I’ve been seeing a lot of quotes from Albert Einstein lately on the Internet. Some seem legit, like the ones having to do with light, space, time, gravity, God, religion, and even violins, which he played well enough not to have the neighbors slam their windows shut. I realize that is a matter of opinion and everything is relative (pardon the pun), but that’s what I’ve read.
Then there are those quotes that don’t quite add up. Like the one about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In addition to Einstein, I’ve seen it attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, Madeleine Albright, and Sting. Not quite sure which one is the real source, but it makes for great popular myth-making.
I think that is what is happening on the Internet: myth-making. To be sure, there is nothing new under the sun, and Jungian types with Priuses and NPR coffee mugs will tell you how it’s all archetypal, which is true. People are creating their own worlds and populating them with characters out of Wagnerian operas. You find Web developers and graphic artists great at that sort of thing. It’s all mixed-matched-hybridized, like a cross between Star Wars and The Book of Mormon (the text, not the musical). The 300 Spartans was of that genre, although I’m not sure King Leonidas was that muscular and greased (pardon the pun again).
The Internet is developing its own mythic structure with characters borrowed from history, current events, movies, Hollywood, and sports, who are then used either to further certain claims or legitimize a worldview, usually fantasy, often geeky. The Internet even has its own birth narrative with Al Gore at the center. It’s not much different from what Rome did with Ancient Greece, incorporating Greek gods for empire building, which they were pretty good at. Thus, Zeus became Jupiter, Hera Juno, Aphrodite Venus, Hermes Mercury, etc.
Like a contemporary Olympian, Einstein is now at the service of countless people on social media platforms claiming him for their own causes, from animal rights to global peace, reducing climate change, stopping genetically modified foods, ending poverty, and, in at least one case, anti-smoking. I find that ironic, since the real Einstein smoked. I don’t know if it was like a chimney, but I am sure it is just a matter of time before the virtual Einstein will be enlisted for medical marijuana and kombucha. Bullshit abounds in the virtual world.
What does all this mean for 21st century people living in a viral world? Probably that we have to be better at discernment and critical analysis. Just because something is on the Web and looks like the product of people who get up in the morning and work in an office, it doesn’t mean that what they are producing is good, beautiful, or true. It just means that we had better be more aware of who we are and where we come from.
As far as Einstein goes, it’s not unlike those roadside taverns and hotels that used to claim, “George Washington Slept Here.” “Really?” “Yep, that’s a fact. And right there’s the plastic cup he kept his false teeth in.” As someone famous once said on Twitter, the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits.