“A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type or create a particular chosen text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.” That of course is the Infinite Monkey Theorem, a thought experiment that posits that it is the nature of random actions, if varied long enough, to create meaningful results. While it has existed for over a century, it’s only recently that the statistical scenario has become a meme amassing millions of views on TikTok.
In the typical TikTok format of a wall of text against the creator’s face, an ominous ambiance plays while millions of users write out different possibilities for how the thought experiment could go. For the most part, these bits of writing place the viewer in a sterile laboratory where a team of scientists is tasked with observing and taking care of anywhere from one to infinite monkeys on a respective amount of typewriters. As mentioned in the theorem, the goal of this team is to see the complete works of William Shakespeare typed up by the monkeys hitting random keys. However, this resolution is rarely written out, as plots range from being caught in an infinite loop of only typing the script of “Romeo & Juliet” to the experiment descending into revolution or playing into already-existing memes on TikTok and the Internet as a whole. It is in these variations – the catalyst of meme culture — on the Monkey Theorem that make this particular trend so interesting.
Variation is what allows memes to exist. The term “meme” — coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — is essentially the unit of an idea. Memes function akin to how genes are passed, changed and mixed through generations and gene pools, a process so important to cultural development it has been studied at length. Internet memes are no exception to this. Jokes are created and, through the massive connecting power of the web, they find themselves reproduced, remixed and recycled. There’s a comparison here to the Infinite Monkey Theorem. The complete works of Shakespeare could possibly emerge from a similar variation of randomly-chosen infinite letters. However, there is a contrast as well. Memes are created and varied by people who are not going to be as random as theoretical typing monkeys would be. While Infinite Monkey Theorem memes are only going to stem from the theorem that came before, each successive letter typed by the monkeys does not factor in the previous letters. This issue is further compounded by the theorem in practice.
The Infinite Monkey Theorem has, in fact, been attempted in the past. Studies using code, mathematics and even giving typewriters to macaques in captivity have turned up varying results. While the former two theoretical models seem to hold up, the last experiment led to the destruction and desecration of the typewriter. However, the monkeys did eventually produce five pages of text primarily composed of five letters. Observers noticed the animals making a connection between tapping a symbol and having it reproduced on the page. Most TikToks go beyond this primitive behavior though, elevating their intelligence to something beyond the experiments. They assert that this variation will not produce pure randomness but something more — and in doing so, still support the essence of the Infinite Monkey Theorem. By turning the thought experiment into a meme, the endless variations that create more memes recreate a form of the Infinite Monkey Theorem on a larger level. Millions of primates typing on millions of keyboards will almost surely type a resolution to the infinite monkey theorem, or at least inspire just one more primate to write about them.
Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.