i don’t even see the code anymore

Neo: Do you always look at it encoded?

Cypher: Well you have to. The image translators work for the construct program. But there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it. I…I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head. Hey, you uh… want a drink?

What a fascinating moment. Cypher is looking at the ugly green code, but he isn’t seeing the code. He’s seeing a fantasy: “blonde, brunette, red-head.” He even takes seeing this fantasy to be the sign of his competence. But it’s not enough. Neo’s innocent question has brought reality too close, so he says, “Hey, you uh…want a drink?” It’s good, he tells Neo, “for killing brain cells.”


Here at The Kugelmass Episodes…(everybody sing along!) we play your requests. So, at the request of uncomplicatedly, today I’m looking at the “What I Really Do” meme, which is mistitled. It should be called “What I Have To Pretend I Do.”

Back in 2007, I wrote a post called “Sexuality, Pop Culture, and Magic,” focusing on desire and illusion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I looked at the show’s portrayal of sexuality, I found it to be based on a mutual suspension of disbelief, in which two people pretended to find each other more attractive, powerful, and good than they really were. I’m not talking here about an early phase in which each person projects fantasies onto the other because they aren’t well-acquainted. Rather, I mean a willed fiction: “I know she is (x). But I’m still going to pretend that she’s (y).” The terrifying thing here is that, as with the lost dreamers in Inception, the Real has lost its force. I can’t “snap out of it,” because I never stopped being aware of how things “really are.” Like Cypher, I choose the illusion. Take me down to the paradise city!

It’s like that old chestnut, that scams work because the sucker wants to believe. A huge component of “pick-ups,” for example, is a torrent of implicit statements about oneself that almost certainly aren’t true. Not lies, but qualities: gregariousness, status, romance, mystique. Still, it would be nice if they were true, and that’s why the pick-up (sometimes) works within its brief timeframe. Both people are actually collaborating on it.

The funniest part of this, though, is that the “pickup artist” usually doesn’t want to admit that the other person is helping him. That makes the whole exchange seem like just another instance of two needy people coming together (which is exactly what it is). So, instead, the more active party (the “seducer”) believes himself to be getting away with something. Behind the apparent fantasy of two magical people meeting on a magical night is…another fantasy, about being Casanova.

This is not just a dynamic within sexuality, as the “What I Really Do” meme demonstrates. It’s everywhere. The basic form of the meme is six panels. The viewer, presumably, starts in the upper left, with “What My Friends Think I Do,” and ends up in the lower right, with “What I Really Do.” The sequence goes like this: What My Friends Think I Do, What My Mom/Relatives Thinks I Do, What Society Thinks I Do, What I Think I Do, and What I Really Do.

Analyzing the meme has gotten a little more difficult because it got so popular. People started stretching every category, changing them around, and creating whole posters that had nothing to do with the meme (and weren’t funny). I’ll cover those exceptions later. For now, let’s go with the most representative examples.

This is a meme about knowledge work in an information society. The funniest posters all fit this pattern; they’re about photographers, tech support guys, teachers, writers, web developers, and students. (Students are, of course, paying rather than paid, but the form still applies.)

The Friend fantasy is usually envious and often erotic. The photographer is taking photos of a naked woman. The writer is David Duchovny from Californication or Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City. The musician is having an orgy. For professions with zero erotic possibility, the picture shows laziness or prestige. The friends are thinking, “my friend gets more pleasure out of life than I do, because he got luckier than me and found a better job.”

The Mom fantasy is mock-heroic. Something’s wrong with it: the picture is from decades ago, it’s the wrong profession, or it’s stupidly exaggerated. Rhythmically, its function is to deflate the Friend fantasy and to “deal with” the obvious relevance of the family. (In fact, the poster makes quick work of the entire social and familial network.) People creating these posters are probably not still living at home; they’re young professionals, and they have to go where the work goes. The Mom fantasy implies infrequent phone calls home, in which the son/daughter goes along with whatever Mom wants to think, since that’s the path of least resistance.

There’s also the implication that Mom brags about her kids, and this becomes even more pronounced when “Mom” is changed to “Relatives.” Mom is a fairly warm character; when “Mom” changes to “Parents,” the repressive Father turns the picture into a statement of oblivious disapproval. In any case, the previous generation didn’t grow up in an economy of pure information, of paper and spreadsheets and verbiage. They don’t get it. (Don Draper does, though. He totally gets it.)

Now comes Society, which is more muted than the first two, but also more important. It’s the transition to everything that comes next, and creates the sense that even friends living nearby are secondary or somehow in the past. The Society fantasy is equal parts tolerance and castration. The professional is sometimes stranded in the middle of nowhere, like the photographer who is suddenly on safari, weighed down like Jacob Marley (but with cameras instead of chains), or the travel writer turned into Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. The graphic designer is sitting at a nice desk, working with pastel colors, in front of a magenta computer screen. In other words, graphic design as an anaesthetic for yuppies. “I’m sorry,” Society tells the professional, “what you wanted to do isn’t what we need you for. But we really do appreciate your work. We think you’re awesome.”

The Boss/Client fantasy is really simple. Our professional doesn’t work hard enough, can’t take direction (or is a tyrant), and under-performs. It’s the stressful setup for the final panel.

But before we get to the final panel…

WHAT I THINK I DO! Such an amazing moment. It justifies the whole existence of the meme. Often the other panels are stills from a movie, but this is almost always a still from a movie. The teacher is Robin Williams. (The most popular version used Good Will Hunting, but that’s probably a much-reproduced error on the original creator’s part. I’m positive they were thinking of Dead Poets Society.) The photographer is David Hemmings from Blow-Up or Jude Law from Closer. The tech support guy is Levar Burton from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In other words, this penultimate panel, which is fighting a deathmatch with the panels on either side, is about what I have to pretend I’m doing in order to be able to endure. I know it isn’t “what I really do,” but I’d die without it. Everybody can pick up on a movie reference, and you can re-watch a movie as much as necessary. That’s another element here: “What I Think I Do” is a plea to the other people in the same profession. “Let us pretend together, and let’s make sure we’re all inhabiting the same fantasy.”

Finally, “What I Really/Actually Do.” Here are the green trickles of code, the stacks of meaningless paper. Here are the slow computers arranged clumsily, on a remaindered desk, in the company basement. The teacher with his piles of grading. The writer playing with a slinky, desperate for inspiration. Welcome to the desert of the Real.

This is, of course, the greatest fantasy of all. The viewer is supposed to reach catharsis here, at the moment when he or she says “Yes! I am engaged in precisely this kind of banality!” To an extent, that’s right. It’s both the nature of the work and the employee’s perception of the work. But it also, very sneakily, erases the rest of the poster. “That’s all crap,” says good old Panel #6. This comforts me, because otherwise I’d have to face the message of the poster as a whole, and that message is that I have two jobs. I have my real job, and I have the public relations job of selling what I do to at least five very different stakeholders.

I have to pretend my job is pleasurable to my friends, so they don’t think I’m a loser. I have to describe my job in pseudo-heroic terms my family can understand. I have to accept the compromised way Society describes me. I have to constantly surprise my bosses and clients, by not disappointing them. I have to pretend to be the hero of a movie.

(This, incidentally, is why the “Mom” and “Dad” posters don’t work. A baby is a baby. That’s a good thing, unless you’d prefer for babies to be more computer code. However, showing a laughing baby in one panel and a crying baby in another is neither funny nor expressive. Everybody knows babies laugh and cry. The only way to make this funny would be to change “what I do” to “what I am.”

As for the posters where all the panels are the same — now those are the ones that really freak me out. That says, “I’m so deep into delusions of realism that I can’t even imagine people perceiving me in more than one way.”

OK, back to the more classic and representative versions of this meme.)

Imagine I went up to each of these characters, holding a poster that was only the last panel. Surely this will break the spell! Yet it doesn’t. Nobody disagrees with me, and yet they all seem to be talking around the statement I’m making with my sad little picture of actuality. My friends say, “I have it bad too” or “I have it even worse.” My parents say, “This is the hard part, but there will be rewards down the road.” Society says, “You have to give back, you know. Anyway, you do a great job!” My boss and clients say, “yeah, that’s why you get paid, asshole.” And I say to myself, “this is only a montage. Every hero goes through a montage.”

Not only am I rebuffed, but strangely enough, the other fantasies are only momentarily unsettled. After my friend archives my email (What Email Actually Does), he goes back to imagining how much fun I’m probably having. A family member invites the neighborhood over, like the mother in The Graduate, to say “Let me tell you all the wonderful things about Ben!” Another magazine article comes out in which Society portrays me exactly the same way. The workplace continues to be filled with the disappointed sighing of the Other. I summon the montage anyway, in order to do the paper-pushing without falling asleep or bursting into tears.

The image translators work for the construct program. Or whatever. I gotta go. But let’s definitely catch up soon.