Last night, I spent several hours of my like (that I most assuredly will not get back) watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic on YouTube. I wouldn’t bring this up but for the fact that I spent hours watching re-dubbed clips from a cartoon that I didn’t even watch when I was a kid. HOURS….
Like many of my fellow internet (is that supposed to be spelled with a capital “i”?) junkies, I’ve fallen victim to the internet meme. I’ve seen The Bed Intruder, David After Dentist, Shit People Say (white girls, black girls, fat girls, gay guys, straight guys, broke black guys, you name it, I’ve seen every bit of shit they say), “Chocolate Rain”, Nyan Cat, Keyboard Cat, “Friday”, Double Rainbow, the cinnamon challenge, Bert is evil, and the Star Wars kid. I’ve seen Tebowing, planking, epic fails, Charlie the Unicorn, The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger, and “Leave Britney Alone!” I’ve been one cupped, Rickrolled, and I’ve taken an arrow to the knee. I can’t say that watching any of these things has enhanced my life in any discernable way – but I can say that taking the time to think about why I’ve watched – and continue to watch these internet memes means philosophically.
For those of you who have ever wondered, the word “meme” (short for the Greek word “mimeme” meaning “something borrowed”) was coined by the famous (or infamous) atheist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, described a meme as an idea, style, behavior, or other piece of culture that is transmitted from and/or imitated by a person or group to (or from) another person or group. Internet memes are usually (with a few exceptions) meant to convey humor or to
exploit play upon the public’s familiarity with a pop culture reference.
Although most of us know our memes through social media (notably social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and websites such as “Know Your Meme”), the public’s knowledge of memes has expanded beyond cyberspace to include people who are admittedly unfamiliar with or do not use social media — you know, those people that claim that they have a “life”. Everyone and their grandmother knows who the “ridiculously photogenic guy” is, and there’s not a person on Earth who hasn’t either heard of or seen Kony 2012. But that’s, as they say, where the problem lies.
The thing about memes, in particular, internet memes, is that they are purely there to grab our attention for a brief amount of time before we move on to the next thing we’ll pay attention to for the next fifteen minutes. Internet memes embody the worst of our culture and our tendency to focus too often on the trivial and simplistic, dumbed-down soundbites that cater to the powers of anti-intellectualism (thus failing to comprehend deeper meanings). When people focus too much on the trivial, philosophers warn, we fail to fully understand the complexity of ideas such as reality and Truth; we cannot operate in a world that we do not fully understand.
The late Canadian literary critic, philosopher, and communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) said, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.” This is why in the Republic, Plato says that we must be mindful of what kind of entertainment that we show to our children. As a child’s mind is impressionable, the wrong kind of entertainment can corrupt a child’s mind. Mind you, Plato isn’t making a moral argument – he’s not saying that watching internet porn makes people behave badly (although that may or may not be so). What Plato is saying is something much worse than moral corruption – that watching trivial things makes people stupid. What we see, particularly on television and (increasingly so) on the internet influences our thinking. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “The aim of philosophy is to think for oneself.” When we spend our time watching Miss Teen South Carolina flubbing her Q&A or the Tron Guy instead of studying (preferably philosophy) or spending time in contemplation, we lose the ability to function as fully autonomous rational beings.
And really, would the world be a better place if everyone watched LOL cats?