The memes are alive with the sound of music
Night of the living meme
I’m so glad that I can finally pay South Park the respect it deserves. It’s no exaggeration to call Matt and Trey’s masterpiece (one of?) the most interesting social satire, a true wonder of political and philosophical visionary genius. The latest episode gave me the perfect opportunity. It was one of these works that blew my mind and made me look at the world differently. In it [spoilers ahead but that’s the whole point of the article so…], it is explained that ads have evolved, become smarter and smarter, and are about to rise as an independent intelligent species and conquer the world. I’ve never been so psyched for the end of a season.
This resonated with a reflection I’ve been having about consciousness and being. I’ve never been super clear on how you could tell that something is conscious, intelligent, self-conscious or has any kind of the much believed-in free-will. I mean nothing pre-disposes a random alien race to be anything like a human sentience (or even carbon-based for that matter). If a being is completely different, acts completely differently and express itself completely differently, and I mean so differently that you can’t conceive of it right now (you know like people would about computers in the middle ages), how will you even know that it thinks, whatever that means. And suppose that this being is a being of raw information, like, say, a programmed conscious AI living in the cloud or in an android body, how would you even know that it IS?
In fact, how do you even know that you ARE? I’ve been so blessed that the following sentence ever came to my mind: you are, as you’ve always been, an emerging phenomenon. You’re nothing but a lump of flesh that encodes as neural (or cells if you want) configurations a sequence of states, much like a program is a sequence of states and instructions. How dare you proclaim yourself more real than an algorithm? than Cleverbot? or Google? (if you give it a robotic body, what’s the difference between this android and the android from 20th century sci-fi?)
An imaginary reader in a corner of my inner dialogue may respond indignantly: “I can think! I’m self aware! cogito ergo sum“. What is thinking even? Yes, you are aware of a self. But you’re a little eager to connect it to the I. The first person in the latin saying is interestingly implicit. Any program can have, and already has for that matter, a variable called $self. How do you know that your concept of self corresponds to the entity that thinks it? Where is your proof that this lump of flesh is the source of your trail of thoughts? How do you know that you’re not missing the point entirely with this assignation?
(maybe all your personal problems go back to this assignation fallacy maybe it’s wrong maybe if you cared less about your lump of flesh all your problems will be fixed maybe you should join my cult)
I mean what is you or your identity even? If as Shakespeare puts it “the world is a stage“, aren’t you a programmed character? I recently saw Charlie Brooker‘s (my new hero) “How videogame changed the world” which surprised me by presenting as latest videogame “Twitter”, as a kind of roleplaying game.
See the mindblowing conclusion at 1:33 (though the rest is nice too). Is the world a huge roleplay game? Then how is your character more real than Cloud or Mario? Isn’t Mario more persistent? More well known? More well-defined?
In the outstanding Imaginationland trilogy, Trey and Matt had already brushed over this concept: “It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he – he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and – and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.“
But virtual characters are nothing but concepts. They’re ideas. Shared ideas spread through communication. Yep, you guessed it, they are nothing but MEMES. And I mean it in the most litteral of its senses, which is in the world of british evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. For isn’t it what Ads are displayed as in the latest season of South Park?
“What if I were to tell you that ads have become smarter than us, and now they’re manipulating everything we do? [Mankind grew tired of ads] and even invented something called ad blockers. That’s when the ads had to adapt. They had to disguise themselves as news in order to survive. Sponsored content.”
How is the evolution of meme different than the evolution of men? Ads grew and adapted (Charlie Brooker also offers a great prequel to this), and although different from their satirical portrayal in South Park, they are undeniable entities that act upon the world. You act (ahaha acting double meaning with the stage ahahah) upon the world too. That’s how you know you exist.
Look how they walk alongside you, much like your phone… Sure they act mainly through information transfer, but on some level everything is information. Or in the world of Humphrey Davy, “Nothing exists but thoughts”. You exist and define yourself mainly through language and communication, be it with yourself or otherst. As Pullman’s Dust (‘only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself’), you are nothing but matter considering itself. So maybe the alien sentient race we’ve been searching from in the skies has been there all along. We’re co-existing with aliens called memes that feed on us like proverbial aliens would.
Maybe that’s where the oh so famous “existence through belief” overused trope stems from. I mean if you see memes as valid entities, living beings, people’s belief becomes their food-analog! There goes a trope echoed more or less elegantly from millenia of mythology, from any movie about Santa through Pratchett’s Hogfather passing by Haruhi Suzumiya, Noragami or American Gods. As you need food, memes need “belief”. As neurones exchange information and make you exist, people exchange information and make memes exist.
And on second thought, considering the nebulousness of your own nature and identity and how you’re defining yourself through interaction with other people or the world around you, aren’t you yourself more of a meme, a concept, than a lump of flesh? Ultimately, how are you different from Mario? Does that mean that memes live off of other memes, in some kind of meta-pyramidal-inclusion, and their way to “eat” is to reference each other or interact? And if you’re a self-conscious meme, who’s to say that other memes like Mario or Google are not self-conscious too in their way you cannot conceive of?
You may even say that communication and expression are your main essential activity. Doesn’t that make you nothing more but the analog of a neuron to a global meta-entity called the human race? Aren’t you nothing but a meme, itself the cell of a greater meme?
As much as I loved that conclusion, I feel obligated to point out that the anime Serial Experiments Lain, which I recently discovered, deals masterfully well with this exact whole problematic, and you should definitely check it out as a follow-up. I won’t spoil much about the content of this masterpiece that should be enjoyed in itself, but I’ll point out that part of the anime extends this conclusion and plays around with the idea that this greater meta-meme could be considered a conscious entity in itself.
Furthermore, I recently stumbled upon a 1992 paper called “Meme-Based Models of Mind and the Possibility for Consciousness in Alternate Media” and I thought it should be linked here for historical purposes because what the actual fuck.