Before memes, before the internet, there were just regular old cliches—text and imagery recycled and adapted across media. All cliches are memes, really, though not all memes are cliches. (Until they are, and then they die, the theory goes.)
Who can remember pre-internet civilization, anyway? It’s enough of a stretch to recall what things were like before smartphones anymore, let alone life before dial-up. Revolutions in how information travels are the big ones, upending all kinds of habits and norms, quickly and irreverisibly.
“Any revolution in the means of communication is apt to become the cause, if it is not the effect, of a general revolution in technology,” the philosopher of history Arnold J. Toynbee wrote in this magazine in 1953. “And a general revolution in technology is bound to bring with it a change in the scale of economic, and therefore of military and political, operations.”
Toynbee died in 1975, the year the ARPANET—the technical foundation of the modern-day internet—became operational. He may have thought deeply about what technology did to communications systems and infrastructure in and up to the 20th century, but he never could have anticipated how it would change the way we live and work today. Back in Toynbee’s day, for example, one newspaper reporter had described the not-exactly-frenetic pace of American magazine journalism this way: “Deadline pressures have been relative on The Atlantic. Ranking editors are encouraged to wrench themselves away from the pressures of the telephones, and of secretaries with appointment books in hand, in order to travel, go fishing, meditate, or whatever fits the mood.”
This is hilarious in 2018 for a few reasons—not least of all because it challenges the idea that only a Millennial would miss work to meditate. But less has changed over the decades than is sometimes assumed. Consider for example, this jokey New Year’s memo from The Atlantic’s former editor in chief, Robert Manning, published in this magazine in January 1973. The subject: Articles and stories we do not want to read or edit in 1973.
More than four decades later, it’s wonderfully (almost eerily) timely—a few very-1970s references to LSD, peyote, and Richard Nixon notwithstanding. Consider, for example, The Atlantic’s sense that the following stories had been overdone way back when:
• Next stop Mars
• The insolence of the young
• Does New York City Have a future?
• The coming-of-age of television
• The impending demise of college football
Throw in a couple more modern cliches—something about driverless cars and the trolley problem, say—and Manning’s list could just as well be used today. (Also, if we’re adding to it, please no more Raymond Carver-inspired headlines, and ban all references to Mr. Smith going to Washington unless you are literally writing about the Capra film.) My personal favorite from Manning’s list, though, is the relevant-as-ever warning against “reports by journalists too subjective to question, listen to, or observe the people actually involved in the events described.” Or, in today’s parlance: #NeverTweet.