Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Medium is the Message



The internet site “know your meme” defines “meme magic” in the following way:
Meme Magic” is a slang term used to describe the hypothetical power of sorcery and voodoo supposedly derived from certain internet memes that can transcend the realm of cyberspace and result in real life consequences. Since its coinage on the imageboard 8chan, the fictitious concept has gained popularity on 4chan’s /pol/ (politically incorrect) board and been heavily associated with several in-jokes and shitposting fads on the site, including Ebola-chan, Baneposting and Donald Trump.”
To its supposed followers, meme magic was actually a factor in getting Donald Trump in the White House:
From June 2015 onwards, the term has been heavily associated to the bussinessman and 2016 United States elected President Donald Trump, with /pol/ users using the “meme magic” to make Trump win the elections and transform the country under a similar ideology. Several notable events include the posting of a Trump Pepe picture on Trump’s twitter (shown below, right) or the use of a Yiddish curse word to talk about Hillary Clinton, being consequently reported on a opinion editorial featuring the word “Oy vey.”

An actual occultists element was introduced via the association of the Pepe the Frog meme with an actual ancient Egyptian deity that went by the name of “Kek” and supposedly reinforced by other strange coincidences, such as “Kek” being a translation of the acronym “LOL” (laugh out loud) when reading text written by members of the Horde faction as an Alliance player in the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft (WoW).  

Also “Shadilay” a 1986 Italo disco song by the Italian band P.E.P.E., which features an illustration of a green frog holding a magic wand in the album artwork for the single. After it was discovered by users on 4chan’s /pol/ board in September 2016, many hailed the song as proof of meme magic and the Prophecy of Kek due to the band’s name and frog illustration bearing similarities to Pepe the Frog.”  It’s quite a catchy tune, actually.  Give it a listen when you get the chance.

So what’s really going on here?  Is there a genuinely occult element to it?  Or is there a more rational explanation?

The term meme derives from the term memetics, defined byWikipedia as
Memetics is the theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene.  Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer.  The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a "unit of culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is "hosted" in the minds of one or more individuals, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme's success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.
Put simply, memetics would be akin the theory of evolution as applied to ideas.  Donald Trump in the white house as being the result of this process is not, perhaps, the best argument in favor of memetics.  Evolution is supposed to imply improvement, after all.  Or maybe this is just a temporary mutation that will not survive the process of natural selection, at least not past the election of 2020.  One can only hope.

Dawkin’s concept of memetics is good as far as it goes.  Left unanswered, however, is the question of just how do “units of culture” “jump from mind to mind?”

To answer this question, I’d like to introduce you to one of the unsung heroes of the postmodern intellectual tradition.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan,  (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian professor, philosopher, and public intellectual. His work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.  He was educated at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cambridge and began his teaching career as a Professor of English at several universities in the U.S. and Canada, before moving to the University of Toronto where he would remain for the rest of his life.
McLuhan’s field of study was the nature of media, how various forms of media shaped the manner in which people interacted with one another, structured their societies and even the way they thought and framed their perceptions of the world.  McLuhan showed considerable prescience when he coined the phrase “global village” – which did not mean some corny social-justicy scenario wherein the whole world would come together and sing “Kumbaya” and hold hands and there would be peace and rainbows.  Rather, it was a foreseeing that “the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called "electronic interdependence": when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a "tribal base."

In his 1962 work “The Guttenberg Galaxy,” he describes the outcome of this as follows:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.
Never mind “meme magic” – this was bona fide prophecy!

One wonders at how McLuhan would have responded to the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube?

The most fundamental of all of McLuhan’s concepts, however, and the one most crucial to understand if one is to make sense of all of this, is the phrase “The Medium is the Message.”

What does this mean? 

This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”  The key to understanding this concept is that the most important element of any form of media, be it print media, electronic media or social media – and included in this are people whose profession is to relay information to others, such as clergy, journalists or teachers – is not necessarily the literal content that the media is used to convey – though this is important – but the manner in which the nature of the medium itself changes the way people think and interact with one another. 
That is how meme magic really works.  Internet memes are a medium.  The surface message that any given meme conveys is only the surface of the significance of the meme as a medium.  Visual images that convey powerful messages are as old as man’s ability to use dye or coal to scrawl images on rocks.  The manner in which social media and graphics technology enable us to extend the scope of this medium is what needs deeper understanding, because we’re in unprecedented and uncharted waters here.

To illustrate this concept, take this video clip that turned up on my twitter feed the other day.

 

On the surface, what we’re seeing is a woman who’s very upset about neo-nazis being present at what we can only gather is a college.  We later find out she’s a professor. But watching this, and becoming aware of the context and the manner in which the message is being conveyed, a lot of information is really being conveyed here – information that relies on the nature of media itself in order to make the jump from one mind to the next.  Using the concept that the medium is the message, we can more fully unpack what we’ve just seen.

Where I saw this was in an online magazine called “Heat Street” in a piece entitled “Woman NYU Professor Has Meltdown, Asks Cops toBeat Up Vice’s Gavin McInnes.”  It then goes on to detail “Vice co-founder and current host on The Rebel Gavin McInnes spoke at New York University last night, attracting a sizable group of protesters. McInnes traffics in shock jock, offensive opinions and has a sizable list of highly objectionable past statements.  While the protests came nowhere near the violence at Berkeley, 11 people were arrested and McInnes ended his talk to the College Republicans early.”

This is the surface message.  But when we think of the medium being the message, we can start to ask ourselves deeper questions.

·         Questions pertaining to the actual structure and purpose of mass media as a whole.  This is a whole other area of study and one I won’t breech here in detail.  I think it was Noam Chomsky who once defined mass media as being corporations which sell privileged audiences to other corporations.  A fancy way of saying advertising, really.  So the nature of the medium is shaped by its economic and social context – media outlets like Heat Street rely on advertising to make their money and stay in business.  Advertisers won’t gain sufficient return on the costs of advertising unless their ads are seen as widely as possible.  Thus, Heat Street must gear its content to reach as wide an audience as possible.  A successful way of doing this is to cover controversial topics, such as social justice warriors and protest culture in general. 

·         This same underlying principle guides the actions of Rebel Media pundit Gavin McInnes – who is much more a small c-conservative than a neo-nazi.  But that doesn’t create as much controversy.  The antics of the protesters drew media attention, and thus had the ironic and unintended consequences of widening rather than constraining the reach of McInnes’s message.  And what was that message?  The medium is the message.  McInnes’s story really told itself as the story unfolded.  Compare this with Milo Yiannopoulos, whose book sales and international profile increased dramatically following the disastrous UC Berkeley riots. 

·         A comparable analysis can apply on a much larger scale to social media itself.  Platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have revolutionized media and human interaction in ways that we haven’t, and possible never will fully comprehend, but McLuhan’s concept of the global village described above seems accurate.

·         The woman in the video is identified as a college professor.  This is remarkable.  “College professor” is a medium, when you think about it.  Academia is a medium.   College professor is an extension of that medium.  It is an extension of our capacity to acquire and process knowledge.   

·         The words that the NYU professor is saying quite obviously take a back seat to her highly agitated tone and state of mind.  Tone and body language are likewise mediums.  And the medium is the message.  This is also true of the speaker towards the end of the clip who quite conspicuously identifies the woman as a college professor.  He’s obviously and clearly communicating more than that.

The tension in this video clip arises from the cognitive dissonance generated by the difference between what most people think that a college professor should embody – knowledge, wisdom and depth of understanding, and what the NYU professor is clearly displaying here – moral panic, outrage and hysteria.  Had she stood and spoken the same words in an emphatic, but ultimately rational and controlled manner, the overall message would have been very different.  This tension is further exacerbated by a political and social climate in which sensational and demonstrative behavior on part of “social justice warriors” – itself intended to be a means of expanding the reach of their message – has become a matter of public controversy.  So the upshot of all of this:
  • ·         Heat Street runs the story because it will attract an audience, which is what the advertisers want, and they all profit from it economically.
  • ·         The NYU professor and her supporters gain exposure for their message promoting social justice.  They come out of it looking like emotionally immature children and are ridiculed world wide.
  • ·         The anti-SJWs – who are perhaps most active in spreading this story, show the world what a bunch of crybabies the SJWs are.  They also, quite unintentionally, incentivize more SJW behavior.  Spreading the word and increasing the exposure in this manner contributes to the profit margins of media outlets that cover social justice issues, whether their media slant is pro or anti SJW.  It also boosts the profiles and careers of professional anti-SJW provocateurs such as Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Looked at this way, the implications for those opposed to, and in favor of, the social justice warrior movement are considerable.  Consider for a moment the impact that sharing stories about SJW excesses really has.  The more people who view these stories, the more coverage of SJW excess becomes incentivized both in media that makes a profit from using controversy as the hook to sell audiences to other corporations via advertising, as Chomsky’s propaganda model suggests.  Long term, this incentivizes SJW behavior.

Now consider the difference it would make if you bypassed this through the use of sites such as archive.is, which allows for the online viewing of controversial material without actually liking to the host site and thereby contributing to the number of hits it gets and thus contributing to the site’s appeal to advertisers. 

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