My grateful thanks to Kayla King, who interviewed me this week for a guest post on her blog series, “Pages Penned in Pandemic.” Kayla is a terrific writer, and a great friend, and I am lucky enough to be avidly reading the draft chapters of her next novel. She’s got an unlimited future.
The “Pages Penned in Pandemic” series of blog posts is about the writing life in 2020 and how writers have adjusted as unprecedented changes erupt around them. I am somebody who needs contact with other writers to motivate me to get work done. A scheduled meeting on the calendar is a prime motivator for me. My groups used to meet in person, but now we meet online. I’m an ex-IT administrator, so the software of choice is of interest to me: Google Hangouts for one group, GoToMeeting for the other. But everybody uses “zoom” as the generic verb for this type of meeting now.
The virus keeps me apart from the other writers in my groups, but in a broader sense, a virus brought us together in the first place. William S. Burroughs was the writer who first said “Language is a virus.” (I’ve got a minor bias against science fiction, so I’ll record the rest of his quote in parentheses: “from outer space.”) For me, the human imagination is something like a receptor field that responds instantly to everything it’s fed. It’s a wide-open immune system.
Writers hope their ideas will catch on and fire the readers’ imaginations. Songwriters hope their every chorus and hook is a potential earworm. YA/fantasy writers can only wish that their imaginary worlds would spread as infectiously as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts did.
On social media, with our attention tuned to the minimum, we get exposed to graphic memes. A meme triggers, first, an evaluation about whether we agree with its viewpoint. If yes: share. That’s the flow chart for a lot of Facebook users I know. There’s no pause for fact-checking or for making a judgment about the reliability of a meme’s source. We spread it virally, without thought.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report made public that the Russian military GRU unit continues to interfere in American politics. One of their methods is disseminating memes that are designed to mislead and confuse. Both left-wing and right-wing users are targeted. Senator Mark Warner, vice-chair of the committee, commented that he’s afraid Americans “unwittingly” share the disinformation and propaganda. I admire the restraint in that word “unwittingly.” For me, most of the time, I want to shout “You’re a Russian dupe!” every time I see one of these in my feed.
The word “meme” in its broader sense means any idea that can be shared, imitated, replicated, mirrored. A meme is an intellectual virus, and language arose in the human race because it was a meme whose time had come. Susan Blackmore in her remarkable book The Meme Machine made the case for the idea that memes were responsible for the evolution of the human brain. Our brains became big because we wanted to share our thoughts with each other. We’re super-spreaders.