Lost in all the anxiety and hand-wringing over revelations about big data, personal privacy and the National Security Agency is another unfortunate, and consequential, societal development: A transformation in the meaning of “meta.” This has happened specifically in relation to metadata — the transactional digital information that pinpoints the date and time you called someone, for example, or locates the spot from which you last accessed your e-mail account — but also to our larger understanding of the concept of meta; our metaunderstanding, as it were.
Meta, once an intriguing, even playful prefix, has emerged as something darker, heavier and not at all amusing, but perhaps better suited to the times in which we’re living. Meta, as repurposed by the N.S.A., succinctly redefines our trans-post-postmodern era.
Welcome to the age of Heavy Meta.
Meta, which stems from the Greek word for “after,” “beyond,” “beside” (or change of place, order or condition), existed for centuries in obscurity in the hard sciences — it was perhaps best identified with the scholars who assembled Aristotle’s fourth-century-B.C. papers and used meta as part of the title for one of his most famous works, “Metaphysics.”
By the early ’90s, high meta had turned into low meta, as the individual self-awareness (of Antonin Artaud or Jorge Luis Borges) gave way to indulgent self-referencing (Philip Roth, “Seinfeld”), which gave way to meta as a stand-alone word. If, say, a conversation turned into a conversation about the conversation? Meta. A “that’s so meta” refrain became part of the ethos of “Family Guy,” reality TV, insidery advertising and self-conscious memoirs.
In short, meta became shorthand for knowingness. It went beyond beyond. And it used to be fun. Meta could be used to mean something you knew wasn’t true but you believed in anyway. Or it could mean you weren’t quite sure if something was or wasn’t true — an ambiguity that was as playful as it was, well, metaphysical. Meta also raised profound artistic and philosophical questions about truth, reality and identity. But those meatier and rompier ventures into metahood (via Borges, Philip K. Dick, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and others) have been superseded by the endless depth and breadth of the Internet (meta on steroids) and the triumphal pervasiveness of social media.
We got to the point where we were so in on the joke that we already knew the punch line. Or rather, we knew, or thought we knew, every (possible) punch line. And it’s this knowingness, a knowingness not based in or on knowledge or experience but simply in the recognition of the artifice at hand, that has arguably numbed us to ourselves, to each other, to love, to freedom, to activism and agitation and protest, to the very act of creating something unironic or nonmeta. Paradoxically, the metadata that our government and our communications giants have been gathering is something this very cynicism of ours helped create.
Few of us, though, realistically, truly “know” the conventions that are forever being spoofed in the culture just about everywhere we turn. No matter. Thinking we know is good enough. Or so we thought.
Devon McCann Jackson, “‘Welcome to the Age of Heavy Meta’”, The New York Times Magazine (6 October 2013), 52.