Category Archives: Meme Analysis

Yes, it’s a meme, but what does it mean?

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Three: Verbal Emoji

In a mask, this looks cranky af, but it’s actually quizzical.

Being out on the trails carries, realistically, a very small chance of infection. But I wear the damned mask anyway, in great part to normalize it. The more people see others masked, the more they will do it themselves at the grocery stores and in other, higher-risk venues. I also want to normalize it for myself, as just something I put on when I am going out. And I don’t want to scare people with my seasonal allergies. I know I’m not sniffling because I’m sick, but nobody else does.

But going around masked causes a new set of problems. Yesterday, I was on a trail near my house that has become by unspoken and somewhat sneaky consent a sort of informal off-leash dog area for the neighborhood. I was running, and Dog stays on the leash when we run. I can’t keep track of her and my footing and run up hills all at the same time. But there was another dog who was having a free-range moment. She ran right up to us.

I have learned the hard way that when we encounter a loose dog when Dog is leashed, it’s best to stop and let the sniffing happen. Pulling Dog along just forces her to retreat without following dog etiquette, and often leads to unpleasantness. So I stopped and waited for this other dog’s humans to come along. When they were still some distance back, the guy started calling his dog, who totally ignored him. I smiled as he came closer and said “I see she’s super obedient, like my dog.”

This was a cheerful social gambit, not really funny, but lighthearted, and typical on the trails. I got nothing back. The guy wasn’t masked, so I could see that he didn’t smile. He may as well not have heard me.

It didn’t occur to me until after we had all passed each other that he couldn’t have seen that I was smiling. He could have interpreted my comment as sarcastic. I thought I infused a smile into my voice, but it might have been rough from breathing hard. He really had no way of knowing I wasn’t trying to be snarky.

Of course, maybe he was in a mood, or just isn’t a friendly type. But it would be a lot easier to tell if I knew what kind of signal I was giving out.

If we’re going to do this mask thing for real, we’re gonna need some face to face emoji. The technology is out there for a t-shirt or hat with LED light emoji, but that has never seemed very washable to me. I think we need something that we don’t have to replace part of our wardrobe to use.

That leaves us two obvious options. We can make some hand signs, maybe borrow from American Sign Language, although facial expression is a big part of signing, too. Or we can insert our smiley faces like a verbal tic. “I see your dog is super obedient, like mine, LOL face.”

This can have all kinds of applications. When you see family you are socially distant with: “it’s great to see you, Dad, hugging face.” Creeps who can’t leer effectively will have to say “eggplant” or “peach.” When someone gets a little too close in line, you’ll say “great social distancing, there, side eye.” After you get a great call from your doctor, you’ll tell your roommate “I tested negative, cold sweat relief face.”

If masks actually catch on in a big way, it will be interesting to see how face to face communication evolves. Maybe we won’t all develop a verbal emoji tic or start hashtagging everything à la John Oliver, but we’ll find some way to convey nuance, possibly by exaggerating our vocal tones or waggling the hell out of our eyebrows.

Or maybe by something completely different.

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Sixteen: It’s an Outrage!

Two of ’em aren’t even facing the right way!

I had to alter my run for the second time in a row today. Jefferson County Open Space tells us that their parks are open, but that if the lot is full, you have to move on. As tempting as it is to rationalize, I have to assume this means me, even though I am not bringing a car to the party. Others are making different decisions.

A lot of folks in my town are upset because people from the city 30-odd miles east of us are coming up to use our parks. A lot of people are upset because so many are ignoring the mask rule, and hoarding groceries. And it is upsetting, too, to see groups on the trails that are very unlikely to be from the same household. They’re taking a risk, not only for themselves, but for the rest of us.

When I was a kid there was a bumper sticker kicking around that said: “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” At the time, whenever I saw this I would think “damn right!” Now I think it should read “if you’re not outraged, you’re either not paying attention, or you’re just too damned tired.”

Humans do love to get outraged. It gives us a lovely feeling of self-righteousness. The quick and dirty way to make yourself part of an in-group (a necessity in our evolutionary environment), is to define someone else as the other. Dogging on the out-group is like the quikcrete of social bonding.

But I ran across this meme online yesterday. I’m not normally one to engage with sappy content, but this is important.

A lot of us are outraged by people who, it seems, are not taking this as seriously as we think they should. The thing is, if someone is trying really hard to pretend things are normal, they’re scared. If someone is violating self-isolation to spend time with friends and family, they’re probably scared, too. If someone is in denial, they’re scared. If someone is poo-poohing the science, it’s probably because they’re scared.

So I have to give myself the advice I gave to the kindergarten kids when I was subbing. Who do I have control over? Just me, and sometimes even that is arguable. I can’t control what anyone else does in this crisis. All I can control is how I react and what I do. And so I smile at the people without masks, and I smile at people going out in groups that have way too many adults for them to plausibly live together. I smile at the people coming from cars parked alongside the road.

All of this means all of nothing, of course, because no one can see me smiling behind my mask. But it does make me feel better.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!

A meme showing a tiny black kitten held in the palm of a hand with the text "It's dangerous to go alone.  Take this with you."

Bear with me here. The meme is old, but I’m just catching up. I ran across this version the other day. A little research showed that it is a much older meme referencing a moment in the 1986 video game Legend of Zelda. Link, the main character runs into an old man, who tells him this and hands him a sword. Of course, the cat-obsessed internet put a fuzzy spin on it at some point.

As with all successful memes, there is something deeper here. We only need to look to mythology and the hero’s journey story arc to know that humans have always known that they have to face some things alone. Sometimes a hero starts a quest alone and finds a mentor and friends along the way. Always she has to face the final test alone. And the adventures and quests of the hero’s journey are ultimately metaphors for our own growth and development throughout life.

A screen shot from the 1986 video game Legend of Zelda showing the main character Link in a curiously rectangular cave.  An old man stands between two fires, and offers Link a sword.
The original screen in the video game Legend of Zelda.

So humans are all familiar with going alone. Whether it is our first day of kindergarten, our SATs, a new job, a physical challenge on the playground, or on one of many adult versions of the playground, we’ve all gone into something by ourselves. And some part of us, which we resolutely do our best to ignore as adults, recognizes the power of a talisman in these situations.

Young children often want to bring a toy with them to school or any other situation where they are out in the world. As adults, we forget that this isn’t really about having something to play with. Instead, the little stuffed toy, or blankie, or action figure is a symbol of the most familiar parts of life. It reassures us that there is a place in the world where we know what to expect, where we are loved, and where we are grounded. It is an object that connects us to no less than who we are. That’s why it is so devastating when it is inevitably lost. Having that reminder gives us the power to shape the less predictable world we are venturing into. The action figure gives the child the power to create new friendships in school. The magic sword gives the hero the power to defeat monsters and render the world safe for domesticity.

So this meme resonates with something buried pretty deep in the human psyche. But I would argue that it has more appeal now than perhaps at other times in our history. In January of 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness for the UK. In 2010 the AARP conducted a survey that indicated that 35% of people aged 45 or over were lonely in the US. According to the 2010 census, around a quarter of adults in the US live alone.

This information comes just as we start to understand the negative impact that loneliness and social isolation can have on our health. Take this from an Americal Psychological Association press release:

To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for premature mortality, Holt-Lunstad presented data from two meta-analyses. The first involved 148 studies, representing more 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death. The second study, involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia and Australia, examined the role that social isolation, loneliness or living alone might have on mortality. Researchers found that all three had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death, one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Holt-Lunstad. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

It is, indeed, dangerous to go alone.

So, maybe, in 2020, this is a meme that should make us ask ourselves what talismans we need to take with us into the future, to give us the power to build socially connected lives. And, when it comes to that, a kitten isn’t such a bad strategy. In our modern world, a dog or cat may do more to keep us literally physically safe than any weapon we can buy.