I’m fascinated by NASA’s successful landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars the other evening. Photographs are starting to come in (they just raised the main cameras yesterday) and once they get through the post-landing checklist, we’ll have a steady stream of remarkable images of the red planet. I eager to see them – having spent part of my youth in the rural West, you row up knowing the night sky and learn to identify the visible planets long before you get to a science class. Mars was a reliable friend, the easy planet to find in a field where many were vying for attention, and the one that figured so large in science fiction. Good grief, as kids we always speculated about the possibility of Martians; but lifeforms on Saturn just didn’t make sense.
But I’m also fascinated by the Web and technology and the way it gives expression to a creative impulse in us. Human beings are inherently creative so give them a canvas and they will use. With the Web, the canvas is not so often blank but filled with content that gets reused, repurposed in another context. So with the first photos from Curiosity, another Internet meme is born as the photos become the “canvas” upon which to make a statment. The term “meme” (widely mispronounced, by the way) refers to a concept from Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In the second edition in 1989, he explained:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.
These days the Web is full of memes, especially visual ones, and the photos from Curiosity will be fair-game. So far, most of them are fairly simple, but a few are worth a laugh; you can see a small collection over at dntechno.com. But the striking one is below – a nice statement about disrupting a truly pristine (if harsh) environment. Just wait until the mining equipment arrives in another decade or so.