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Tag: memes

The Copy-Paste Guillotine

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Death of the Author is a theory that can be aggressively summarized like this: A creator’s interpretation of their own work is not definitive, but rather one among many interpretations generated by the people who experience the creation.

Therefore, a given piece of art doesn’t “mean” anything in a be-all-end-all sense. The meaning resides with the viewer. A sufficiently compelling interpretation may end up dominating public discourse, but whether it’s “true” is beside the point. “True” is not always a relevant or adaptive quality for an idea. Information spreads based on other factors.

"Pepe the Frog was already a perfect demonstration of The Death of the Author, but now it's even funnier"

Tweet by @drethelin.

The average person who recognizes Pepe’s woeful face has no idea that he was first drawn by Matt Furie for a comic called Boy’s Club. The internet is practically an author-killing machine, since it’s so easy for content to be pulled out of its original context. That’s how memes work — both the image-plus-caption kind and Dawkins’ original formulation.

Now Furie has symbolically slaughtered Pepe, and I really mean symbolically, since the rest of the Pepe-using internet will ignore this. (Except… it’s possible that Blepe will become a robust replacement? I dunno, y’all, 4chan has unpredictable whims.) To his credit, Furie does seem to understand how it works:

Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.

I think the phenomenon actually goes further than the Death of the Author. First the author dies and then their body is resurrected and defiled, or spliced into a Frankenstein-style army. (Sorry, I’m butchering the metaphor, and yes, pun intended.)

Alt-right jokesters aren’t passing around the original “feels good man” reaction image anymore. Well, they are, but it’s not the dominant use-case for Pepe. He’s been remixed and morphed beyond what Furie created — internet denizens took the idea and ran with it, like they did with Slenderman. (As far as I know, Pepe hasn’t motivated a murder yet.)

I mentioned in my previous missive that I want to investigate how information flows up and down the cultural stack, from subcultures to the mainstream and back again. The process that Pepe underwent — is undergoing — constitutes one pattern. I suspect that authors who make meme-able content will lose bets on their own survival.


Header artwork by Matt Furie for The Nib.

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In Effigy

It’s been ages since I sent you fiction. This half-story has been kicking around in my Google Drive for months, and even though it doesn’t have a normal plot or resolution, I hope it will interest you. Suggestions of what might happen next are welcome. Either way, think of this dispatch as a foray into a world based on Exolymphian principles.


Phoenix illustration by Ricardo Orellana.

Artwork by Ricardo Orellana.

“It is a strange wind that blows no ills.” This is what Attwell’s grandmother told him, in her warm, wry voice. They stood in front of a clear window, high up in the arcology. Attwell could see her scalp through the silver hair on her head. Earlier she had mentioned that a cousin offered to buy her a full-body resurfacing, but she planned to decline. “Why bother?” Nana had chuckled.

Now, glancing down at her, Attwell felt slightly embarrassed by the visible skin of her scalp. He ought to look away.

The wind that blew against the window was thick with dust. All they could see was the movement of the air. “It is a strange wind that blows no ills,” Nana repeated.

This conversation took place before she died, as all people must die. Before she was recycled, as all empty bodies must be. Attwell knew that her substances would nourish the arcology. Her generation was dropping one by one, two by three by four by five, and their deaths helped to sustain their children. Chickens and pigs had no sentimental qualms about an old woman’s flesh.

Attwell wished that personality-preservation had existed before the cancer ate up Nana’s brain. Even the stilted simulation of a first-generation model would be a comfort to him now. But perhaps she would have been content to disappear completely.

It was twelve years ago that Nana died. A few days after her body had been surrendered, the computer that coordinated the arcology offered usage stats to Attwell. This percentage went to mineral reclamation, that percentage went to agriculture, and so on. The computer instructed, “Please engage the Cycle of Life grief-management module. This is a complimentary offer, available until” — then Attwell blanked the screen with a harsh motion. He sat on the carpet and wept.

Even now, more than a decade later, Attwell longed to speak to Nana again. If her essence were available as a Dearly Departed® program, Attwell could upload pictures of his new suite, to show her his success. He could demonstrate the screen-morphs that disrupted the monotony of the arcology. Attwell felt sure that Nana would want to explore the reconstructed immersion vistas of rainforests and sunny beaches. And he would tell her about the scientists preparing for expeditions to reclaim the outside world, microbiome by microbiome. The news-beams warned that a manned mission was still decades away, but Attwell hoped it would happen sooner than that.

Attwell was estranged from the rest of his family. Grief had turned to bitterness after Grandpapa’s death, and every segment of the clan came to suspect the others of villainous perfidy. Inheritances are a hard thing. Six of them came to live in the arcology when it was established, but they still never spoke to each other. One cousin’s suite was on Attwell’s level, but the pair had affected indifference so well that it came true. Attwell felt as if he had never known this cousin at all.

Their respective parents had both refused to enter the arcology, calling it a project of Satan. Attwell suspected that they had perished in the howling dust storms many years ago. Nana was always more sensible than her children.

Attwell was not alone, and he didn’t spend all of his time pining for a lost grandmother. Not long after the twelfth anniversary of Nana’s death, incidentally, he held a dinner party for his friends. Two of them were lapsed members of the Sunsplit doomsday cult. (It had lost steam after the predicted doomsday actually came to pass. The arcology chugged along just fine. Mourning rites were still held quarterly, and a fanatic core remained, but general attendance kept slipping.)

At the table these two quarreled about a fine point of the law written by the Sunsplit founder, part of a document officially titled `revealed_arcana4j.txt`. Most people referred to it as the Revealed Arcana, for convenience. Sunsplit lore reported that the First Priest sat down to write a SCRUM report for his manager, found his fingers hijacked by a higher power, and spent seventy-four hours typing sacred secrets. Skeptics often attributed this episode to a layered cocktail of amphetamines and hallucinogens. They couldn’t dismiss the incident altogether, since the First Priest’s computer had been forensically examined.

Atwell’s friends were arguing about the prohibition against killing and consuming phoenixes. The mythical phoenix is a large bird with red and gold plumage, which never dies unless intentionally slain. When it perishes from old age, there is a burst of flame. A phoenix chick emerges from the ashes of its previous life cycle after the blaze subsides.

The rest of the party looked on, bemused, as the Sunsplit believers went back and forth.

“Why forbid the eating of a phoenix,” Timothy asked, “if there is no such an animal in nature?”

A noncombatant chimed in, “Maybe there used to be, before the dust” — but was quickly shushed.

“There must necessarily be such an animal!” replied Valeria, “There’s no sensible reason for the rule to exist, otherwise, and of course the First Priest was sensible.”

Attwell pointed out, “If there are no phoenixes, we cannot possibly slaughter them. Either way, all of us are following the Sunsplit doctrine, without even trying.”

The guest who attended by hologram said, “Did you know that the nanotech fellows at Companion Labs aren’t even trying to make a phoenix, because it would be such bad press?”

“What about an effigy?” Attwell asked. “What if I 3D-printed a phoenix out of cake and ate it?”

Valeria snorted, half amused and half contemptuous. Timothy opened his mouth but someone else cut in before he could speak.

“Haven’t any of you played the phoenix game?” This was the first time Lydia had spoken since the appetizers.

“No, what’s that?” the hologram guest inquired.

Lydia shrugged her thin shoulders. Atwell thought she seemed uncomfortable with the table’s full attention. “Just something I heard about. You harvest phoenixes.”

“I don’t know if it breaks the First Priest’s law,” Valeria declared, “but it’s certainly obscene.”

Not wanting Lydia to be steamrolled, Atwell hurried the conversation in another direction. But after the guests straggled out of his suite that night, he sent her a message.

> what’s the name of that game you mentioned? i searched and nothing came up

She responded almost instantly.

> i shouldnt have said anything =/

> why not? it sounded interesting. i like obscure games. You know how i am

Lydia didn’t respond, but a few minutes later, he received a message from the username vezik77. It was just a hyperlink. No preview popped up. Was this just spam, or did it have something to do with the conversation? Attwell copied the link, opened a sandbox browser, and pasted it into the address bar.


That’s it!

Very loosely inspired by “The Envious Man” from Voltaire’s Zadig the Babylonian, via Project Gutenberg.

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A Blossoming Strand of Fear

“I saw the best minds of our generation, writing mind viruses and trying to start cults” — @radical_praxis

Thank goodness, at least someone is making an effort!

Flickr user new 1lluminati always delivers.

Flickr user new 1lluminati always delivers.

As far as I can tell, there are four ways to start a cult:

  • charismatic crazy person
  • charismatic cynical person
  • crazy or cynical person with a lot of firepower
  • stand-alone complex

Sometimes these vectors combine.

The term “stand-alone complex” comes from a famous cyberpunk anime called Ghost in the Shell. Per some random Wikipedia contributor(s):

A Stand Alone Complex can be compared to the emergent copycat behavior that often occurs after incidents such as serial murders or terrorist attacks. An incident catches the public’s attention and certain types of people “get on the bandwagon”, so to speak. It is particularly apparent when the incident appears to be the result of well-known political or religious beliefs, but it can also occur in response to intense media attention. […]

What separates the Stand Alone Complex from normal copycat behavior is that there is no real originator of the copied action, but merely a rumor or an illusion that supposedly performed the copied action. There may be real people who are labeled as the originator, but in reality, no one started the original behavior.

The weird spate of “killer clowns” a few months ago was arguably a stand-alone complex. (Didn’t hear of it? You’re in luck, because Know Your Meme compiled the relevant incidents.) The now-infamous PizzaGate controversy has elements of a stand-alone complex.

It would be an interesting art project to generate a stand-alone complex, but I wonder if that’s even possible — do you have to be sincere for it to work? When the SAC got away from you, as it must in order to flourish, would you feel responsible for its results?

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Heed the Memes

I’ve encountered some delightful little creatures called memeballs, and apparently these ones represent different strains of anarchism. You can tell by the colors. My partner showed me the first specimen for reasons that will become obvious immediately:

when your crush hooks up with some diskhead jock with poorly optimized security software so you replace all of his childhood memories with a boot prompt for an industrial paint mixer

He had it coming, right? Besides, future industrial paint mixers could lead happy lives. Our protagonist might have done the diskhead jock a favor.

When you send your son to his room for being naughty and he creates his own state and attempts to annex your fridge so you fire a tomahawk missile at him

This also seems completely justified and not an overreaction in the slightest.

My resolution for 2017 is to look at more anarchist memes. (Does it matter how well they hew to the actual philosophy? Probably not.) I’ll get my partner to curate them for me, since I can’t stand 4chan myself.

Jokes aside, I do think that memes are important. Both in the original Richard Dawkins sense — the meme as a knowledge unit that reproduces — and in the “humorous captioned image” sense. RIP Harambe.

I don’t know much about their impact in other countries, but memes were important to the US election. “Meme magic” is truly potent — Tara Isabella Burton wrote a great article about this. Reality is a mutual social creation.

What remains to be seen is whether the mainstream can harness meme magic to fight the insurgent fringes, or whether their efforts will remain consigned to /r/FellowKids.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ tfw asymmetric information warfare is a feature, not a bug

“Strange dueling subcultures and their own narratives, folk beliefs, superstitious techno-animism, language-games — to the extent that any kind of ‘database culture’ can be called a narrative as opposed to simply just a collection of memetic primitives — have taken control of the means (perhaps now memes) of knowledge production.” — Adam Elkus

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Slot Machines for Social Capital

In a Hacker News thread about gambling, I came across this comment by user noname123:

Like slot machines that pump random awards and chance into slot user, I feel the surge of social approval and dopamine rush too when I get a Reddit upvote, a Facebook Like, IG comment, Tumblr reblog etc.

Also like how gambling addicts get into a “zombie flow-state” when they’re one with the machine, I feel the same way scrolling through pages after pages of Hacker News/Reddit/NYTimes/ESPN/YouTube popular channels. The thrill is gone, but the mechanics of pulling the slots pulley is embedded in my brain, watching one more YouTube video of a political pundit railing about the election, one more reaction video about a Internet meme, sometimes even re-watching video’s like re-watching music lyrics video to relive the laughter, that feeling — and only in the middle of the video wondering how I got there, like sometimes driving to a destination other than your work office but your brain goes on autopilot and takes the other turn to your office; and you don’t realize it until you’re there.

Also like how casino’s are a very anonymous and comforting place to addicts, I feel very safe and comfortable in hanging out with like-minded individuals on online forums whom I only know a vague outline of, but whose weariness and anonymity like mine are just as addicted and plugged into the zombie human-machine interface; I feel intuned and comfortable with. Like the anti-social meme’s (“Ez game, Ez lyfe”) on online games, alt-right memes on some Subreddits (Pepe memes, Trump is a racist) and IT memes on HN (for Elon Musk’s new Tesla model, against Holmes’ Theranos, for Peter Thiel’s Fellowship, against Peter Thiel’s endorsements, employees vs. funders), I commiserate with the anger and rage; and the identification of these online communities, just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life; sometimes I feel I feel simultaneous the negative emotions and positive identifications on both sides of the argument.

I guess at least my addiction isn’t too bad given I’m only losing on my account balance of time and attention although that feeling of coming out of a six hours bender on the net trying to find the perfect co-working space in my city, debating through all the Yelp/CityData threads for the pro’s and con’s, feels eerily like coming out a casino sliding doors to bright sunlight at 8AM after a 18hr binge at the blackjack table; somehow in the back of your mind, you already accepted that you’ll be economically bankrupt in exchange for a chase for an emotional high — almost a spiritual transcendence, but somehow you wound up just feeling morally bankrupt.

I want to pull out one line in particular: “[I do it] just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life”.

I recognize myself in that line, since I closely follow any conflict in the subcultures I pay attention to. Drama is intoxicating. I hate being part of social conflicts, but I’m a dedicated voyeur.

In a way I relate to all of noname123’s experience, since I spend a substantial portion of every day online. I work online. I have online hobbies. I compulsively check Twitter. Sometimes I open a new tab and start typing the address of the website that I just closed in the URL bar.

But it doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers this person. I wonder why that is. Because I have a partner? Because I don’t spend literally all of my waking hours at the computer? Because I have pets? Or is it just some kind of genetic temperament thing?

Certainly people with partners and pets are susceptible to addiction, so that’s probably not the significant variable. Besides, maybe noname123 is happily married with eight children. (I doubt that, but it’s possible.)

Personally, I do worry about my productivity. But I’m not sure how much more productive I’d be if my work were spatially separated from my play. Creative thinking requires a lot of rebound time, if you know what I mean, or at least it does for me. Ideas require time and stimulation to bubble up to the surface.

I know a lot of you work online too, in one capacity or another. Is this a problem for you? How do you deal with?


Header photo by jayneandd.

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Robot Uprising, NBD

Bernie or Hillary meme

The political horse race is stressful to observe, but damn does it produce some good jokes! Picture via @ObeseChess on Twitter; origin lost in the swirling mists of memedom. (Usually true, but in this case the source is actually Obvious Plant.) In not-unrelated news, we’re careening toward a weird techno-plutocratic status quo and it’s pretty entertaining:

Saladin Ahmed on Twitter

Of course, the current status quo is already quite techno-plutocratic… Which is the whole point of this newsletter.

IRL, the future labor situation will be mostly mundane, just like our current setup. Dystopia doesn’t feel like dystopia unless it accelerates especially quickly (knock on wood). Just be grateful that you’re not a protagonist! If you are a protagonist, please get in touch so that I can write about you and piggyback on your eventual fame and fortune. Unless you’re the other kind of protagonist…

Longer dispatch coming tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind when Exolymph is on the short side.

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