Humans are bags of meat. Atop this bag sits a gelatinous electrochemical information processor the bag needs to help find nourishment to sustain itself, protect it from danger, and reproduce. The processor, what we call the “brain,” recognizes patterns which we refer to as “ideas.” Ideas can have profound effects on the brain by giving rise to emotions such as joy, fear, anxiety, love, excitement, boredom, lust, hate, curiosity and so forth. We have little understanding about the scientific underpinnings of emotions, but we can easily observe physical responses in the bodies experiencing them. These physical responses, in turn, influence the state of the brain and create a tightly bound feedback loop between what we traditionally refer to as “body, mind and soul.”
Generally speaking, the more successful our minds are at recognizing and finding patterns and generating the proper emotional response to get our bodies to take the appropriate action, the more successful the biological entity will be. For example, a brain afflicted with acrophobia isn’t going to be very successful at foraging for food found in trees. If your feelings of awkwardness cause you to constantly say inappropriate things in social settings, you will have fewer friends. Or if your mind is overwhelmed by the artificial pleasure stimulated by addictive drugs, the body can fail because other important emotions no longer exist or go badly neglected for too long. And so the quality of our emotions, coupled with the quality of the ideas that drive them, are critical phenomena to our well-being.
If that isn’t amazing enough for you to think about, then consider the fact that complex brains like ours have a special ability to associate different brain patterns with one another if they occur simultaneously in the brain. This allows the brain to think abstractly and communicate its ideas with other brains.
For example, if the brain is exposed frequently enough to the same aural stimuli generated while getting exposed to visual stimuli, the two patterns will become tightly bound and associated with one another. If the same oral grunt is heard whenever a clear, odorless liquid is seen on the ground, the grunt can come to mean “water.” The grunt will come to stimulate the same electrochemical patterns representing water inside the brains of those who hear it even if there is no water in sight. We can imagine crude grunts slowly evolving into sophisticated oral language as the pre-human brain grew in capacity over many millennia. A language is a vehicle for sharing the symbolic representation of the ideas inside of our heads with others.
More recently, humans learned how to purposefully manipulate objects in order to symbolize ideas. Cave drawings, totem poles, pictographs and written language are just physical manifestations of the electrochemical patterns stored inside of our brains. Anything can become a symbol and, in turn, these symbols can generate very specific patterns inside of our brains, which, in turn, can cause us to feel emotions which then, as mentioned earlier, cause our bodies to respond. And so, through this almost mystical process, inanimate objects have the power to provoke physical responses in our bodies and coordinate our actions with other bodies.
In general, the more efficiently a group of separate brains can share patterns, the more they can coordinate and cooperate to ensure mutual survival of their associated meat bags. This is what we call “society.” Without the phenomena of idea transference (i.e. communication) you cannot have complex society. Animal brains aren’t equipped to produce very complex pattern associations and they have only crude forms of communication and so are very limited in their ability to cooperate. Humans, however, have the capacity to recognize very complex patterns, associate them with one another easily and share them efficiently using technologically advanced methods of symbol transference. Our brain’s enhanced ability to recognize and associate subtle and sophisticated patterns and communicate them effectively allow us to evolve highly complex societies.
Today, we have a seemingly infinite number of ways for sharing symbols in the physical world: sculpture, painting, books, magazines, television, movies, radio, blogs, social media platforms, virtual reality, websites, memes, etc. The symbols these types of media deliver to us each contain other symbols that we can deconstruct and try to find meaning and patterns that resonate with existing patterns in our brains. Sometimes the symbolism is easy to determine while other times it happens at a wholly unconscious level either on the side of the author, audience or both. Symbols transmitted for a commercial purpose are often intended to delight us or feel profound emotions to entice us into paying for other symbols for sale. For example, advertisements employ highly crafted symbols to get us to exchange our money symbols for the products they have carefully crafted to infuse us with emotional motivators such as comfort, status, happiness, well-being/fear, and enjoyment (beds, cars, soda, health pills, movies).
Symbols have many practical applications, but the generation and deconstruction of symbols is the very fabric of our social beings. Symbols are so fundamental to our survival that we are wired to create and seek them out. Everything from engaging in idle chit chat to creating high art can be a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. Even the way we dress, move, and talk are symbolic. These cues, generated consciously or not, elicit patterns inside the brains of others that tell them, unconsciously or not, if there is reason to coordinate with the other brains they encounter. You have gotten this far in my essay because the symbols contained herein are affecting your brain patterns, creating an emotion inside of you that your brain thinks is worthwhile.
People who have the ability to create symbols that resonate with many brains–or even just the brains of other influential meat bags–can become powerful actors in a society. Gifted thespians, musicians and other artists can amass fame and fortune for their ability to arouse great emotions with the compelling symbols they generate for our pleasure or edification. Meta symbols–symbols which represent other powerful symbols that stir very strong emotions and desires–are the most powerful kinds of symbols. Money and religious texts are good examples of meta symbols. A person who can control meta symbols can more easily direct the physical actions of other humans. When the Catholic Church was more or less hegemonic in Europe and the sole arbiter of what was good and evil according to the meta symbol of the The Bible, the Pope was at the peak of his power. A key ingredient to Hitler’s ability to start World War II was his skill for attaching iconic symbols to feelings of tribalism and ethnic pride.
Political power comes as the result of an accumulation of many other symbols representing physical force and coercion. Kings, dictators, presidents, legislators, judges, armies, weaponry, jails, courts, police, and legislative bodies are all symbols that work together to compel members of a society to behave in ways approved by the society. Political symbols are also often reinforced with money and religious texts to aid in the control of individuals.
So symbols are of extreme importance to a well functioning human society. In fact, they are the foundation for it. Of course, symbols only facilitate coordination so long as they create similar patterns inside the brains of the members within a society. If, for example, a flag representing a society provokes profound pride and cooperation in one half of a society and deep-seated hatred and hostility when flown by the other half, that society is probably in the midst of a civil war or on the verge of starting one.
And so if too many people cannot agree upon a common meaning for the symbols that are shared within the society, it’s a sign that the society is not firing on all cylinders, making coordination more difficult and strife more likely especially when resources are scarce and survival becomes more precarious. That’s not to say the healthiest societies are those where symbols are fixed with permanent meaning and stimulate the same brain patterns in all individuals. In fact, static, homogenization of symbolic meaning is a very unhealthy state because such society’s are extremely brittle and cannot adapt very well to new problems encountered. A society such as North Korea can be considered a prime example of such a society and lacks a healthy dose of symbolic diversity.
Diversity in the symbolic representation of the world within a population can help it adapt by allowing new ideas to form and spread if they resonate with enough brains or resonate with the brains that control people with power and influence within the society. Diversity of thought and openness to new symbolic representations are characteristics of a society that can overcome new challenges.
In early 21st century America, we are witnessing a recent outbreak of skirmishes around symbols and what they mean. We argue about flying the confederate flag, we argue about what the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” is, and we argue about the burning of the American flag or even what the recently iconic “Pepe the Frog” avatar means. Without understanding the power of symbols, it’s easy to be dismissive about these debates and wonder “What does it matter, they are only symbols, these debates are nothing but tempests in a teapot.” But as we have seen, symbols do matter a great deal. Certain symbols can arouse great passions within us which influence behaviors of individuals in the physical world. If there is enough disagreement over these symbols, it can lead to conflict and even death, as we have recently witnessed by the events in Charlottesville, VA.
Disagreements over symbolic meaning are not new and have been with us since the United States was founded. As an ethnically and politically diverse society where competing symbols often clash, conflict and violence has come to be a mark of American culture. Fortunately, the symbolic foundation of our democracy, the Constitution, has flexibility built into it that allows our society to both change the document’s symbolic meaning and enforce new meanings with political power. It is this very ability that has allowed the United States to not only survive but thrive despite the vast symbolic diversity of its people.
I will return to this thought in a moment. But first, I want to point out that not so long ago, the ability to imbue symbols with power was something reserved only for a select few members of society. At first, kings and priests, who were often one and the same, controlled the political symbols and religious texts giving them vast control over the societies they ruled. As monetary symbols came into existence, those who accumulated money could gain some level of control over society as well. As technology advanced, more and more control over symbols was delivered into the hands of outsiders. Gutenberg single-handedly broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly over religious texts with the printing press. The printing press also ushered in an age of literacy which in turn allowed commoners to share symbols more easily which in turn made it possible for them to coordinate and break King George’s grip over the Americas. The Founding Fathers recognized that the sharing of symbols was key to their victory over the monarchy and so they protected the free exchange of symbols in the form of the First Amendment. Later, in the 19th century, the telegraph made it possible for trains to coordinate over great distances which opened the door for ordinary citizens who controlled the telegraphic infrastructure to accumulate massive amounts of wealth and become influential in society. Newspapers, followed by radio and television provided powerful new ways to disseminate symbols to a mass audience. These symbolic transference technologies also gave rise to the advertising industry to promote the consumption of other symbols. Those who gained control and consolidate the new mass communication technologies garnered considerable influence over society by directly controlling the symbols it consumed.
Although these technologies which spread the power of symbols enabled vast amounts of disruption and changes in the balances of power within society, they are nothing compared to what is coming.
Within the past past twenty-five years, two new technologies arrived that promise to profoundly change our society in ways we cannot yet imagine: the personal computer (including mobile devices) and the Internet. Together, these two advancements give just about anyone the ability to generate and disseminate new symbols to anyone, anywhere. Not only that, these symbols can be generated by groups or individuals lacking any serious authority. As a result, our psyche’s are now bombarded with an explosion of powerful symbols that have made it extraordinarily difficult for us to recognize any particular pattern in the symbols we are exposed to and which patterns deserve serious attention. Navigating this new symbolic space is like the difference between sailing a boat in a well-marked channel with a steady breeze and plowing a vessel through the open seas during a violent maelstrom. Our symbols are losing their reference points making it increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain their psychic bearings. And perhaps more significantly, the ability of symbols to provide social cohesion is getting diluted, making it more likely our society will become unglued and fall apart. As our collective semiotic library is getting more and more balkanized along many different fault lines, our ability to comprehend and “speak to” others who don’t share or agree upon the meaning of our symbols becomes more and more difficult.
Though only roughly twenty-five years deep into the introduction of these two new technologies, we are witnessing their profound impacts on society. First, we see increasing disagreement about which symbols are significant. For example, leaders at the highest level of government tell us that the symbols in scientific research papers that say we are headed for near certain global catastrophe as a result of CO2 emissions should be ignored. Second, we see a huge rise in the challenge of authorities that used to be able to imbue symbols with almost unquestioning power. The authority of news organizations, politicians, government agencies, businesses, unions and other established institutions is under constant attack, undermining their ability to create unifying symbols that help us coordinate. Third, and perhaps most alarmingly, it is increasingly difficult for us to agree on the meaning of symbols. A striking example can be seen in the contrast between our current and former presidents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama. The striking differences between the two leaders highlight the very polarized nature of one of our most powerful symbols, the presidency.
So when we cannot agree on the significance of the symbols, and when we are unwilling to trust many of the authorities creating the symbols, and when we can’t even agree on what the symbols we do share should represent, what hope is there for us of ever coordinating on a large scale again? Not much, I’m afraid. And I predict we will soon see our founding symbolic document, the Constitution, come under great strain. It’s importance, meaning, and the authority to imbue it with power will come under increasing attack which will eventually lead to chaos because a society that cannot agree on the fundamental meaning of one of its most fundamental symbols cannot possibly function well.
Other society’s which do not place as high of a value on the free creation and exchange of symbols understand the importance of controlling symbols to maintain a functional society. China has gone to great lengths to try to ensure the Internet and computers do not introduce new disruptive symbols into their culture that could undermine the existing power structures. I am not suggesting the United States should follow this path. As I’ve pointed out, the maintenance of symbols from a single authority leads to a very brittle and unhealthy society and usually only to the benefit of the few who maintain those symbols. But it’s ironic to point out that the free flow of symbolic ideas that once gave the United States its strength is now working to directly undermine it.
Collectively, we are only at the beginning of our journey out into the open sea of symbolic flotsam and and jetsam. We can still see the shore behind us and we will still see the beacon of the Enlightenment on the horizon for some time to come. But before too long those will disappear as time places a distance between an age when symbols had meaning and had the power to unify and the coming age when all symbols become mere noise. Perhaps there will be some kind of rescue boat that we will find which can restore the power of symbols for us and hopefully it is a benevolent one. Or, perhaps the death of shared symbols is the next step in human evolution and will open the door for some new extraordinary method of coordinating our actions. Whatever the fix, we better find one of these deus ex machina solutions quick. The open sea does not look very inviting.