It’s hard to imagine this in 2022, but there was indeed an era when meme was not a part of common parlance. Such a time may be hard to conceive for the Generation Zoomers, but most older Millennials and all Xers can recall when they somehow knew and fully understood what the term means, even though they probably never received an official definition. Sometime, most likely around the year 2000, when the internet achieved such omnipresence that it no longer served primarily as a form of amusement but as a means of conducting mundane, utilitarian tasks and services, its availability and customizability began to compete with that of television, even at a time when network cable services where bringing not dozens but hundreds of new channels to living rooms across the globe. Any personal computer with a good modem or ethernet connection took it a step further: the number of “channels” (i.e. webpages) was virtually infinite. And even as people increasingly used that information superhighway not just for research and amusement but to shop, pay bills, and gain technical support, the entertainment capacity expanded as well. Internet junkies could disseminate funny audio or video clips, or even still images in a matter of seconds; those that resonated with a sufficiently large percentage of the public spread almost virally. From this practice, a new definition of meme was born…quite literally.
The second definition in my hyperlink to dictionary.com references “a cultural item. . .that is spread through the internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way”. Bear in mind, this simple four-letter word shares origins with mimesis, mimic, mime…all derivations from the Greek mïméma or the Latin mïmicus: “imitation, copy, duplicate”. And, truth be told, the word “meme” is, in comparison to these other derivations, a relative neologism: evolutionary biologist and secular mystic Richard Dawkins ostensibly coined the term in the mid 1970s to reflect any and all cultural items that achieved widespread recognition through a replication that in many regards affects a simulacrum of biological genes. It just took about a quarter century—a GENEration—to achieve a truly viral spread. These days it happens much more quickly.
And, in many cases, it doesn’t require any degree of cyber-infrastructure to disseminate. It never did. All it takes is one person to initiate, a second to follow-through, and the signaling has begun. Others take the cue, and, with enough iterations, the original gesture achieves a profuseness that is obvious to the uninitiated. However, since all rules for propriety as applied to this gesture have collapsed (if they ever existed to begin with), the only standard for further initiation is to dive right in and adopt the gesture. Initiates may adopt to show that they endorse it; they may not even endorse it but merely feel pressure to do so. Over time, sometimes with astonishing rapidity, these humble artifacts embed themselves and assimilate with the other artifacts that in term comprise the culture, becoming so entrenched that they endure over time, and tat subsequent generations inherit it, akin to Dawkins’ biological imprints. It’s a meme that deploys no electronic or digital transmission. Completely analog.
Take this exit ramp: eastbound Interstate 95 at Harvey Road just outside of Wilmington, Delaware.
This is the point where the exit ramp, sloping upward from I-95, terminates at a stop light at Harvey Road. It’s not a hugely busy intersection Harvey Road is a mere collector, not stretching more than a few miles in either direction. And a small spur allows people turning right onto Harvey Road to bypass the light; it’s for left turns only. The interchange from I-95 is so minor that the exit ramps only travel one direction; motorists who leave the interstate onto Harvey Road cannot get back on in the same direction if they change their mind. The stop light cycles aren’t very long. But for whatever reason, the guardrail at this exit ramp has become the catalyst for a local meme.
Bumper stickers all over the place, stretching several car lengths.
They cover a variety of subjects, but most of them involve at least some text—typical of bumper stickers. There’s enough to look at that, my first time idling at this exit ramp, I got too transfixed and missed my light’s cycle. Oops.
But it must not matter too much; the guardrail is too low down for people to simply reach out their window and slap that sticker. They have to get out of their car and be deliberate about it—certainly more deliberate than tossing their litter (something else that is sadly prevalent, but much easier to do, so no surprise).
The area isn’t particularly pedestrian friendly either. Though there’s a sidewalk on the other side of Harvey Road, the engineering of the street clearly does not intend to accommodate walkers.
Most people with bumper stickers are coming at this guardrail from their cars, idling at the left-turn light on the exit ramp.
Given that the average person doesn’t just carry bumper stickers at his or her disposal while driving, a fair amount of deliberation is involved here. People drive by, see the guardrail collage, then acquire a bumper sticker so they can contribute the next time around.
Not surprisingly, many of the bumper stickers are political. And given the polarized zeitgeist, the political stickers seem more likely to get superseded by another, newer sticker. Don’t like the beliefs expressed by one bumper sticker? Slap a new one atop it. It’s all too easy, and, since this isn’t a very busy interchange, you can get out of your car and slam a bumper sticker onto that guardrail and not worry much about holding up traffic.
And thus, a localized meme is born. I recognize that some my argue this isn’t a meme in the sense of a repeated word, phrase, or image that earns slight modifications over time. That’s much more the memetic approach we see online. This guardrail in Wilmington is indeed an analog meme; the repetition is the anarchic slapping of bumper stickers onto public property, which the public curates by tolerating or even endorsing it. The action is of course illegal: defacing public property is no less of a crime than littering. But, as the stickers accumulate, they become less of an offense to the typical eye, while litter only gets unsightlier as the quantity grows. Since this guardrail scenario is a lot rarer than littering or even graffiti tagging, it’s distinctive, droll, and even likable.
Through memetic culture, this interchange and guardrail near Wilmington has defied laws in a way that is unlikely to offend much of anyone. It reminds me a bit of the proliferation of padlocks on some piece of public infrastructure, typically a metal railing to a bridge or lookout point. We’ve all seen them: even if the “love locks” didn’t originate at the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris, they offered the best-known example (until removed a few years ago), and it has imitators across the globe. Unlike the contrived attempt to justify graffiti in Indianapolis that I referenced a few weeks ago, this bumper sticker collage on this guardrail seems organic, almost genetic. A Dawkinsian meme that didn’t involve internet culture one bit; the internet didn’t exist when Dawkins coined the term. The Wilmington guardrail was 100% analog, at least until I came by and wrote a blog article and ruined it.