Every few months, if not weeks, a disturbing piece of news from somewhere in the world has netizens celebrating the descent to dystopia. “Look!”, they tweet and post with emoji equivalents of excited gesticulation, “That’s exactly what happened on that episode of Black Mirror”. The variations on this theme are predictable: Those eager to show that their nerd-cred extends to the analogue age, beyond Netflix, might add a little bit of George Orwell and Isaac Asimov to their references. The latest meme to exemplify the irony of this exercise has emerged from Myanmar.
As Myanmar’s recently-elected government was deposed by a military coup earlier this week, a video of a dance instructor, engaged in aerobics to some rather peppy music, emerged. Unbeknownst to her, as she shook a leg, a coup is seemingly taking place in the background: Black SUVs drive up to a checkpoint on what appears to be the road leading to the country’s Assembly of the Union complex behind her. Almost as soon as the video was posted, it became subject to comment, controversy and, importantly, memes. The young woman’s image has been pasted on other, recent attacks on democracy, including the storming of the US Capitol building last month.
Life, especially political life, is imitating fictional dystopias. Most people, these dystopias tell us, will be so distracted by the bells and whistles of social media, so accustomed to treating the world and the worldwide web as a means of self-affirmation and self-obsession, that they will not notice institutions and civilisations crumbling around them. There may, of course, be some truth to this idea. But obsessively creating memes, and sharing them, as the means to engage with an attack on a fledgeling democracy, isn’t being in on the joke. It means, as you stare into your phones, so pleased with your cleverness, that you’re the punchline.