The Monkey Barn Interviews Continue. Today we have Ajax.


In case you missed it:

Over the weekend I ran two rather provacative columns.

Saturday I talked about a Great Movie Shame List; movies you're ashamed you haven't seen. (The few who did read couldn't quite grasp the the movies I listed were just off the cuff and not an official list, but at least they cared.)

Sunday I wrote all about my 11th birthday party, which included Questions of the Day and People trying to kill me!

Oh, and a few days ago Kaida offered to share with the world her love of looking at hot guys, by listing the TOP TEN BEST MALE BODIES (2006)


The Hyperion Chronicles

“Mi Mi Mi (You You You)”

#407 Retro-Meme

I love words. I don’t just love words, but I love everything about them. I love the etymology of words (their origins), how words came together, got the meanings they have, discarded others, took on new meanings along the way.

I love the myth, meaning and metaphor of the complex symbols words create. This field—the deeper meaning symbolic purpose of words and signs in culture—is called “Semiotics.” In fact, you could say I’m a semiotician. (Although: I DO NOT like that word, semiotician, how it looks, how it rolls off the tongue. Semiotician sounds like I work in a half baked morgue. But one thing at a time.)

Words are the greatest thing we have. So much so that most people don’t realize it and refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming truth of the assertion. It’s a profound thing, really, what words mean to us. Rather than club you over the head, take a few moments and think about it. I’ll wait.

See what I mean?

For myriad reasons we don’t need to dissect right now, we tend to overlook some of the cooler word concepts out there. I consider this a shame, and it’s why I’m starting my new “Word!” series, where we will discuss and enjoy the wonderful world of words. (Ironically: my title for this series is less than Pure Awesome, but I’m hoping one of you young bucks or does can come up with something worthy.)

Agenda for Part 1:




You remember when you first got email, how cool it was to get a list from one of your friends? 50-some questions, telling everything you wanted to know—and several things you didn’t—about that person right at that moment. After perusing the list you were supposed to remove their answers and insert your own, sending it out to everyone you knew.

The first time you got that List, you were excited to share all about the You. The next time it was less cool, but you did it again. After that, it got old, real quickly. At some point, you refused to play along (unless they were sneaky by filling in your name under Most Likely or Least Likely to Respond).

That kind of List—not just that one in particular, but anything you can take and repeat yourself—is big in the Blogging community. I have been critical in the past—calling it lazy writing—but have come around. After all, do I not ask questions every time I go to dinner, questions I ask everyone, and questions you can ask your friends the next time you have dinner? Have I not created my famous 14 Question Matrix of questions designed to pierce the soul of someone you meet?

Okay then. I’m just like the others, and as such I retract my previous criticism and say “Caveat Listor.”

But here’s where I draw my line in the sand. Here is where I gird myself for battle and go out looking for a Blogger to slay.

Do to a watering down, a hep-cat robbery of cutting edge science, this kind of repeatable list has come to be called a “Meme.” (And just to get it out of the way: meme is pronounced “meem.” Rhymes with gleam, deem, cream or seem.)

People, I know some of you are new to the Hyperion Institute, and haven’t had the benefit of knowing me very long, and for this reason I will say this as gently as possible:


I’m glad we now have an understanding, but this does leave two questions:

1) What do we call these Lists?

2) Why does Hyperion care so much?

Question One is legitimate, and after thinking it over, I have decided to call these Lists Q.O.D., or Questions of the Day.

Why am I using an acronym? Quite simply, because it adds cachet. It’s somehow cooler, more scientific to say, “I have a Q-O-D you will love!” Heck, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t even have to tell them it’s a simple acronym when asked. Tell anyone who wonders about the term it’s Latin. They’ll believe you, as QOD is close to QED, the famous mathematical term.

This leads us to Question Two. The reason I care so much is that “Meme” is one of the coolest ideas semioticicans have come up with. Let me tell you about it.

Put simply, a meme is “Cultural D.N.A.”

(actual DNA uses more pastel colors)

It’s an idea that is transmitted and replicated, not through the genes, but through us. Big deal, you say. By that definition virtually any word or idea would be a meme. True, but meme initially was reserved for something more profound. It’s almost like the transmutation of the ideas changed and morphed the memes into things in and of themselves.

To put it another way, in the field of genetics, there is a theory of genes behaving in Social Darwinian ways, aggressively replicating itself. Scientists go so far as to call it a “selfish gene.” (I’m simplifying and ignoring much of the story, but this isn’t a science column, and I assume most of you studied this way back when.)

The idea of a Meme then—and I know this sounds far-fetched—is almost the same. Memes transmit and replicate, the strong ones surviving, the weak ones falling away. (Note: when I say “strong,” I don’t necessarily mean “good.” More on that in a minute.)

What’s the big deal? We decide what we like, we discard what we don’t.

But it doesn’t work that way. There are 6 billion of us, and we don’t even know our own minds. We certainly don’t agree with anyone on everything. We can’t decide who to elect without squabbles, where borders are, who should win sporting events, get promoted, or who should get the most money for movie sequels.

Have you ever been asked to decide what catch phrase, song lyric, fashion trend, pictogram, or what you have gets into popular lore?

Has anyone? Madison Avenue spends Billions every year marketing these things, and they still don’t have much control. These ideas seem to just come out of nowhere, whether it’s the sudden phenomenal popularity of an “Achy Breaky Heart” or “Macarena,” those ridiculous pre-faded lined jeans, or the inexplicable staying power of Paris Hilton.

How do these ideas get transmitted? How do they stick around? What makes one song catch in your head, but not another? Why is a smiley face instantly recognizable but not a cloud of despair? How does any of this happen?

No one is sure, but the field of Memetics aims to find out. If you break it down—and the scientists aren’t willing to say this, but it’s really difficult not to come to the conclusion—it almost seems like the memes have a will of their own. Who’s to say why one religion fades and another survives. (And don’t give me a “blessed by God” theory. They can’t all be blessed by the same God.)

Who’s to say why suits and ties are still around but not pocket watches and male wigs. Why you can remember some great commercials but not others? Some song lyrics but not others?

Well, I’m not trying to do an exhaustive dissertation on memes here. I’m just trying to get you interested in the idea, and make a plea to return it to an exalted state, and not associated with some list that asks me what time I woke up this morning.

Memes are a fascinating field, one we should all care more about, and an idea that deserves our respect.

Now, go out and tell that to the world. (Get it?)

If I knew then what I knew now….

I’ve covered this ground before, but I wanted to go ahead and get it in a column. The term—which I created—is Retrospotting. What is means is seeing a TV program or movie and recognizing someone you didn’t notice the first time because they weren’t famous then.

Did you catch that?

Perhaps a couple of examples. You’re watching WHAT ABOUT BOB, and the daughter just looks familiar. Know why? It’s Kathryn Erbe, whom you may not know by name, but I bet you recognize as the detective in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Or, you know that episode of Friends where Rachel flies to England to try to stop Ross from marrying Emily? Remember how she’s talking to some guy on the plane? (I remember him saying, “It sounds like you were on a break!”) That’s Hugh Laurie, AKA Greg House!

Or, watch TWISTER: Phillip Seymour Hoffman!

I think my favorite was a time when I inexplicably found myself watching Charles in Charge, only to see a very very young Matthew Perry—Chandler!—show up to date the daughter!

(he coulda be Leo!)

Retrospotting simply rules, and you’ll want to tell all your friends. Just be sure I get credit.

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of the Word! series. Join us next time when we look into three ideas that are so cool, they’re sure to get you phone numbers from girls. And after all, that’s the only reason anyone learns words in the first place.

August 28, 2006


tiff said...

I don't want girls' phone numbers, yet will continue to read your columns, because I just like being a big ol' smartypants that uses wors like "seimotician" and "meme" correctly.

This is one of your best yet, Hyp. Keep 'em coming!

kapgar said...

Umm... that still doesn't really clarify what a "meme" is. Give us an example. Give us 5 steps to IDing a meme. Or something. Not theory. Give us practical methods that we can employ to identify one. Because, otherwise, a meme is just (according to Merriam-Webster) "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture." That leaves it pretty wide open.

Rick said...

I'm with ya on the memes. The word oughta be banned from blogs. Memes, by definition, cannot be pre-defined and therefore cannot be "created" by an individual. That said, I'm gonna keep an eye out for explosive growth in use of the word "retrospotting."

Hyperion said...

tiff - 'preciate

Kapgar - I gave several examples! (The songs, the jeans, the Paris Hilton). However, if I didn't beat the horse to death, it's because I wanted to whet your appetite so you'd go out and learn more on your own!

rick - so true. Best comment this month!