Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

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I use a lot of image-macro-like emoticons in my group chatroom in Hipchat. In particular, I tend to use rage faces a lot in my chat. These internet memes have spread way past 4chan and reddit into the pedantry of 9gag and your mum, and upon introspection I found it quite interesting I use rage face memes a lot in my chat. I’ve never really bothered with the memes on the internet. I’ve been around since the days of the dancing baby [1], and I’m not really interested in chasing more memes – I am aware of most of them, but I don’t use them. My rather excessive use of rage faces in my chats, however, presents a totally different reality.

I joked about this a few days ago on Facebook – that I use internet memes so much in my daily communication that I might as well go around shouting “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.

Brief Overview of Darmok

In case you do not get the reference, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” came from a very good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, aptly named Darmok. It’s one of those rare examples of a truly excellent (and rather realistic) first contact scenes[2] that you see in a TV show or even a movie (another I would recommend is Midnight from Doctor Who).

In Darmok, the crew of the Starship Enterprise discovers the Tamarians, a civilization which they cannot quite understand. While the Federation can haz access to universal translators, the universal translators translate things rather literally, and the subtleties and the symbolic nature of the Tamarian language could not be translated. As such, even though to the audience the Tamarians were speaking English (courtesy of the universal translator), it was meaningless gibberish to the audience.

It was later revealed in the story that the Tamarians communicate by means of metaphor. And that though it was meaningless to the crew of the Enterprise (and by anchoring the audience’s points of view to the crew’s, making the phrases equally meaningless to the audience), given the historical context of the Tamarian society, it actually made sense. The phrases had linguistic value to them. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” had meant “working together to fell a common foe”.

It was quite easy to pick up some bits. For example, “shaka, when the walls fell” was thought by Picard to mean failure. But rewatching it from the top seems to indicate that that idiom is negatory in nature, as in “no”. An example would be early on in the episode, where Dathon (the Tamarian captain) was debating with his first officer.

This blog post however, is not so much about the episode Darmok. Instead, I want to explore the idea of memetic transfer in linguistics. There are many pockets of the internet, where their own lingo have become memetic and have been transfered out of the Internet onto real life.

A personal anecdote

Back in December last year, I attended a Doctor Who concert[3]. It was a great concert, and a group interaction is actually relevant to the context of this blog.

I recall very very clearly what the gaggle of girls who were seated in front of me were saying something about David Tennant. The exact quotes were “I was so sadface when I …” where she then proceed to explain how she could not acquire (or afford to acquire) some merchandize. Her friend then piped in with “I would be so Ten in the Rain“.

Of course I had not intended to eavesdrop on them. But hearing internet memes being used in real life is a rather interesting thing. There were few other things the girls said which marked them in my mind as Tumblr users (due to me actually having seen the same memes being circulated a few days before on Tumblr).

I moderate a couple of Doctor Who related forums. One is a fairly large forum, and the other is dead or dying (clearly I don’t know since it’s been a long time since I checked). Both places do not allow memes. And in the one I frequently moderate, I was amongst the moderators who set up the no-meme rule. We have a rather academic understanding of what a meme is in that forum. In fact, most Doctor Who communities I frequent do not have many internet-related memetic content like image macros or gif reactions in them (although I have a feeling they are increasing). The exception to the rule in my opinion is Tumblr.

There are many reasons for this, and I can think of a few really plausible ones: demographics and volume are my go-to answers as to why this is the case. Tumblr is actually huge. There are more Tumblr users than there are Doctor Who fans. And Tumblr users fall on the younger side, hence concepts like reblogging are common. With reblogging of gifs and image macro, the distribution of the image would be so much wider, and more people are exposed to the meme. Younger people are also more likely to use new slang than older people.

This morning a very interesting article caught my eye: Inside the GIF-Industrial complex on the New Republic. It kinda explains the memetic nature of Doctor Who gifs. A gif of David Tennant in the rain easily conveys the necessary context and emotion to the reader. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. An animation, justifiably more.

To me however, the most interesting parts of Tumblr and internet memes in general is the seepage into real life. Surely more than once you might have heard someone say “Oh Em Gee” instead of you know, “oh my god”. I have heard people shouting fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuu in the office[4]. I have heard people use the word “rageface” as a valid description of their emotional state[5]. What has began as an in-joke of people who frequent specific sections of the Internet has now become lingo.

Memes are Contextual

What does this have to do with Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra? Well, let’s break it down. Internet memes are more often than not contextual. Take for instance the Scumbag Steve meme. The original context of the meme, in form of the image macro, was of unethical behaviour[6]. Over time, the meme has mutated into a context where contrary action is taken to a promise (i.e. the top line says something, and the bottom line shows that contrary action was taken). The Scumbag Brain meme, being a mutation of the Scumbag Steve meme is contextually dependent upon the Scumbag Steve meme. However, it has too, grown into its independent niche of scumbaggy brain behaviour (typically memory related).

It is with knowing the contexts that we use the Scumbag X meme. I’ve used it in my hipchat chat a number of times as well. Everyone in my chat group are aware of the context of the scumbag hat. Everyone is aware of Fry narrowing his eyes. Everyone is aware of the Rich Crying Lady (first world problem) and its image-macro context.

In 1976, a book called Beyond Culture was published. In it, the author laid out the concept of a high-context and a low-context culture and communication styles.

Asiatic cultures are often cited as examples of high-context cultures, while Western cultures are cited as low-context cultures. I think that all cultures are generally high context, especially in the eyes of aliens. This will be especially true if you know a little bit of programming. Why is a computer, being capable of processing great amounts of data, so inherently stupid? Programming languages are fairly easy to pick up. Natural language, on the other hand, can be a little tough. One might put the differences to the smaller set of rules of which programming languages have, while natural languages have a larger variety of rules (we call them grammar), and indeed vocabulary.

An often missed reason is that humans communicate in metaphor all the time. In essence, Darmok is just an extrapolation of what we have currently – memes, taken to extreme.

Memes, taken to extreme

When I was running edgeyo, I had a lot of contact with Michael Doneman, who is an interesting guy with deep connections to indigenous culture in Australia. He would tell me how some groups of indigenous Australians would attach places to their language, and how learning would be done by contextualizing the locations. Spatial and orientation based contextualization was very very interesting, and so I went on to buy a few books. One of the books I stumbled upon, quite by accident was Wisdom Sits in Places. In it, the Western Apache language was laid out to be surprisingly a Tamarian-like language. It was a very different language – full of contextual metaphors that were grounded in locales. I only discovered the book because resources on Australian indigenous language from an anthropological point of view is sadly quite scarce[7]

Admittedly I am largely still very ignorant about aboriginal language and in fact, cultural linguistics of any kind. Indeed I do wish that I have more time and effort to devote into learning more. As such, I shall say no more for fear of making ridiculous statements. However, as Dunning Kruger suggests, ignorance does not preclude me from being able to make extrapolation[8].

Consider this statement:

Two persons narwhal bacons at midnight meetup, test post please ignore. It was silly and nonsexual.

What I had meant to say was this:

Two redditors fortuitously met up at a meetup. They were siblings

If you’re a redditor, you would have been able to recognize most of the memes, but probably not discern the meaning of the sentence (unless you gave it some thought). To break it down, “narwhal bacons at midnight” is a common phrase often jokingly used to identify redditors back when reddit wasn’t famous yet[9]. “Test post please ignore” is a famous joke that qgyh2 (or whatever his/her username is) posted. It was accidentally the most upvoted thread of all time. “It was silly and nonsexual” refers to an incest-related thread, where someone noted that since they were siblings, their wrestlings were “…probably silly and nonsexual”. Putting it all together, it is not difficult to see how I managed to come up with that intepretation.

Luckily people don’t speak like that. But what would it take to get people to start speaking like that? Wild conjectures ahead, but I would say repetition is key. Language is undoubtedly memetic (which is by definition repetitious). It is an idea that takes hold of the mind like a virus and refuse to let it go. And indeed, the concepts of language has served us well. It is a little tautological but language being memes imply that language is formed by repetition, and by repetition, builds up a construct known as a meme.

So, with repetition, it is conceivable that the above gibberish would eventually take on new meanings (i.e. mutate), and become language.

Entropy

However, there is one counter point to the above. I personally believe that human beings have been optimizing use of language to be of lower entropy per syllable. That is to say, the more information that can be encoded within a syllable the better, and the less ambiguity per word the better. This is a personal theory of mine, and as far as I know, no actual research has been done on it (I have played around with CMUDict and went no where with it).

Australian slang in particular is interesting as it both adds to the evidence in some cases, and in other cases, subtract from the evidence. “Arvo” is short for “afternoon”, and we call ambulances “ambo”. On the other hand, we have cases where we add syllables to words, like calling a Steve “Steve-o”.

One cute way to look at it in my opinion is to think of the human being as a lazy fucker. We want to convey as much information with as little effort as possible. I think it is no coincidence that the word for self-reference, with the exception of a few languages (generally in cultures that place more importance in decorum), are generally one syllable (‘I’, ‘wo’, ‘wa’, ‘ich’, ‘en’, ‘yo’, ‘main’). In older languages like Latin and Sanskrit, the concept of self is two syllables (‘ego’ and ‘so-ham’ respectively). Again I must stress this is anecdotal evidence at best (and at worst, a lazy attempt at thinking).

Yes, I am aware that language family tree also probably has to do with this, but my point is I believe that humans tend to optimize to lower entropy level per syllable in the evolution of language. As such, it is in my opinion that full languages derived from internet memes would not actually resemble internet memes at the end. Contractions would most definitely happen.

Low Context, High Memetic Coefficient

These are the hipchat emoticons I use the most frequently in my chatroom:
zoidberg yuno wat troll stare ohgodwhy lol yey foreveralone disapproval.

To access these emoticons, these were the commands in parenthesis: zoidberg, yuno, wat, troll, stare, ohgodwhy, lol, yey, foreveralone, disapproval.

This is rather important because the habit of typing these commands into a chat window has transcended beyond hipchat. In Gtalk, Skype etc, I too often type the same hipchat emoticon commands in attempt to represent what I want to express. In fact here is my rundown of how I use those emoticons:

  • zoidberg – Expresses “I’m going to give you a suggestion which I think you think is going to be unhelpful, yet I think it’s helpful” sentiment
  • yuno – Expresses being ticked off at something someone didn’t do (or occasionally something someone did and clearly didn’t think things through)
  • wat – Expresses incredulity at a statement, usually at the stupidity of the statement[10]
  • troll – like a sarcasm marker, it is used to indicate trolly statements
  • stare – Expresses a “You DID WHAT?” sentiment
  • ohgodwhy – Expresses a “Why would anyone sane do X” sentiment. Usually implies I have done something really stupid
  • lol – Expresses LOL. The graphic looks so much better
  • yey – Expresses joy.
  • foreveralone – Used when a topic of discussion yields no response, either due to the esoteric nature of the topic, or everyone else being busy
  • ಠ_ಠ – Expresses disapproval

What is important to note is that these are all used as emoticons, and encapsulate complex sentiments. So in some sense they are low in context, like smileys. Smileys are contextual but the context is virtually universal – all humans smile and understand smiles, even sociopaths. An analogue of smiling is exactly that: it’s used to express an expression where the user is feeling positive. Using the Internet meme emoticons require prior context of actually knowing what the internet meme is about. The context required is higher, but still not as high a context requirement as say “the narwhal bacons at midnight”.

Internet memes are still rather high in context requirement, all in all. I know this because when I was running Strangers for Dinner, the Forever Alone meme picture was used when no matches were found for a user. Upon further investigation, I discovered that many users were not used to the concept of ragefaces, and hence were actually confused with that picture. I’ve learned that lesson well, and internet memes are no longer being used for Fork the Cookbook

Perhaps what is actually interesting about these internet memes is that their contextual requirements are low. In an image macro, all the context is within the image itself. There are no external captions required to explain the image. I would venture to say that the low contextual requirements in some internet memes lead themselves to be propagated/repeated more easily. As the images mutate in content, they ironically generate a new context for the macro, to a point where it becomes generalized as a meme, at which point it may become inaccessible to outsiders (an example is the Actual Advice Mallard meme that has recently been the rage in reddit).

While the memes may now encapsulate a lot of information (i.e. sentiments), I would posit that if the memes were to be repeated over a longer-than-human-lifespan timespan, the information content will eventually dwindle. I would be willing to bet that in the very long run, if these memes persist into lingua franca, will almost contain no original context.

I personally believe, in any first-contact like situation, we would be in the same boat as the Tamarians, and the aliens, if they have universal translators, be in the same boat as the crew of the Enterprise. You know what would work though? A practical understanding of mathematics. Math is in my opinion, pretty much the language with the lowest context requirements (if you remove the symbolic nature of math, then it’s context free). Obligatory xkcd required though.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

I had started this blog post saying that I use internet memes on a regular basis in my daily communication, that I might as well be communicating like the Tamarians do. Over the course of this blog post, I explored how it could be possible, and then explored the obverse: why it would not be possible. Incest was involved somewhere. Math is probably our best hope in communicating with aliens. I hope this has been food for thought.

  1. [1] yes I will admit that I am guilty of having gif images of dancing babies in my early websites… that and hamster dance gifs
  2. [2] well, it’s technically the 8th time that the Tamarians were contacting the Federation
  3. [3] presented by Alex Kingston herself no less
  4. [4] it was simply pronounced like that… “foooooooooooo”
  5. [5] contextually, the sentence was something like “I’m going to rageface so hard”
  6. [6] Interestingly the actual story/context behind the image macro is dreadfully boring
  7. [7] and by that I mean, stop fucking ripping us off, Aussie publishers. Sutton’s books are ridiculously expensive
  8. [8] Except it’s probably very wrong
  9. [9] also, if anyone remembers, Mr. Splashypants!
  10. [10] Example: I achieved C10M by piping everything to /dev/null

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