Memes of Consciousness

Although some say that Mark Zuckerberg,, with his lizard-like features and robotically generated emotions, might not have a consciousness at all, his social-media-giant Facebook simulates that very thing perfectly. The same goes for Instagram, which was bought by Facebook in 2012. By having riverlike feeds from picture to picture, post to post, and therefore from subject to subject, they present their information in somewhat of a Joycean stream. Instead of the absence of chapters, a constant, infinite input; instead of eclipses, white bars dividing the first and the next post, and instead of the all-over-the-placeness of thought, a randomized collection of birthday parties, holidays, articles, advertisements and memes, or in Joyce´s words: “There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.” Despite the fact that Facebook and Instagram are easily finished within the ten minutes you are waiting for the bus, – whereas, for instance, Ulysses takes a full 800 pages -, both platforms carry aspects, and are in ways equal to, the stream of consciousness novel.

To start, let us look at the beginning, and thereby have a look at the first ever occurrence of the term “stream of consciousness”. In 1890 psychologist William James, brother of the great author Henry James, wrote in his The Principles of Psychology:c consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits … it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.” Even though consciousness has become the word mostly associated with both the literary and psychological movement, the connection with subjectivity, in this context, might be the most significant. The novels that originated out of this theory all share their focus on inner thought and feeling , and express the multitudinous quantities in which both come by the use of reflection through action, overwhelmingly long sentences and at times inexplicable fragmentation, in order to capture the ‘purest’, or most realistic form of the human mind and its processes. In fact, in 1918 the term stream of consciousness was first applied to literature by May Sinclair and used to praise Dorothy Richardson for “getting closer to reality than any of our novelists.” Something similar can be said for both Facebook and Instagram. Existing out of a randomized mix of what is going on in your friend’s lives, memes and articles, ranging from the New York Times to The Hook (as Joyce can go from Ceylon tea to the wellbeing of the Irish), all tied together in the screen of your smartphone or laptop, they also consist of an overwhelmingly ongoing but fragmented set of reflective action and thought, which, apparently, captures human thought and feeling so realistically that Facebook’s AI is able to predict its users’ future choices. The subjectivity in all of this, however, is seen when looking at the lack of nuance, or totality, that comes forth out of the characteristics mentioned before. Through its indirect free discourse and highly unreliable narrators, the stream of consciousness novel conveys its plot from a very subjective point of view, as do Facebook and Instagram by presenting their audience with content especially selected for them, through cookies, saved data, locations,, and friends.

Yet, all of these circa 1920’s novels are written from the perspective of merely one or at most a few characters, whereas, even though content is already somewhat selected, social media apps like Facebook and Instagram still consist of the combined views of millions and millions of people on all kinds of matters. In combination with the already touched upon subjectivity, generated out of the user’s ability to adjust his/her feed, social media trends also play a big part, in both senses of the word. First of all, the pages one chooses to follow, on average keep up a certain trend of posting. Every picture, video or article usually keeps up a consistent general direction. Because of this, the already personally, and artificially, adjusted feed becomes even more coincided into one line of thought. Secondly, across the entire world wide web particular trends, for instance within meme culture, subject matter and videos gone viral, alternate week in, week out. Therefore, on top of the adjusted feed, the consistent content of almost all pages and accounts, posts become partially interchangeable across different sources. Put all of this together and the result is a very limited straight line of thought, as if thought from one perspective.

Additionally, all of this individual, subjective thought becomes intertwined by its nonchalant handling of time. The stream of consciousness novels are famous for their groundbreaking lack of logical, usual chronology. Their drooling prose makes every of its events close to interchangeable by ignoring the time spectrum in which they actually happened. 10 years are generally touched upon in just a few pages, whereas a simple afternoon may go on so long they almost keep from being interesting. As if they are imitating somebody´s mind busy with heavy recollection, in which one memory pops up way clearer than the other, the stream of consciousness novels actively avoid viewing time as a straight line. Something similar can be said for Facebook and Instagram. With feeds that do not care about proper chronology, but instead present their information in an order that is generated through some algorithm, a feature that has been around for a couple of years now, the idea of time as being the main driving force is totally lost. Put this together with the points made in previous paragraphs, and Joyce´s eternally flowing present becomes even more eternal.

So next time you decide, after a long hard session of pensive pondering, to once again enter the domain of High Lizard King Zuckerberg, to cross the border of his privacy- violating nation, remember James Joyce’s wise words: “Nations have their ego, just like individuals.” And therefore a similar line of thought, fragmentedly, but controllably, flowing from subject to subject, post to post and picture to picture. A stream of consciousness, a stream of memes, memes of consciousness.  

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