Monday, 3 June 2013

The Age Of Parrots - Epilogue (Or: A More Optimistic Note To End On)

"We seldom realise, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society."

- Alan Wilson Watts.

My Age of Parrots series was originally intended to have 3 parts, but when I got to the end of it I found that there were a few more interesting points that I'd been unable to get to. I didn't want to do a full "Part 4" for these points, because I think the other three covered all the major areas that I wanted to talk about. But I also didn't want to lose them. So this piece should serve as a kind of epilogue to the series, a bit of further reading as opposed to a chapter itself.

First a quick recap:
Part 1 - In which I looked at the term "Grammar Nazi" and how, even though it makes little sense, it has become a well known and accepted phrase. This is just one of many words and phrases that just get picked up in modern culture by people repeating them without giving any thought to what they are saying.

Part 2 - In which I looked at the Harlem Shake meme - in which people would upload videos of them dancing to a song in exactly the same fashion as millions of others. It's almost an attack on creativity the way that videos like this will become insanely popular, and get a ludicrous amount of views even though they present nothing new or interesting. People see something that they like, so they do that exact thing. And others still seem to like it.

Part 3 - In which I looked at the effects of all of this. How repeating memes and stupid phrases so much throughout popular culture means that we refuse to recognise something that doesn't include those things. They get forced in to places they don't belong, where they'll then be discussed with more passion and more detail than the thing they were forced in to.

It's interesting to me that a lot of people will not agree with the things that I've said in this series of essays. They might argue that copying things in the way that I've been complaining about is really just joining in. By talking the way others do they establish a shorthand, a connection between people. Why does it matter how they say things as long as everyone involved can understand? Similarly, by repeating memes, they're becoming part of something bigger and more exciting. They're joining in with other people. In cases like Harlem Shake they're getting friends and colleagues together to all do something silly as a group. It's harmless and fun, and what's wrong with that?

And it's hard to argue with that, because it would be like telling people that they're having fun wrong. It just seems ridiculous. But when you try and look at these things objectively it's hard not to wonder about them, and it's hard not to wonder about the effects of them. And there will always be people who see these things in different ways. People who will say and do stupid things to be part of a group, and people who will look at the group and not understand why they'd want to be part of it. And you can argue that it's all just fun, and that being included is better than sneering in from the outside. But when you come across a person who everyone is convinced is "just so funny" when all he does is shout Anchorman quotes at you, it's hard to be in the group that supports him.


Something I wanted to go in to in every part of the series, that I had to leave out each time because I always felt it would take too much attention away from the main thesis of the individual essays, is the argument that we've always been doing these things for as long as we've had a society. The English language is a mongrel bastardisation of several much older languages, that has developed massively over centuries of people picking and choosing the way they want to say and write things, and by copying the way other people do it. And the creative output of the modern world, at least in part is based around copying concepts as basic as the three act structure or the twelve bar blues. On the less positive side, you can't talk about people mindlessly copying the words and thoughts of others without your thoughts straying to religion and the effect that it's had over the world*.

My point is that maybe the Age of Parrots isn't a recent thing. Maybe it's not just something you come across on the internet, but something that has shaped the entirety of our cultural history. Maybe now that technology has enabled us to connect to each other, it becomes more noticeable. We may parrot to a greater extent, but we also get tired of it much more quickly. The part of this series that looked at the Harlem Shake, for example, is already dated because we - as a society - are already over that particular meme. Maybe we're not looking at the beginning of the Age of Parrots. Maybe we're not even looking at the continuation of the Age of Parrots. Maybe, now that we can see what's happening more clearly, now that we can understand the way these things play out, and now that we can actually get over these things in a matter of weeks, we are actually looking at the end of the Age of Parrots. An age that's been going on for as long as we have.

And that's a nice thought.

*Now might be a good moment to take a break from this and listen to John Lennon's "Imagine".