corrupt to its core, built on cold-war narratives, and a misled populace. But it was a collective effort, like warfare once was, that promised something better than the destructive orgies of warfare. You know, those destructive orgies from which we've gotten all our new and high technology!

But now, and I mean this very morning, conquering space is a private affair. We don't have to be consulted. Indeed, following Reagan and his successors and assigns, we think private enterprise is doing it better. But we're not all watching. We're hardly paying attention. It's Elon's thing. Bezos' thing. We trust that they will make their profits off our government and that those will cost us less than NASA once did.

Who's the "us?" We haven't been consulted. We aren't going to be consulted. We're consumers. Thanks Ralph, you destroyer of worlds (Corvair was my first love) and of elections. I loved you well.

Now Facebook is being called out for its monopolistic practices. It's about time. And yet everyone I know, left, right and center still wants to fuel the meme generation there. As though distantly connected acquaintances want to share your joy and grief as you build your brand. Is performative emotion even emotion at all? I ask in the same spirit that I ask if Trump is (even) human. I mean of course it is and of course he is, but where does it all lead?

I can be mildly excited about self-driving cars when I imagine being able to call one more easily than I can retrieve my own car for less money than it costs to own that car. But where does it all lead to? What will that economy even look like? More stratified than this one, for certain. The price for using a car will be like the price for cereal.

Can the planet ever afford all of us continuing to get around in personal pods? I guess it can, if you're optimistic about the triumph of sustainable energy. About tech in general. My iPhone claims Artificial Intelligence to manage my battery. Well, if it were intelligence, I could tell it what I want it to do, but Siri can't. I would prefer a good old fashioned algorithm that I could understand in the first place. I'm not about to adjust my life to fit their notion of intelligence.

I guess I wonder if we'll all forget how to read and write, in just the way that I've lost my ability to write Chinese. Because writing in Chinese requires motor memory, which means it requires that you actually do it continually. Blasting (scrolling mostly) through the meme laden emotional roller coaster (scroller coaster?) news feeds and twitter feeds and social media feeds, addictive as it all is, isn't the same as reading a book. No matter how facile we are with the language. Heck, I can do that in Chinese with one hand tied behind my back, and I still have trouble opening up and reading all those classics now replaced on my shelves. Now that I'm living in place rather than on the road.

See what I mean?

Probably not. I'm just a killjoy crank, for sure. This science fiction dude I read sometimes, because he's such a good story teller, Douglas Richards, speculates that perhaps the better species didn't prevail when homo-sapiens won out over the neanderthalers. Our genes are blended, as newly discovered. The winning and losing takes place at a far lower level than whatever an election can demonstrate.

And so, you know, I remain hopeful. A new set of parties will arise. The corruption at the core of our democracy is being brought, gradually, to light. By definition, nature always prevails in the end. That's what nature means. I do retain extravagant hope that culture - the good stuff about the human species - can thrive as a part of nature, and not apart from it.

Now back to reading Kim Stanley Robinson, a good guy champion of technology if ever there was one. Though I inhabit an entirely different world than he does. He'll learn.

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