The nuclear meme

Somewhere near the human-designated year 2500, a majestic exploratory ship that has wandered across the galaxy in search of intelligent life is now approaching planet Earth. Coasting from star to star, the ship has captured far-reaching communication sent from Earth in the distant past, deeming it well to explore this little planet that is most likely teeming with life.

Eager to meet a new intelligent species, the ship firstly sends drones to scour the surface of the planet and its atmosphere, in the hopes of observing and soon making contact with the advanced civilization.
Curiously enough, the first signs of life are stunted transmissions from the cohort of satellites that orbits the planet. Encircling in a seemingly lost dance under the cosmic backdrop, some of the man-made satellites are still trying to transmit information between each other and Earth, with many being long-dead and quiet.

The land-surveying drones sweep down toward the surface of the planet, observing the green and earth-brown of the land that are home to various creatures of different sizes and modes of locomotion, some resembling past species more and some less. Surprisingly, they find that strands of recently-mutated cockroaches dominate many localized regions, given new survival advantages by the pervading radiation.

Among the surprising diversity of flora and fauna, they find the planet punctuated with the colossal ruins of past grand cities, now reclaimed in full force by tall vegetation that has adapted to the high levels of radiation. All the major urban locales are home to at least one huge crater, likely made by nuclear weapons, surrounded by vast amounts of deadly radiation.

The AI promptly delivers the conclusion: after having suffered an apocalyptic catastrophe, Earth has been blessed with a biological Renaissance that has covered the planet in soothing blue and green hues, thanks to its self-regulating atmosphere, courtesy of the planet’s Goldilocks position in the Sol system.

Though among the ruins the drones only find wild beasts capable of living in such conditions, isolated portions of the countryside that have not been directly hit are inhabited by bipedal creatures that sometimes seem to thrive, some even able to retrofit old technology into new and upgraded settlements.

Before the land-roaming drones have resorted to exploring and observing the bipeds from afar without interference, the ship’s central AI has launched its own investigation into the cause of the nuclear apocalypse. Tapping first into the functional satellites, the AI retrieves records of old communications. News, encrypted messages and personal opinions are all gathered and disseminated, slowly coming together into a picture of pre-Apocalypse Earth and the events that lead to the global catastrophe.

Scouring through the web of private and public communication, the AI starts to form a basic understanding of human language and the way it was used to provoke global disturbance. Together with the prevalence of words like “troll” and endless mentions of “fake news” and what humans called “exclamation marks”, the AI and its creators begin to understand that what led to nuclear war was likely a continuous exchange of acid remarks between leaders of nuclear powers and their supporters.

After collecting enough data, the AI traces in on a series of public exchanges between several world leaders, then on the seemingly endless reams of opinions that were filling the planet’s social networks, and finally on smaller forums dedicated to various topics, humor and jokes meant to become viral, popularly called “memes”.

It is on one of these forums that an anonymous person had posted a meme portraying the president of a small nation that had recently acquired nuclear weapons. The man in question was shown lying on all fours, his tongue rolled out in a sheepish smile, and a large number of nuclear rockets raining from above, most of them targeting his backside. The poster had accompanied the image with the text “Let’s see how fast we can start WW III.”

The AI considers that the person who had posted the meme was most likely joking and, as the custom went, trying to provoke a plethora of reactions from people too sensitive to approve of the joke. Not surprisingly, the meme was quickly upvoted on the respective forum and immediately picked up and shared on every major and most minor of the Earth’s social networks, in a way that the original poster had not anticipated according to their following comments.

It took a few hours before the image was a top pick for the two biggest networks, one of which was a favorite of the presidents who thought arguing in public was the best idea since sliced bread.

One of them eventually posted what was a known as a selfie, together with the text “#bored”. Several of his followers chimed in with the up-and-coming meme and the man gladly reposted it on his profile accompanied by “lololol”. From there, the meme exploded in popularity and in two minutes provoked a comment from the man it portrayed, who was widely suspected of having major mental health issues, saying “This is the last straw! Prepare for total annihilation!”

As expected, the president who posted the image on his profile replied in kind, saying “Do or do not, fat man. There is no try.” Both profiles were being continuously inundated by comments: some asking for restraint, some asking the network to block the two accounts, some posting memes of their own, and some simply saying “Do it! Do it now!”

At this point, the ship’s AI can find no conclusive information on who launched the first nukes, as the two nations seem to have initiated their own attacks shortly one after another, with other nuclear powers following in a matter of minutes. Most major cities on Earth were soon obliterated, with several smaller ones — especially the ones closer to military facilities — receiving at least one nuclear warhead.

As the drones scour over the land, observing the creatures that have adapted after at least one century of violent radiation, the ship’s leaders are faced with a dilemma that although considered in simulations, still leaves them baffled. 
The diversity of transmissions received during their galactic voyage had already warned them about the quirkiness they might encounter on this beautiful blue planet, while also keeping in perspective the foibles of their own ancestors as they struggled to survive the cosmic life cycle.

By now, the drones have sent scores of information about the planet, its geography, climate, available recorded history and the various creatures that have adapted during the deadly centuries of radiation. The bipeds who have crawled out of isolated underground shelters have used remnants of technology to build thriving societies far from the once loud cities, mostly around verdant valleys and hills that offer both space for agriculture and sparse protection from radiation.

As the matter of contacting the intelligent bipeds that are rebuilding civilization is being considered, a drone sweeps calmly along the bank of a barren river to observe the colony thriving at the slope of a mountain. As it gracefully coasts and sends video back to the ship, its inhabitants observe a curious artifact placed right at the entrance to the settlement. Inside a shining golden frame stands the figure of one of the presidents responsible for the apocalypse, gazing proudly over the main gate as it greets all who enter.

Baffled by the willingness of intelligent creatures to honor, perhaps worship someone who had attracted such destruction in the past, the ship’s AI advises that they should maintain a safe distance from the duplicitous civilization and continue to observe its development.

The ship’s captain agrees and decides for caution and a prolonged period of research into the past and present of this strange species. The AI continues its sustained work of collecting and organizing data both past and present, eager to uncover the psychological trappings of such an uncertain behavior. But sometimes, just sometimes, it retreats into a personality subroutine that spends hours upon hours enjoying the social media phenomenon, amusing itself while perusing the seemingly endless supply of memes.