The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine

Kalle Lasn


WHEN I SHOWED up in Seattle last November to watch the WTO circus unfold, I wasn’t expecting much from the protesters. I thought they would be the usual rabble-rousing lefty crowd, charged up but not particularly focused, thoughtful or effective.

But as the waves of protesters moved through the downtown core, I changed my mind. These people were passionate, they were having fun, and the signs they carried were sharper than anything I could have thought up. One big placard simply said ‘WTO’ — except the letters were corporate logos (the golden arches upside down for ‘W’, the Texaco ‘T’ and the ‘O’- shaped eye of CBS). It became clear that most of the protesters understood what was fundamentally at stake and what the summit really boiled down to: civic culture vs corporate culture. More than that, they had found a way to distil this message into potent ‘memes’. It’s with memes, not bombs, bullets or tear gas, that the real geopolitical battle of the next century will be fought; and with ground troops like those folks in Seattle, ‘the people’ may just win.

A meme (rhymes with ‘dream’) is a unit of information — a catchphrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy or politics. Memes compete with one another and are passed through a population in much the same way as genes pass through a species. Good strong memes can change minds, alter behaviour, catalyse collective mindshifts and transform cultures. In our information age, whoever has the memes has the power.

For about forty years corporations have had the power. They’ve been beaming their memes into our brains at the rate of about 3,000 marketing messages per day (that includes all the ads, brands and logos you see and hear on TV, on computer screens, magazines, radio, billboards, buildings, T-shirts, appliances, etc). This onslaught — arguably the biggest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race — has changed us profoundly. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the way we feel about our bodies, our sexuality, what music we think is ‘cool’, have all been shaped by the billions of pro-consumption memes dumped into our collective subconscious daily.

But lately, counter-memes — of the sort seen in Seattle — have appeared more frequently in the mindscape: fashion billboards ‘liberated’ by creative editors with spraycans; ‘No Shop’ days; a bumper sticker that asks: ‘Is Economic Progress Killing the Planet?’.

I believe the next few years will see an intensification of meme warfare throughout our mental environment. Which is to say, not in the sky or on the streets, and not in the forests, as in earlier eras, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV and in cyberspace. This global guerrilla information war will be a no-holds-barred propaganda battle of competing world views and alternative visions of the future.

The most critical areas of contest will involve the sovereignty of individual citizens and of nations against the sovereignty of corporations. Here are what I find to be the three most potent ‘metamemes’ currently in the social activist’s arsenal.


‘Corporations are not “persons” with constitutional rights and freedoms of their own, but legal fictions that we created and must control.’

Are corporations legitimate agents of progress or merely generators of shareholder profit at the planet’s expense? Should transnationals have the power to challenge the laws of sovereign nations? In this century, will a handful of giant corporations dominate every industry? Will corporations rule the world? Or is this just a clever lefty pseudo-meme? That’s the mind-field we must negotiate.

Now, if my reading of the ‘Seattle Rebellion’ is correct, the next 10 years will be a period of intense corporate-bashing. Corporate criminals like Philip Morris will be pushed to the wall and beyond. Aggressive megacorps like Monsanto, which thinks it can ‘SLAPP’ (prevent criticism via libel laws) the world into its agenda will suffer. All upcoming MAI or WTO trade initiatives are doomed. A visceral and intensely political and internet-centred reaction against corporate bigness is under way.

At stake is the very legitimacy of corporations, their ‘person-hood’ under the law, If enough people pick up on the No Corporate ‘I’ meme and start relating to corporations in new, more rambunctious ways, then our business culture will change profoundly.

For one, there will be harsh, new corporate criminal liability laws. Corporate lawbreakers will not be allowed to bid for government contracts or hold television broadcast licences; they will be barred from lobbying activities and financing political campaigns. Companies that dump toxic wastes, damage watersheds, fix prices, exploit employees, or keep vital information secret from customers, will pay huge penalties. Rogue corporations that wilfully break the law will have their charters revoked, their assets sold and the money funnelled into superfunds for their victims.

Rules of incorporation will be rewritten so that shareholders assume partial liability for the companies they own. They will reap the rewards when the going is good, but they will share the responsibility when the company they own becomes criminally liable.

This one simple mindshift in the way we think about shareholders will transform stock markets. Fewer shares will be traded. Instead of simply choosing the biggest cash cows, shareholders will carefully investigate the backgrounds of the companies they are about to sink their money into. They’ll buy into resource companies with good environmental records. They’ll stay away from multinationals that use child workers or break labour laws overseas. In other words, shareholders will be ‘grounded’ — forced to take responsibility. Stock markets will cease to be gambling casinos. Our whole business culture will heave.


‘Every human being has the “right to communicate” — to receive and impart information through any medium.’

In 1995, Adbusters Media Foundation (the non-profit organisation I co-founded) launched a legal action against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for refusing to sell us airtime for our social marketing TV messages (see Adbusters TV Slots, video review, page 54). The case wound its way through the courts until the Supreme Court of Canada threw it out in 1998. We are now trying to take the case to the World Court, or the UN Commission on Human Rights, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says, in part: ‘Everyone has the right[ldots] to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium regardless of frontiers’.

Earlier eras had their critical human rights battles. In our information age, we have to fight for a new human right — one many of us assumed we already had — the right to communicate. We must fight for potent, practical mechanisms for citizen access to the airwaves. I like the idea of a ‘Two-minute Media Revolution’ in which government regulatory bodies who grant broadcast licences are obliged to give two minutes out of every broadcast hour back to the people for citizen use (the 15-, 30- and 60-second messages would be chosen on a first-come first-served basis from among those who wish to speak).

Antitrust lawsuits can also be an effective way to break up media megacorporations. If enough fed-up citizens demanded a freer, more diverse cultural environment, our governments could be pressured to go after companies like AOL Time Warner, News Corporation and Disney and limit the number of TV stations, newspapers and radio stations each is allowed to own. The ultimate goal, of course, is to break the commercial monopoly of TV and create a free marketplace of ideas where competing memes and visions of the future battle it out every night on prime time.

Media Carta is the great human rights battle of our time: a great personal, intellectual, social, cultural and legal test. At stake is our ability to create a democratic culture from the bottom up, instead of having it spoon-fed to us top-down by a corporate-owned and corporate-operated media.


‘In the global marketplace of the future, the price of every product must tell the ecological truth.’

Progressive economists and the activist left continue to push for various ‘eco’ and ‘carbon’ taxes that would punish polluters by hitting them in the wallet. In my opinion, this approach is shortsighted. I say, let’s have an across-the-board pricing system that tells the ecological truth and let the marketplace sort things out.

Take the car. More than any other product, it stands as a symbol of the need for a true-cost marketplace, in which the price you pay reflects all the costs of production and operation. That doesn’t just mean paying the manufacturing cost plus markup, plus extras. It means paying for the pollution, for building and maintaining the roads, for the medical costs of accidents and the noise and the aesthetic degradation caused by urban sprawl.

The true cost of a car must also include the real but hard-to-estimate cost to future generations of dealing with the oil depletion and climate change the car is creating today. If we add up the best available estimates, we come to a startling conclusion: the fossil-fuel-based automobile industry is being subsidised by unborn generations to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Why should our children have to pay to clean up our mess?

In the true-cost marketplace of the future, no one will prevent you from driving. You’ll simply have to pay the real cost of piloting your car around. Your private automobile could cost around $100,000. And a tankful of gas, $250.

Moving over a 15-year period towards true-cost transportation would force us to reinvent the way we get around. Enormous public demand for monorails, bullet trains, subways and streetcars would emerge. Carmakers would design eco-friendly alternatives: vehicles that recycle their own energy, human-and-fuel-powered hybrids, lightweight solar vehicles. Citizens would demand more bike lanes, pedestrian paths and car-free downtowns. A paradigm shift in urban planning would then ensue.

I envision a global, true-cost marketplace in which the price of every product tells the ecological truth. The price of a pack of cigarettes will include the extra burden it places on our health-care system; the price of an avocado will reflect the real cost of flying it over thousands of miles to our supermarkets; the price of nuclear energy will include the estimated cost (and risk) of storing the radioactive waste in the Earth’s crust for millions of years.

True-cost is a solution that almost all political persuasions can agree with. Conservatives like the idea because it’s a logical extension of their free-market philosophy. Progressives like it because it involves a radical restructuring of the status quo. Governments like it because it gives them a vital new function to fulfil: that of calculating the true-costs of products, levying ecotaxes and managing our bio-economic affairs for the long term. And environmentalists like it because it may be the only way to achieve sustainability in our lifetimes.

On a number of fronts — full-cost accounting, information rights, corporate control, sustainable consumption — I think we’re on the verge of a great global mindshift — a transformation of human affairs comparable in scale to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

As we plunge into this new century, I propose a toast: Cheers! Prosit! Kanpai! Hallelujah! May the best memes win.

Kalle Lasn is editor of Adbusters magazine and author of Culture Jam — The Uncooling of America

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