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 irreversibly.
“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.”