The End of Memes

When Wired first launched at Macworld in January 1993, Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) was listed on the masthead as the magazine’s “Patron Saint.” What had Professor McLuhan done to deserve this memetic canonization?

Memes were invented in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published his book The Selfish Gene and coined the term to describe “symbolic units of cultural evolution” that were meant to be analogous to the role genes play in biology. Memes were very much a part of the television “revolution” that McLuhan wrote about — perfect for television advertising. Memes are “democratic” and psychographically weaponized: Unlike one-size-fits-all propaganda, you get to choose between Coke or Pepsi. Memes are meaningless and you can’t argue with them. Just like television. Just do it! (Don’t think about it.)

Today, memes are dead. In case anyone still wants to hold onto them, consider the recent controversy over Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi television ad. Within 24 hours, the pushback against Kendall — who, in the ad’s narrative, skipped out on a fashion-shoot to join a protest march — was overwhelming. All of a sudden, meaning mattered enough to derail Pepsi’s attempt to hijack Black Lives Matters (a group that, as it turns out, has just hired its own public relations agency.) Pepsi claimed they were “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” but that’s just not working anymore. Today, people are thinking (and worrying) too much for memes, which are uniformly stupid, to exercise much power over the human psyche. We’re no longer living in the “electric” paradigm that Louis was talking about.

To use McLuhan’s own terminology, memes have now become obsolete. By saying this, McLuhan was pointing to a special kind of death, a state in which something is everywhere but is no longer psychologically consequential. Walking dead, if you will. Memes today are like George Romero’s zombies coming to eat our brains, and increasingly, we all recognize this. We are “getting out” and perhaps even being “woke” as we wise up to the end of memes.

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