The Internet is a bloody peculiar thing, when you step back and look at it.
As usual, my brain was otherwise engaged when this notion struck me. I was chasing my two year-old son around my grandfather’s wake, and while I tried to carry him back to our table and he did his best impression of a bag of angry cats, I recalled something I had seen in my e-mail Drafts folder.
My generation has an unusual relationship with technology, because we exist in a time where technology evolves much faster than we do. In the time it has taken me to go from a child to what biology assures me is an adult form, I’ve seen home gaming systems go from 8-Bit to 16-Bit to 32-Bit to a point where no-one even talks about ‘Bits’ anymore and the new X-Box is being discussed in terms like “6 teraflops”. This is as delightfully as science-fiction sounding as firing tachyons through the deflector array. My current X-Box One (a paltry 1.3 teraflops for those with penis envy), a device mainly used by our Tiny Dictator to watch CBeebies, is many times more powerful than the computers that put men on the moon.
Mobile phones have had as many body issues as the fashion pressures inflicted on women. They were chunky and Rubenesque house-bricks when I was leaving high school. When my mid-20s rolled around, phones were going through their heroin chic Size Zero phase, tiny and anorexic things. They seem nowadays to be like Instagram fitness models, all shiny in slick, aggressive looking curves that take a great photograph.
From the point where I got my first e-mail address at Dundee University in 1998 to now, I’ve seen e-mail go from being a game-changing communication tool to something so annoying that I’ve switched off the notifications on my phone. So from an age where my main interests were the bra and what it contained, to the age I am now where my main interests are how many glasses of wine I can have midweek without gaining half a stone, I have seen technologies rise and fall from being revolutionary to ridiculous. And that process is only speeding up.
With the above as context, the early-to-mid 2000s were really the apex of when e-mail was relevant to me. I am, by nature, a person built for correspondence. I had pen pals right up through my teens, and e-mail replaced paper and ink when I got regular access to computers. Wow, imagine writing actual letters again, that would be so hipster and ironic!
One of my many correspondents during this time was my good friend, Shampoo. We were the friends who – more than any other friendships I had from that period – were the masters of setting the world to rights from the comfort of a sofa. Our folk guitar duo name would have been Deep & Meaningful (“He’s Deep, I’m Meaningful, and these are all our feelings. Just let them enter you.”) It was the best kind of male bonding, disguised under the socially acceptable veneer of drinking ourselves unconscious. However, we often aspired to loftier concepts, and sometimes these got followed up in sober e-mails. It was one such e-mail I found (unsent or saved by accident, I can only speculate as to which) in my Drafts folder, and it has served as an unlikely time capsule of sorts.
The original e-mail dates from 11th May 2004, and it concerns the subject of memes. I had only recently heard of memes and during a Jack Daniel’s binge at Shampoo’s place I had tried to convey the concept to him. The definition of memes at the time – I included it in the text – was “an idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” and I was massively excited about this concept as being “ideas as a virus”.
It’s still an idea I’m excited about today. It’s very, very easy to forget that writing is, first and foremost, a technology. We use it so often that it becomes commonplace, but how miraculous is it that you can look at these symbols and you ‘hear’ words in your head? If you know me personally, it may even be in my voice. Or your own voice. Or Morgan Freeman’s voice, which I’m sure we can all agree would be the most desirable outcome. That man has a voice like a bath of warm chocolate milk.
More eloquent souls than me have shared this sense of wonder with written communication. In his piece The Persistence of Memory, Carl Sagan once wrote: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
So when I discovered memes, I felt like I was rediscovering this technology all over again. The sheer unkillable power of an idea, it felt like something you could weaponise. For a confirmed bibliophile like myself this made writing and communication at once arcane and eldritch but also sophisticated and relevant. Obviously some of this passion had been conveyed to my buddy Shampoo, as he’d asked me to expand on the subject and I’d e-mailed my long, detailed analysis of the topic to him.
With the benefit of hindsight, this e-mail is now hilariously naïve and dated. This was written in an era where people built websites using GeoCities and MySpace was social media. This was before we worshipped at the altars of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
And lo, how the mighty memes have fallen.
In 2017 a meme is whatever inane thing captures the collective attention of The Internet Community for a little while. The Star Wars kid was a meme. I Can Has Cheezburger? is a meme, as is apparently anything cat based, the grumpier the better. Rickrolling was a meme. If you search for memes, you’ll be directed to multiple clickbait articles or, better yet, Know Your Meme.
Memes as I imagined them never stood a chance.
In 2004 I envisioned this thing you could use to plant seeds of thought. I saw The Internet as a vast social experiment where the right wording would take root in the collective unconscious and sprout with the speed and tenacity of weeds. I pictured social change as The Internet and its memes wore down outmoded social mores by some kind of mimetic osmosis.
What memes have realised is the truth of the high school playground. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, it’s not enough to be clever and it never was enough. What matters is how popular you are. If you are interested in the bra and what it contains, clever must take a back seat to popular. It’s not right and you can be upset about it, Memes, but while you’re being upset the popular kid has his hand up the shirt of the girl you like.
This, I think, is why the internet as a whole is so bloody peculiar. In many respects it represents the greatest communal achievement of the human race. It no longer really gets called ‘The Information Superhighway’ like it did in the 1990s, but that’s really what it is. You can find almost anything on here. You can terrify yourself with a self-diagnosis on a medical website. You can buy everything from Gordal olive seeds to a slightly-used bouncy castle to someone’s virginity. You can gaze for uncomfortably long times at people you find attractive without fear of reprisal. You can reach out to a long-lost friend, reconnect, then let the rediscovered friendship wither on the vine when you realise there’s nothing left there but emotional inertia: a discreet ‘Unfollow’ after a respectable period and you’ll never hear from them again.
And the pornography. So, so much pornography.
We, the ever-so-clever human race, have created all of this for our own convenience and amusement. This amazing repository, this sum total of all human experience available at a click. All of everything we are, connecting continents and sharing music, cooking tips, fitness advice, make-up tips, fashions, news, debate, bullying; arranging activities in real life, raising social awareness, activism, celebrity gossip; preserving our literature, educating our children, curating our successes and our losses and, of course, sharing new ways of putting penises into things.
It’s such a temporary thing. It can’t really be said to truly ‘exist’ anywhere. Although greater than the sum of its parts, all the hard drives and clouds and bits and bytes, it’s a fragile structure. Picture this: a super virus wipes out all of humanity. A thousand years from now, an alien civilisation lands. There is more chance of them learning about the extinct human race from antiquity, the contents of vaults like those in the Vatican and our museums, than there is of them learning from our Internet with the electricity gone and the circuit boards degraded. There is more chance of Egyptian hieroglyphs surviving in the pyramids to remind the future of who we were.
It doesn’t make me sad. We have created this amazing thing, but what could be more human – with our short little life spans – than creating a legacy that could be wiped out mere years after we were?
And before such a terrible event were to occur, how do we use this fabulous tool, this incredible resource?
We fill it with memes.