Are memes making us stupid?
You’ll have seen people moaning about how much online discourse is nowadays just an endless back-and-forth exchange of shallow repetitive memes. So do memes make us dumb? Does compulsive meme sharing limit creativity, or enhance it?
The internet, you know, that thing you’re staring at right now, has tremendous, world-changing intellectual potential. An unprecedented facility for connecting minds, spreading concepts, distributing data, nourishing curiosity in both young and old, in every conceivable pocket of the world (pretty much) and across every imaginable language.
And yet, some folks have started to grumble: memes are making us stupid.
Those who reckon the internet is probably reducing average IQ at a startling rate are especially scathing about memes. Whole reddit threads, newspaper thinkpieces and extended YouTube rants are dedicated to the idea that memes represent the ultimate dumbing-down of human interaction.
So do they have a point?
MEMES AND ATTENTION SPAN
Probably should say up front that ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, and even for that matter ‘smart’ are subjective terms. Nobody has a good working definition of ‘intelligence’ nailed down. ChatGPT, when I asked her, told me intelligence is ‘…is the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions that are reasonable and based on available information.’ She wants my job by the way, and she’ll likely get it.
But let’s say our ability to focus on a single task is a reasonable proxy for smartness, which it totally is, at least in a practical work/school sense of the term.
Tech writer Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book on the subject (What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published by Blackstone) which is worth quoting at length here:
‘…It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information—to gauge its accuracy, to weigh its relevance and worth, to put it into context—and the Internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration.
‘When the brain is overloaded by stimuli, as it usually is when we’re peering into a network-connected computer screen, attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers.
‘We become less reflective and more impulsive. Far from enhancing human intelligence, I argue, the Internet degrades it.’
Carr’s argument is that the constant bombardment of new stimuli – like memes – makes it impossible to properly focus. Which is kind of hard to refute, right?
LOW IQ MEMES
But hang on a minute, that argument has been deployed before.
A German monk in the 15th century called Johannes Trithemius thought that the newfangled printing press was making people stupid.
In a scathing, handwritten tract he argued that far from being a time-consuming nuisance, the traditional practice of copying out books laboriously onto parchment ‘built character’ in the same way as chopping wood.
Trithemius also reckoned that monks lazily relying on the printing press weren’t truly absorbing the scriptures, and would probably end up in hell.
This argument actually goes back way further. Aristotle in the 4th century BC was also mad at those dang kids, fuming: ‘….They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.’
Douglas Adams, immortal writer of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books beloved by Elon Musk and anybody with half a brain, summed up the problem thus:
‘I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.’
ACTUALLY STUPID MEMES
I mean, of course, there are actual stupid people in the world. And surprise surprise, give them a smartphone, and they share stupid memes with it.
A lot of Redditors, in particular, love to gripe that their beloved ivory tower subreddits have over time become more and more contaminated with normie flotsam and jetsam in the form of low-effort, slow-witted memes.
This is a pity, I guess. But all it calls for is a bit of rigorous moderation. r/askscience is a paragon of how to do it right, since you ask.
The fact is, daft people have always shared daft content, even before the modern meme era. ‘Wazzup’ is a fairly solid example, but you can go back way further. ‘Don’t Have A Cow Man’, or even the venerable ‘Pull My Finger’ are all dumb ‘memes’ that people without very much imagination used in place of actual discourse.
Bottom line: – it’s not as if everybody was having sparkling, original, witty conversations before Facebook was invented.
So if you’re complaining everybody around you is stupid for sharing memes, most likely you’re just not in on the joke.
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