New Economy Journal

Memes as a Glimpse of a Radical Future

Volume 2, Issue 1

March 3, 2020

By - Noon

Piece length: 3,114 words

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He ignored the moving way, and kept to the narrow sidewalk an eccentric thing to do, since he had several miles to travel. But Alvin liked the exercise, for it soothed his mind. Besides, there was so much to see that it seemed a pity to race past the latest marvels of Diaspar when you had eternity ahead of you.

It was the custom of the city's artists and everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another to display their current productions along the side of the moving ways, so that the passers-by could admire their work. In this manner, it was usually only a few days before the entire population had critically examined any noteworthy creation, and also expressed its views upon it. The resulting verdict, recorded automatically by opinion-sampling devices which no one had ever been able to suborn or deceive and there had been enough attempts decided the fate of the masterpiece. If there was a sufficiently affirmative vote, its matrix would go into the memory of the city so that anyone who wished, at any future date, could possess a reproduction utterly indistinguishable from the original.

The less successful pieces went the way of all such works. They were either dissolved back into their original elements or ended in the homes of the artists' friends.

Alvin saw only one object d'art on his journey that had any appeal to him. It was a creation of pure light, vaguely reminiscent of an unfolding flower. Slowly growing from a minute core of color, it would expand into complex spirals and curtains, then suddenly collapse and begin the cycle over again. Yet not precisely, for no two cycles were identical. Though Alvin watched through a score of pulsations, each time there were subtle and indefinable differences, even though the basic pattern remained the same.”

Arthur C Clarke, The City and the Stars (1956)

Memes quietly became the internet’s lingua franca. Regardless of whether you actively participate in the meme economy, you’re almost certainly aware of it to some extent. Major journalistic mastheads regularly run articles about or reference memes. The perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre deliberately used far-right memes like the OK gesture, pepe, the Fourteen Words, “subscribe to pewds” and so on. President of Finland Guðni Jóhannesson tweeted about pineapple on pizza and had to field a large number of questions from serious reporters over the issue. The Russian Fancy Bear unit used memes to influence the US election. Memes have become a significant part of the Earth’s cosmopolitan culture.

And yet they are treated as frivolous, especially by people who don’t understand ‘dank’ meme culture and see them as essentially something like cartoons in the newspaper – maybe occasionally funny or insightful, but basically not very important. There’s no occupational title for making memes, except when bastardised through a corporate machine and assigned to a graphic designer. And I believe that the reason for that is that memes are free. And because they are free, I think they can give us a glimpse into a potentially brighter future, where everyone has access not just to basic services like healthcare, but also luxuries, and the leisure time and access to education and recreation that is sadly rare in the world today.

As explained previously in this journal, the cost of a commodity is determined by the marginal cost of production (MCP), or the amount that it costs to make ‘the next’ item in a production process. This applies just as much to memes as it does to normal commodities like Ferraris or biscuits. The cost of producing the next Ferrari is quite high, the cost of producing the next biscuit is very low, and the cost of producing memes is zero. Marx’s Iron Law of Competition says that firms will compete to reduce the MCP in order to increase profit margins. Some theorists rely heavily on the concept of zero marginal cost, arguing that the competition to reduce MCP will lead to goods being produced essentially for free. These thinkers – people like Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and Jeremy Rifkin – are often called postcapitalists, because they think that capitalism will fade into non-existence once the MCP for most commodities reaches zero, producing a new ‘postcapitalist’ mode of production.

While these arguments are convincing to some extent, there is a gulf between the utopian predictions of the postcapitalists and the experience of someone living in modern Australia (and elsewhere). Stable employment is down, poverty is growing, and household debt is at record highs. Where are the zero marginal cost goods we were promised? The postcapitalists have a number of examples, but the best one is Wikipedia. Wikipedia all but destroyed the encyclopedia industry overnight, people labour for free to improve it, and essentially every single person and business with an internet connection gets a huge amount of value from it. But Wikipedia, beloved and wonderful though it may be, doesn’t sing a promise of a wonderful future. It’s cold and sterile. Similarly, pirated software is technically an example of zero marginal cost, but one suspects that most people experience it more as a low-grade crime, like jay-walking, than as a potentially revolutionary act of economic reterritorialisation.

There are two experiences of zero marginal cost that I have had that I have found more hopeful in that regard. One, very briefly, is lemons: there is a lemon tree in the house that I live in that is much older than I am. It produces literally more lemons than we can give away. The MCP of each lemon is zero. Something about that is wonderous to me, as if I’ve found a perpetual motion machine. The second more revolutionary experience of zero marginal cost that I have had is with memes.

Wikipedia and the mainstream experience of open source or pirated software are closed. They have strict rules. Memes do not. In this way they offer us a fairly unique insight into what a zero marginal cost society might look like. When people are able to create art for free, without depending on it to make it a living, they make memes. They are produced for free, shared for free, reappropriated, appreciated, and consumed for free. We have nascent virtual reality technology, with huge expenses. But when the marginal cost of creating a virtual world is near zero, what worlds will people create? Or more radically, what will it look like when buildings are free?

Another way of framing this question is: how does zero marginal cost production reterritorialise a domain? This term comes from Deleuze and Guattari, who present a view of the world as consisting of “smooth” and “striated” spaces. One fairly literal example of smoothness is a busy street of pedestrians. People are able to move in any direction at any time, and broad patterns of movement arise and disappear. It is disorganised but highly functional. A police barricade in that street is striated (or ‘striped’): there are straight lines. One group is here. They must move this way. One group is here. They must move another way. People can only move laterally directly across the striation at the point of the barricade, or longitudinally along it.

The traditional art economy is striated. One museum owns this painting. The painting is in a frame on their wall. People are inside the museum or outside the museum. They can come inside and look at the art, but they can’t touch it, or edit it. The most radical art reterritorialises that experience. ‘Untitled’ (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzales-Torres is an incredibly powerful artwork consisting of 175 lb of candy. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy. It represents the body of Ross Laycock, Gonzales-Torres’ partner, and his weight loss as he died from an AIDS-related illness. This artwork smooths the space of the museum. The audience is now a participant, and Ross Laycock is now a part of every participant. The candy is disorganised. When someone takes a piece, the candy tumbles. The striped, linear, striated space of the museum is disrupted.

The meme economy, by contrast, is a smooth space. The art is both ephemeral and permanent. No one can own a meme (despite many desperate attempts at watermarking). On Facebook, groups and pages represent a series of widening and narrowing flows of memes. They form an open-ended network, where artworks are funnelled out of wide groups where anyone can post, and into narrow pages where only one or a handful of people control what is presented. These posts are then moved into the next wide space, the more chaotic groups, where they mix and interact.

Most new meme formats are what is technically called an ‘image macro,’ or a visual image that stays essentially the same while the text and other details are altered. Readers may be familiar with the Baby Yoda format, which is used to communicate an array of experiences and relationships like cuteness, incompetence, hope, and support, depending on what the meme creator related to in the image and how they had seen it before. Through the process of being shuffled through these widening and narrowing spaces, the memes merge with one another and become self-referential.

Here we see three stages of meme development. First, the basic or ‘normie’ meme, with no self-awareness. Second, the cosmetic change, where the fundamental experience of the meme is the same but the format is being adjusted. This might involve a small degree of intertextuality, or additional layers of metaphor that were absent in the normie stage. And finally the ‘dank’ meme, which heavily utilises both intertextuality (the Yoda/Star Wars images are arranged in the format of the Woman Yelling At Cat meme) and metatextuality (the artist is using the meme to comment on their experience of participating in the meme economy).

A ‘normie’ baby yoda meme

A ‘normie’ baby yoda meme

A cosmetic baby yoda meme

A cosmetic baby yoda meme

A dank baby yoda meme

A dank baby yoda meme

This disorganised, rhizomal flow of memes, and the dankness that is produced as a result, is mainly possible because memes are free (i.e. the MCP is zero). It’s also seen in other parts of human life, like improvised music, and many sports and games. In each of these, the marginal cost is zero: you can play the next game of Dixit or CounterStrike or backyard cricket or the next song on your saxophone, essentially for free.

By contrast, conventional art, until the modern era, had an extremely high MCP. An artist needed a patron to support their basic needs, as well as to supply the materials for the art, which in pre-industrial economies were usually extremely rare and inaccessible. For example, blue pigment was historically made from lapis lazuli, which cost roughly as much as gold. It was only in the 1950s that synthetic blue pigment became widely available. In this kind of an economy, art can essentially only ever reach the first two stages of development, those being normie and cosmetic.

Saint Sebastian was one of the most depicted people in all human history, with the first known depiction in the middle of the AD 500s, and hundreds more in the time since. Most of these are ‘normie’ depictions, in which the artist attempts to recreate the story of his martyrdom for the sake of praise and worship. In the late Middle Ages, St Sebastian came to be the patron saint of Black Plague victims, which led the way for a ‘cosmetic’ stage of artwork, where his image was then imbued with additional layers of meaning but remained fundamentally a depiction of his martyrdom. The ‘dank’ stage of the St Sebastian ‘meme’ has now emerged in the Internet Era, where the image is mixed and matched, combined with other concepts, decontextualized, and used to communicate something completely detached from the story of the Saint. This meme combines an image of St Sebastian with one of St Lawrence in an entirely different style, overlaid with text taken from a novel by PG Wodehouse and posted with the phrase “St Quintin was a Roman / Quintillian was one too,” which is a reference to the comic poem “One-one was a racehorse.” This dank reimagining of St Sebastian would never have been produced in a context where the marginal cost of production of an artwork is much more than zero.

Based on this model of memes, we can make a few predictions about the nature of a zero marginal cost architecture. As the marginal cost of creating a structure diminishes, more people will use architecture as a form of public art, and the rhizomal characteristics we see in the meme economy will also be seen in architecture.

3D printed buildings are not far away. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) has vastly lower marginal costs than conventional manufacture (sometimes called ‘subtractive’ manufacturing). It’s also extremely easy to automate, even on a large and complex scale. The technology to 3D print buildings is already here but is not yet mainstream, and certainly not at zero marginal cost. However, we can already see the first two stages of the aesthetic development of memes, normie and cosmetic.

The BOD

The BOD

Projects like the BOD represent a ‘normie’ idea of architecture, essentially unchanged from the modern idea of what a house or building should be. Next, in the cosmetic stage, artworks like the Saltygloo play with the format slightly, using an unlikely material and a traditional Inuit design rather than a mainstream western one. Nonetheless this is still fundamentally the same as the BOD in that it retains the conventional notion of what it means for something to be a building.

The Saltygloo

The Saltygloo

As the marginal cost of production of buildings approaches zero, however, the capacity for normal, busy people with limited disposable incomes to create and recreate structures will increase dramatically in much the same way that their capacity to create and recreate digital images has. This will lead to the third stage of meme development, the ‘dank’ stage, which involves intertextuality and metatextuality. Unlike memes, architecture will probably never reach an actual marginal cost of zero, and the fast-paced developments characteristic of the meme economy will play out much more slowly as a result. The average household might reprint their house once a decade, whereas dank architecture enthusiasts might re-print once a year. These enthusiasts will likely use Fused Filament Fabrication, a technology which uses polymer pastes that can be reused after printing, as opposed to more conventional 3D printed architectural materials like concrete. The load-bearing limitations of reusable materials will also likely limit dank architects to one or two stories (van Woensel et al, 2018).

With these material caveats, what will ‘dank’ architecture look like? First, it will have intertextuality. I expect this to primarily take the form of pastiche, which is the case in memes. CAD files, the normal format for 3D printer instructions, will be made available of the Eiffel Tower, the Dome of the Rock, and so on, and dank architects will mix and match the parts to create chimerical structures. People will build the house from the Simpsons, or Hogwarts, or the castle from the Disney logo.

Second, metatextuality. The advent of extremely cheap architecture will allow buildings to function more like conventional sculpture, in essence a reterritorialisation; what was previously a regulated and striated field will become smoother. In Melbourne the notorious RMIT snot building (‘the Green Brain’) is an example of this being attempted, rather ineffectively, and at the cost of $7.5m. In a world of low marginal cost architecture, I suspect we would have seen metatextual responses to the snot building: a building with purple snot, a bungalow that looks like a green brain, an exact replica of the snot but on the Taj Mahal, and so on. And then these would in turn spark responses.

‘The Green Brain’

‘The Green Brain’

Another form of metatextuality in architecture is the way in which buildings directly interact with one another, and the manner in which buildings collectively form a city. In a low marginal cost architecture, local councils (or groups of citizens) could be much more willing to experiment with new forms of public space, new formats for suburbs, and so on. As this is beyond the scope of my article, I will leave you with another quote from a science fiction novel:

At last, they reached the modder district – Sixtop. The name was a pun, a reference to both the six small hills the homes were tucked around, and six-top circuits, a ubiquitous mech tech component. Sidra didn’t know what to expect of the place, but what she saw upon exiting the Undersea was surprisingly organic in aesthetic for a multispecies community of tech lovers. Yes, the signs of its inhabitants’ various trades were obvious – personal power generators, empty fuel drums, receivers and transmitters of all kinds. But likewise, there were lovingly tended strips of plantlife basking under sunlamps, and glowing fountains that glittered in the dark. There were sculptures made of scrap, smooth benches utilised by chatting friends and amorous couples, soft lighting fixtures that looked like the pet projects of individuals with disparate senses of style. There was nothing bureaucratic or single-minded about the public decor. This was a place built by many. She saw a food shop, a gaming bar, a few vendors of this and that. There was a quiet slowness here, absent in what she’d seen of the light side. Perhaps modders got enough flash and bustle in their day jobs. Perhaps they, too, needed a place to unplug.

The smooth path leading from the Undersea station was curved, branching out like a river into the clusters of homes beyond. The dwellings themselves were low to the ground – nothing over two storeys tall – and rounded at the edges, like someone had moulded them out of handfuls of . . . something. She didn’t have any stored files on building materials. Yet another thing to download.”

Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)

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