A few months ago, my corner of the internet was completely fixated on Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the small yard services company in my home city of Philadelphia, where the Trump campaign accidentally booked a press event (instead of the actual Four Seasons downtown.)
In the midst of the noise of all the memes and roasts going around on Twitter at the time, one struck out to me:
I had no idea what this was referencing, but it seemed really inside-joke funny, so I showed it to my husband, who laughed.
“Where is it from,” I asked him.
“Star Trek,” he said. It turned out to be an episode from The Next Generation TV series called “Darmok, in the fourth season. (There are many Star Treks, some of them better than others, but TNG is generally considered a very good series.)
An avid Star Wars fan, I actually had never watched Star Trek, but for the sake of the meme, I was really curious, and wanted to watch.
Meme it so
It’s possible to watch Darmok out of sequence within the TNG series because the episodes generally are not sequential, but then you lose the context and tone of the show. So, I started watching TNG from the beginning.
The scene is set that we are on an intergalactic mission into the far reaches of space happening sometime in the 24th century. The vibe is that the goal of the mission is diplomacy rather than offense, and the crew follows the Prime Directive, which means they can’t interfere with the technological development of other civilizations. The heart of the series is the ensemble cast, led by the gallantly leader-ly but aloof and stubborn Picard and his team, all offering different points of view on how to collaboratively solve the problems they come across in the universe.
TNG doesn’t really pick up until season 3, but there are a lot of really good one-off episodes, including the first one, a two-parter called Encounter at Farpoint. In the episode, a strange being called Q comes to seek the Enterprise and puts the human race on trial.
Later, Q changes into many costumes of Earth's eras, including the late 20th century in the guise of a United States Marine Corps captain: "Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. We must go back to your world and put an end to the commies. All it takes are a few good men." Picard tells Q that that kind of nonsense is centuries behind them. Q brings up that Picard cannot deny that Humans are a dangerous, savage child race, which Picard denies, saying that Humans have made rapid progress in only a few centuries.
Later on in the second part of the episode, Q appears as a judge in an Inquisition-like courtroom and calls humanity a grievously savage race, challenging Picard to answer for all of mankind.
For someone used to shows that, even in the golden age of television, start with either something exploding or someone having sex as gimmicks to draw the viewer in (ahem, looking at you Halt and Catch Fire), it was a really refreshing change to be challenged to think at the same time as I was being entertained.
Basically, the TL;DR is that TNG is a very complex show with a lot of nuanced social messages wrapped up in a space adventure. And I’m sure there are tons of thinkpieces out there as to how a tech team is like the Enterprise crew, how Star Trek predicted the rise of interfaces such as the touchscreen, and how right Star Trek got the science, but my general take is that it is Good TV and should be enjoyed as such.
Darmok and Jalad at Memenagra
On to Darmok! Darmok is an episode of the fourth season where the crew Enterprise encounters a race called the Tamarians. Previous missions have indicated that it is impossible to communicate with the Tamarians, but the log doesn’t specify what they mean by that.
I’ll let this great Atlantic piece take it from here:
Picard exudes optimism as his starship courses through subspace. “In my experience communication is a matter of patience, imagination,” he beams to his senior staff. “I would like to believe that these are qualities which we have in sufficient measure.” But after hailing the alien ship upon arrival, contact with Children of Tama proves more difficult than Picard imagined:
DATHON, the Tamarian captain: Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Umbaya. Umbaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.
(no response from Enterprise, looks at First Officer in frustration)
(slowly, deliberately) Rai and Jiri. At Lungha.
FIRST OFFICER (laughing): Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.
DATHON: The river Temarc.
The officers immediately stop their laughter—as if ordered to.
DATHON (continuing; for emphasis): In winter.
The First Officer looks very concerned—objects.
FIRST OFFICER: Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha.
DATHON (shrugs): Shaka. When the walls fell…
FIRST OFFICER: Zima at Anzo. Zima and Bakor.
DATHON (firm) Darmok at Tanagra.
FIRST OFFICER: Shaka! (indicating situation) Mirab, his sails unfurled.
To watch the aliens communicate in this way is a jarring experience, and the viewer is just as lost as the Enterprise crew. At this point, the Tamarians become frustrated and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, teleports, along with Picard, down to the surface of the planet they’re orbiting, El-Adrel IV.
While Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, spend time on El-Adrel IV, Dathon continues to speak in cryptic half-phrases with night and danger closing in and Picard becoming more bewildered, frustrated, and entirely unable to communicate with his ship.
Finally, Picard starts to understand.
As night falls on the surface, Picard fails to make a fire while Dathon lounges comfortably around his roaring blaze. Dathon throws Picard a torch, incanting, “Temba.” After first misunderstanding that Temba might mean fire, Dathon clarifies, “Temba, his arms wide.” And Picard begins to fit the pieces together, “Temba is a person. His arms wide…because he’s…he’s holding them apart. In, in…generosity. In giving. In taking. Thank you.”
The phrases are actually shortcuts to recounting historical events and people in the Tamarian culture and history, and if you are part of that culture, you know immediately what each phrase might mean. The episode ends, sadly, with Dathon dying, but Picard understanding what he means with his emblematic catchphrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” two great warriors who came to an island separately, faced a great beast, and were united by the challenge. Finally, Picard understood.
This is much the same way that internet memes work today. It is a remarkable realization. In fact, many people have talked about this, the idea that Darmok predicted the rise of the existence of memes. And, of course, there are now academic papers written about the observations that the episode made of our shared cultural understanding of the world.
But the amount of layers of knowledge that go into creating a shared cultural exchange of communication are truly enormous. For instance, how much did I have to understand to understand the picture of the meme of Darmok and Jalad (at Tanagra) I had to 1) Understand the context of the US elections at that point late in the game 2) Know what Four Seasons was, why it was different from Four Seasons Total Landscaping and why that was funny, 3) Understand Star Trek Culture 4) Understand the Darmok episode and, most importantly 5) Speak English and participate in English language humor Twitter, where I received the meme.
Once I knew all of those things, it was effortless and hilarious to understand. Until then, it was an impenetrable mystery.
So what? The so what is that memes have, without us realizing it, become an entire language with the ability to either unlock or lock worlds for us online regardless of what language we actually speak. This has been true since the start of memes, but we are now about ten to fifteen years into true internet meme culture, and we have our first instance of when a community based on mostly communication by memes, aka WallStreetBets, has created a massive movement based mostly on threads of people replying to each other with “diamond hands”, “do it for Harambe” (a meme that makes almost no sense if you were not following Reddit culture in 2016), and “if he’s still in, I’m still in.”
The diamond hands rocket ship army, led in part by chief memer Elon Musk, who had this to say about memes:
He has helped WSB coordinate a rally of GameStop that’s, as of this writing, lost a ton of people a ton of money, but has more importantly, made Wall Street kind of scared.
Memes are so powerful, and now, propped up by massive social networks, large enough to drive social and economic change. And, what’s interesting is that, even though English has become the de-facto language of online communication, meme language has become even more so. There are hundreds of memes that started in English and are now present in Spanish, Russian, and every language you can possibly think of.
Meme culture is a language and mentality on its own with a shared viewpoint of the internet. I couldn’t tell you succinctly what that language and culture is, but I know it when I see it, and there is absolutely no way I can convey the whole of it to people who haven’t been following memes for a long time. I’d argue that I have more in common with someone who, in terms of meme culture is Extremely Online and living halfway across the world from me than I do with someone who lives next door.
Which brings us to a problem with Darmok and Jalad: Memes only work to bring people together to action when as “Darmok” showed us, if we fully understand them and if we share them. And, also, only if we take them seriously. Which we should. Otherwise, Dathon dies in vain at El-Adriel.
What happens when not each of the Tamarians interpret the story of “Darmok and Jalad” at Tanagra the same way? Or what happens, when there are competing meme cultures, each with their own very distinct set of memes, that contradict each other, because we are all subject to our own echo chambers these days?
It’s something that’s extremely hard to study because meme culture is so ephemeral. It almost can’t be reached by machine learning or analytics or tracking data. We are flying extremely blind here, which is scary, because these are the forces that are now coordinating political, economic, and geographical movements just as much as they are about uniting people over a joke. Don’t believe me? Try to search for Winnie the Pooh in China.
Meme culture requires ethnography and linguists and much more study, and understanding, is my stance, otherwise we are all on El-Adriel, our fists closed (probably from having such strong diamond hands.)
What I’m reading lately:
The value chain
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out onceish a week. If you like it, forward it to friends!