Unpacking the myths and memes of spring 2014
Myths are powerful abstraction devices allowing easy transmission of culture. Digital media lies on a base of code which is often invisible but also mythical. In his book ‘Myth Today’, Roland Barthes describes how myths are constructed. In April a bug was discovered in Open SSL security which became the first ‘Bug 2.0’ bug and the most significant. It became mythical. In May, glamorous bearded lady drag act, Conchita Wurst won Eurovision amid Russian outrage. She carried a message of tolerance and acceptance by highlighting issues of sexual discrimination using a neatly trimmed beard to go along with her sequinned dress. Is Conchita as a symbol of tolerance a modern myth in the making? Juxtaposition of imagery in surrealism has served as mythical vehicle over for engagements in difficult issues such as fighting for greater tolerance and equality. The Dada movement and Monte Python have both used it to great effect commenting on some of the harder to communicate ideas around sexuality, war and power. Today we have the internet. Fuelled by an ‘always on’ internet culture, highly replicable memes are spawning and spreading around the world within hours of events. I am interested to see how modern contemporary myths are made in relation to digital and new media. In particular I am looking at events of the last 2 months April and May 2014.
2. Roland Barthes on Myths
In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes gives an example of a modern myth. A black saluting French soldier is on the front cover of Paris Match magazine.
What we see are various visual symbols. The signifiers. These are what they simply are. Here – the black soldier is saluting. The signification (signified) of this saluting is that he is proud to serve his country in military service. This alone is not a myth. To become a myth it seems that we have to have a compounded more deeply nested set of signs and signifiers cooked together over time and stewed in culture stock.
The secondary signification here and the one that makes it mythical is the historical meaning we ascribe to the image or symbol that we see or perceive. In this case – the sign and signifier is the proud black soldier. The signified, and therefore myth – is that the boy soldier represents an uncomfortable coexistence with a colonial and violent history in which France was responsible for slavery and ill-treatment of the black people who’m it later had an obligation to take care of.
The idea of the meme was popularised by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. The meme is described analogous to a gene and aims to replicate – this being it’s primary function. It’s survival depends on the cultural selection processes much as genetic evolution and survival does. There are similarities between memes and myths in that both are convenient units of replicable content. For memes to spawn and spread they require a medium which will act as a vectorThe internet is a powerful vector for the spread of memes. People copying each other’s behaviour or copying and replicating (and changing) images, videos and other ideas online and posting them back online to further spread the meme.
3. Conchita – a myth in the making
- Europe prepares for elections
- Russia the focus of media attention for homophobia and invasion of Ukraine
- Austrian drag act Conchita Wurst wins Eurovision with ‘Rise like a Phoenix’
- A double act – Tom Neuwirth is the artist behind the persona ‘Conchita’
- Russians enraged. Men feel threatened and Relious leader blames her for floods
- The world goes Conchita crazy! She brings a message of tolerance and acceptance
- Conchita’s beard starts a global meme that spreads fast over the internet
4. Bearded Ladies – the spread and spawn of a meme
Conchita’s beard causes a storm and excitement around the world. Russian men start a new internet meme – shaving their beards off online. Museums put beards on their paintings of ladies. Young girls braid their hair into beards. Phone apps created to add a ‘conchita beard’ to your face. Russian developer ‘Daken’ creates Conchita beard app. He also creates a recipe app – where you are told that you are a ‘bitch’. The beard with the glamour creates a visible difference which causes a stir. It’s slightly surreal and certainly playful. She seems comfortable with it’s ambiguity.
5. Bleeding Hearts
Myth of Conchita as Jesus emerges – her bleeding heart carried across the web and mixed with the religious signification of her name connected with the idea of fighting for tolerance. The image shows a bleeding heart – a word often uses in derogatory term meaning someone overly sympathetic but also full of religious connotations. Conchita’s sincerity and charm win over the public
6. Heart Bleed bug and the bug that was ignored
A Finnish company called Codenomicon discovered a serious security bug in the Open SSL software. It was named Heartbleed due to connection with ‘heartbeat’ function of software and was causing the computers to leak data stored. Open source product being used in over 66% of all websites big and small globally. Heartbleed was said to be the first ‘bug 2.0’ as it was instantly given a logo and a website – then released publicly. It caused an internet sensation and became an instant meme. Heartbleed logo was appropriated by the tech community and mainstream media to issue advice to public about what to do
Meanwhile… Microsoft office had just finally withdrawn support for Windows XP after more than 15 years. A bug was found in Internet Explorer which was signficant and scarry affecting over 25% of internet users globally, many of them in government offices who hadn’t upgraded. This bug was nearly as serious as heartbleed. The bug hardly made a ripple. It had no name, no logo and no community of interested people ready to step in and help sort it out. It was ignored. The impact of this is not known.
7. God is in the cloud
The cloud as a contemporary symbol for distributed computing and safe storage and access to your valuable files, documents and precious photos online 24 hours
Google ever more implicated in all aspects of our daily lives from google vehicles photographing everything on the ground to plans of delivering wifi to users across the world using hot air balloons or drones. We ‘believe’ the cloud is a safe place, high above us where invisible wifi sends us what we need and that it’s great because it’s free.
Cloud computing is actually a very heavy, energy intensive, hot business on the ground, Heavily politically bound. There are arguments to make about increasing our technological literacy to include knowing how the technology which exists is affecting our human rights and what we can choose to do about it. Looking after Open source projects with more resourcing and support could go a long way. Independent mesh networks and private clouds not connected to google
8. The power of the absurd – Pony Power
We don’t notice things that don’t change much – like the walls that don’t break
Surrealism and the absurd give us a chance to see the differences and put a new framework around images and ideas. Conchita Wurst’s beard is a surreal image on her slender glamourous body. This sudden shift in perspective allows new conversations to be had as we all have to crack open the myths behind the symbols.
Monty Python achieved global success by using the absurd along with comedy to transport their quite heavy, philosophical ideas. These became mythical too.
The naming of things is not an easy thing to do and many attempts are made before definitive names stick.
Python programming language was inspired by Monte Python as the founder was a fan. It was a whimsical moment. The ethos of python was that fun should be central to a good user experience Django – a framework built on Python used the image of the pony because someone had once said when asked what Django should have in it -‘i want a pony’ and they made it happen. Browser plugins created to highlight cloud myth. They replace the words ‘The Cloud’ with ‘The Butt’ and bring in the feminist agenda.
Bronies – Men who like My Little Ponies. “I will tolerate the living shit out of you”
Django later rebranded and left the pony out. It’s missed by some.
My 6 and 9 year old boys are currently crazy about loom bands. Bracelets that are ‘knitted’ with a frame and tiny elastic bands. They question whether this is ‘girly’ but decided it’s ok. All the kids are doing it. Archie made a hashtag out of them. Both masculine code and feminine tradition fused. Being modular, plastic and elastic rather than fluffy and continuous helps boys engage with this toy.