What follows is a rough approximation of my brief introductory talk at this year’s Ars Electronica Symposium which I co-curated with Isaac Mao. The presentation is at Slideshare. Videos of all the talks are available on the website.
The Revolutionary Meme
When Ars Electronica first began over 30 years ago, it was one of the only annual events that focused on the impact of technology on society and creativity.
Today there are multiple events that examine technology’s role on all aspects of life, not just every week, but every single day. In fact, there has emerged an entire conference class that does little else except for travel from one conference to another to offer their analysis about technology’s impact on politics, business, marketing, travel, video, subtitling … even pet care. The question is why? When so much information already exists on the internet about the internet, why do we continue to attend these events?
I believe that there are two reasons. First, by our very nature we obsessively seek information and seek to make sense of it. Second, we sense that the pace of history is accelerating and it is thrilling to be part of it, to help write its first draft.
Three years before the first Ars Electronica, a 35-year-old Richard Dawkins published the book The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins’ gene-centric view of the universe, we humans are mere vessels that allow genes to replicate themselves. We happily oblige these genes in their process, mostly because we enjoy sex so much. In the same book Dawkins coins the term “meme” for a unit of human cultural evolution. Not only are we humans mere vessels for genetic information to replicate itself, but now we are mere vessels for all types of information, each seeking replication and competing for that precious resource, our attention.
Today in many parts of the world we have new terms like Information Addiction and Information Obesity. In the same way that pollen awaits a honey bee, information awaits our information addiction, hoping to be shared, replicated, mutated. Nicholas Humphrey called memes “brain parasites,” lodging themselves in our brains, literally changing the nervous structure and practically compelling us to propagate them among our social networks. 100 years ago this was called word of mouth. Today it occurs every time we log into Facebook and Twitter, every time we compulsively pull out our cell phone to check our email account.
Some information is more memetic than others, it more successfully activates our compulsion to share it with our networks. It is almost impossible to not share a video of Tom Cruise speaking about the Church of Scientology. This year it seems that freedom, democracy, and free speech are popular memes in the Middle East and North Africa. But we must recognize that anti-Islam and anti-immigrant messages are also increasingly memetic here in Europe.
The question for us is this: Why is some of that information so much more successful at seeking replication? Why does some information spread rapidly while other information falls into the abyss of the forgotten? Why does some information inspire us to take to the streets while other information causes us to fall asleep?
The TV Generation
In the 1950s information found a new way to spread and replicate, television. Over the next ten years television would have two profound and paradoxical effects on global society: a sense of social alienation and of global solidarity. In 1967 Guy Debord published Society of the Spectacle, which argued that television and slick marketing engendered a consumer culture in which all that was once directly lived had become mere representation. Mexican intellectual Octavio Paz wrote that reality was beginning to imitate television more than television imitated reality.
Broadcast television was certainly responsible in part for the “mere representation of all that was once directly lived.” But it was also the medium used by young protesters the very next year to attract attention to their protests across the globe. Protest, it turned out, was memetic.
Daniel Ben Cohn-Bendit, one of the organizers of the original Paris protests would later say of his counterparts in other parts of the world: “We met through television. We were the first television generation.” Abbie Hoffman who helped organize the famous 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago said “A modern revolutionary group headed for the television, not for the factory.” When the Chicago police attacked the protesters they chanted in unison “The whole world is watching!” And for the first time it was.
In hindsight, the protest movements of 1968 were largely failures. The Franco regime continued in Spain, as did Brazil’s military dictatorship. The demands of Mexican students were never met and justice was never brought to those responsible for their massacre. In August Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and remained there until 1989. The temporary, weak alliance between the French labor and youth movements fell apart before the onset of winter. The Vietnam war continued, Apartheid in South Africa continued, and Charles De Gaulle remained in power.
In 1968, with the help of television, information became even more successful at replication. But it wasn’t able to change policies or end wars.
The Internet Generation
The very following year came the invention of the Internet, the best development for information since written language.
While in the West we soon became obese with information, in other countries the internet permitted information to replicate itself around the filters of censors. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where governments long censored radio and television, information was now having a heyday, eager to show us humble humans acts of corruption and police abuse.
Major, social media-fueled protests have taken place this year in Portugal, Tunisia, Spain, Egypt, Senegal, Yemen, Syria, Uganda, Algeria, Oman, Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Mexico, Chile, Wisconsin, Malaysia, and tomorrow 15,000 young people in Mauritius have joined a Facebook page to take to the streets tomorrow to demand for greater civil rights.
Only now are we beginning to witness and make sense of how it is changing us and how we are changing it, but one observation I can make with some certainty is for future historians, what 1968 was to television, 2011 will be to the internet.
The question is will today’s youth be more successful than the youth of 1968 in creating lasting social and political change? Many writers have observed that 1968 was defined by anti-power rather than counter-power. Which is to say that the youth of 1968 were protesting against “the system”, but they didn’t offer any realistic alternative on which to build upon.
Anti-power protests are inherently more popular than counter-power because we humans seem to enjoy protesting against much more than protesting for. Most of the protests this year began as anti-power movements. Today’s speakers will tell us whether new alternatives are now taking shape.
Information seeks to replicate and spread itself further. And we, as information hungry humans are happy to oblige, but it increasingly important that we also seek truth and compromise through discussion and debate.
With that said, I encourage you all to participate during the discussion periods and with the Twitter hashtag #square2. And I am thrilled to introduce our first three speakers …