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How memes articulate tech trouble and signal “all the things.”

History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”—especially in Silicon Valley. In April 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress for 10 hours over 2 days, following revelations that a political consulting firm had received access to user data without consent. A few months later in India, Biplab Deb, a chief minister from the state of Tripura, asserted that internet and satellite technologies existed in the time of the Mahabharata. Though separated by geography and reach, these two episodes have something in common: they both gave rise to a boisterous series of internet memes that reveal a shared and underlying set of ethical concerns—or tech troubles.

Krishna Counsels the Pandava Leaders, Page from a Mahabharata series. Brooklyn Museum

Memes, which remix media images through text and pastiche before recirculating the images online, can shed a light on how tech troubles manifest across different geographies. These differences in turn index the changing histories of economic and social power materialized in technical infrastructures. Such memes can crystallize but not resolve the tech troubles they lampoon, since the very pleasure of their satire depends in part on their omni-accentuality—their ability to index “all the things.”

Brogrammers and replicants

One of the best examples of recent internet mockery can be found in the memes that were produced after Zuckerberg testified before Congress following news that Cambridge Analytica harvested data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for the purposes of influencing the US presidential election. Memes created from a series of satirical takes on his testimony amassed on a page of the online discussion and web content rating site Reddit (called a subreddit) named “zuckmemes.” While Zuckerberg answered questions about user privacy and terms of agreement, primetime news cameras narrated a parallel and equally compelling version of events, captured in his seat cushion, his pallid demeanor, his need to drink water, his haircut, and his rictus grin. Meme makers and tweeters took these affective cues and transformed them into the image of CEO as malfunctioning synthetic life form (a humanoid robot, cyborg, android, or automaton). While most news outlets deemed Zuckerberg’s oral testimony successful, these memes reveled in his failure to produce credible human affect.

In one meme uploaded to Twitter and liked over 10,000 times, an image of Zuckerberg drinking water is accompanied by dialogue from the science fiction film Blade Runner (1982). The dialogue depicts the fictional polygraph-style Voight-Kampff test, which identifies “replicants”—human-seeming artificial intelligence—through questions designed to elicit empathy. In the movie, the subject fails spectacularly; transferring the dialogue to the meme highlights Zuckerberg’s flat affect. “What’s a tortoise?” Zuckerberg is made to ask, revealing that he is focusing on the wrong thing: the particularities of tortoises rather that the emotional weight of causing an animal to suffer (the tortoise is in the desert, in the hot sun; you’ve flipped it over onto its back, according to the parameters of the test, and in the world of Blade Runner animals are particularly valued because they have become very rare). Zuckerberg’s robotic qualities spring forth through this mashup of cyborg dialogue and news image to critique the inhumane actions of companies such as Facebook, which ignore privacy rights and let political influence and misinformation travel across their networks with little regard for the rights or well-being of their human customers. A similar meme posted to “zuckmemes” reformats an image from Zuckerberg’s address to the European Union in Brussels in May 2018, to look like a status update from his personal Facebook feed, “sad display today at the European Parliament meeting. I was nervous running the new voice synth firmware in a live situation. What I should have been worrying about was the gesture sub-routines. I was stuck in this position for several sessions while the system did a partial reboot. #embarassing.”

Mimesis and omni-accentuality

Though most histories of internet memes trace the concept to biologist Richard Dawkins’s exposition of units of culture that replicate virally and affect our thinking in The Selfish Gene, mimesis has a much deeper history. Copying and repurposing as an aspect of human creativity has been celebrated across time and locality as a means of education and a measure of innovation. It has also been reviled as derivative. Internet memes benefit from this rich historical repertoire of semiotic reproduction and transformation. Memes also build on the material affordances of the internet, which allows users to quickly download and modify moving and still images to make a new variation on a theme. Indeed, as Ryan M. Milner points out in The World Made Meme, message boards that enable users to vote up images and posts accelerate the spread and creation of memes by creating competitive tournaments that reward clever distortion. Internet memes take advantage of the materiality of online circulation, which facilitates the quick repurposing of images, photoshopping, textual overlay, and page views that track an image’s popularity.

The joy of memes for viewers comes from being able to track and identify all the things—an entire world of references, bricolage, and extensions that in their circulation create an affective relationship toward the world at large.

Taken together, the repertoire of mimetic forms that memes participate in and the material cut-and-paste affordances of online platforms yield what Valentin Voloshinov might call memes’s “multi-accentuality”: their ability to convey the perspectives of several different social positions simultaneously. Such multi-accentuality makes internet memes ambiguous, capable of delivering racist, homophobic, sexist, and ableist messages in the guise of satire or of becoming a semiotic repertoire through which social protest movements can ignite, concentrate, and persevere.

The pleasure of making and viewing memes derives from what we might call their omni-accentuality, their ability to signal “all the things.” The joy of memes for viewers comes from being able to track and identify all the things—an entire world of references, bricolage, and extensions that in their circulation create an affective relationship toward the world at large.

We can read the omni-accentuality of a group of memes anthropologically for the worlds they evidence and the mood they help create. Internet memes are attuned to the differing social and technical ideologies that produce algorithmic worlds across geographies shaped by colonial histories and partly refashioned through anticolonial and decolonizing movements. Though it might seem in popular discourse that meme production is a largely US-based phenomenon, turning to sites outside Silicon Valley can reveal different local manifestations of tech trouble—the sense of ethical doubt that accompanies this moment in the global history of programming cultures and histories of programming.

Developmentalism and technological power

Memes register the technical expertise developed in particular places that then articulates into what we understand as the internet, as artist and critic An Xiao Mina points out. Places have their own embedded histories of technology and political power, and studying memes are one means of surfacing those histories.

In India, programming moves across political divides and can be used to both undercut and embolden rightest ideologies. Over several decades, politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have claimed Hindu hegemony over technological innovations. Pronouncements made by Prime Minster Modi as well as members of Parliament suggest that ancient religious, medical, and political texts collectively known as the Vedas and Shastras provide evidence of knowledge of advanced scientific and medical techniques such as the theory of the atom, plastic surgery, and wireless internet technologies. In one of the latest incidences, Biplap Deb, a chief minister from the northeastern state of Tripura, used the narratives from the epic literature of the Mahabharata to claim that internet and satellite technologies have existed in India since the 4th century BCE or earlier.

Meme culture responded quickly.

One meme, posted to the “India” subreddit and upvoted 1,700 times, uses a particularly vivid still from the 1993 television series Sri Krishna, an adaptation of the stories of the life of Krishna created by Ramanand Sagar and aired weekly on the national broadcast station Doordarshan. The image repurposes a famous scene from the Mahabharata in which Gandhari, queen of the Kauravas, blindfolds herself after marrying Dhritrashtra, who was born blind. The image is captioned with the title “Rare picture of Gandhari using VR headset to live stream the War.” This story is immediately recognizable to South Asian audiences and inserting the image into the discourse of ancient technological wonders is funny because it collapses historical time into the current moment, signaling all the things that could be associated with childhoods spent watching this series on television, the history of colonial science and technology in India, and the reoccurring claims for Hindu science made by politicians today.

The narration of Hindu hegemony in contemporary India often tries to own the past by making it a dead, unchanging reliquary for an equally unchanging Hindu identity. Memes play on the plausibility of this ownership and stabilization of the past by manipulating found images to make their point. An image posted to the India subreddit marked with the header “Totally real and upvoted 5,600 times, shows a picture of iron rebar encased in concrete lying sideways on a construction site. The caption posited a different interpretation for the image: “500TB pen drive from Mahabharata era unearthed by Archeological Survey of India.” Comments on this meme both praised it for the comedy and articulated deep worry about the consolidation of muscular religiosity and the kinds of exclusions and violence they bring. The found object aesthetic of memes such as this demonstrate India’s particular relationship to Silicon cultures, where repurposed objects surface a postcolonial technical space in which asserting cultural control over technical objects has long been associated with national self-determination. In postcolonial technical spaces, scientific achievements have been used to make arguments against belatedness, or the idea that formerly and currently colonized places remain developmentally behind the rest of the world. Ancient technology memes upend but stay firmly entrenched within this frame of reference for the Indian state. By bringing together everyday objects and the scientific practices of the Archeological Survey, an enterprise started by the British colonial state as part of an apparatus of governmental legitimacy, this meme demonstrates the ongoing colonial logics that govern how history and technology can be discussed in India today. While zuckmemes deliver a critique of corporate control over personal information, these memes from India take aim at ideological hegemony over temporality. Tracking these different concerns helps create a fuller picture of how memes build worlds, and indicates how multiple ethical anxieties and commitments are being registered today.

Trouble in the Valley, trouble on the Plateau

The Zuckerberg and Mahabharata memes signal what we might term “tech trouble,” the emerging popular sense in multiple locales that the ethical implications of Silicon Valley cultures are worrying, knotty, and not easily solved. In memes, differences across sites of Silicon production, whether in California’s Valley or Bangalore’s Plateau or the other Silicon sites corporate tech has produced become clear. As satire, memes illustrate how to approach Silicon Valley as a disarticulated and disaggregated place that produces forms of inflection across geographic space even while it concretizes specificity in place. Paying attention to these specifics maps the political, economic, and legal entanglements of global coding worlds. Memes may track popular forms of uprising against Silicon Valley dominance, but just as importantly they might articulate trouble that does not have ready technical solutions. Satire crystallizes the power and the discontent in tech worlds, from anxieties about the corporate mining of privacy data to fears of the political domination of nation-states by ethno-religious chauvinists.

Their omni-accentuality, referencing all the things, points toward memes’ world-building properties. They not only sustain many different readings but also sustain a particular affective stance towards the world through the pleasure viewers and creators take in following all the meanings they can unpack in a particular genre of meme expression. Crucially, while some of these expressions, such as the ones I discuss here, promote critical and decolonial coding practices, memes are just as likely to build totalizing affects. Rather than looking to meme cultures to understand whether they themselves are good or bad, positive or negative, we should understand memes as an expression of both the pleasures and the anxieties that haunt our contemporary technological worlds.

Sareeta Amrute is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle and director of research at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York. She is the author of Encoding Race Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin (winner of the 2017 Diana Forsythe Prize) and is currently at work on a book about how to think about ethics in technologically mediated work environments called Future Proof Code: An Illustrated Guide to Techno-ethics.

Cite as: Amrute, Sareeta. 2019. “Silicon Satire.” Anthropology News website, February 28. 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1103