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 stirring emotions such as joy, fear, anxiety, love, excitement, boredom, lust, hate, curiosity and so forth. We have little scientific understanding about the underpinnings of emotions, but we can easily observe physical responses in the bodies experiencing them. In turn, these physical responses influence the state of the brain and create a tightly bound feedback loop, colloquially referred to as “body, mind and soul.”
Generally speaking, the better our brains are at identifying patterns and generating the proper emotional response for motivating our bodies to take action, the more successful the biological entity will be. For example, a body connected to a brain afflicted with acrophobia won’t be very successful at foraging for food found in trees. Or, if your feelings of awkwardness cause you to express inappropriate thoughts in social settings, you will have fewer friends. Or if your mind is stimulated by the artificial pleasure of addictive drugs too frequently, the body may fail to experience other important emotions that are either masked or nonexistent as a result of the excessive drug use. And so the quality of our emotions, coupled with the quality of the ideas that drive them, are critical phenomena to our physical well-being.
If that isn’t amazing enough to think about, 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 not only think abstractly, but to also transfer its ideas to other brains.
For example, when the brain is exposed frequently enough to the same aural stimuli while experiencing the same visual stimuli, the aural and visual brain patterns will become associated with one another. If the same oral grunt is heard enough times whenever a clear, odorless liquid is seen on the ground, the grunt will start to mean “water.” The grunt stimulates the corresponding electrochemical visual pattern, representing water, inside other brains that hear it even when no water is in sight. Over untold millennia, we can imagine crude grunts slowly evolving into sophisticated oral language as the pre-human brain grew in capacity. Thus it can be understood that language is vehicle for transmitting the brain patterns in our heads, our ideas, to other brains.
More recently, humans learned how to purposefully manipulate and use objects to transmit ideas. Cave drawings, totem poles, pictographs and written language are the physical manifestations of the electrochemical patterns stored inside of our brains. Anything can become a symbol and, just like aural symbols, these external symbols can generate very specific patterns inside of our brains, which, in turn, provoke emotions which then, as mentioned earlier, cause reactions in our bodies. And so, through this almost mystical process, inanimate objects have the power to elicit physical responses in our bodies and coordinate our actions with other bodies. And because inanimate, physical symbols are much longer lasting, reproducible and external to us, they greatly enhance our ability to coordinate with many others across both space and time.
In general, the more efficiently a group of separate brains share patterns, the better they are at collectively ensuring the 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. They also have very limited methods for communicating and so they cannot cooperate with anywhere near the level of sophistication humans can. We 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 subtly different, sophisticated patterns, coupled with our ability to transmit these patterns with extreme efficiency, make highly complex societies possible.
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 delivered to us are often an amalgam of other symbols that we can deconstruct to find meaningful patterns in that may 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 commercial purposes are often intended to delight us or induce some strong emotion to entice us into paying for other symbols for sale. For example, advertisements employ highly crafted symbols to get us to exchange the money symbols we possess for the products they have infused 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. We look for meaning in just about everything, even when there is none. Even the way we dress, move, and talk are symbolic. Generated consciously or not, these cues elicit patterns inside our brain to try to help us determine if there is reason to coordinate with the people we 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 people—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 in control of 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 emanates from the accumulation of many different 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 as desired by those in power. Political symbols are also often reinforced with money and religious texts to aid in the persuasion or control of individuals.
So symbols are of extreme importance to a well functioning human society. In fact, they are the foundation for it. However, 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 but arouses 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 shared within a society, the society does not fire on all cylinders. Coordination becomes 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 have fixed, permanent meanings and stimulate the exact same brain patterns in all individuals. In fact, static, homogenized symbolic meaning is a very unhealthy state because such societies are extremely brittle. They cannot adapt very well to new problems encountered. A society such as North Korea is a prime example. Their culture lacks adequate symbolic diversity.
Diversity in the symbolic representation of the world within a population helps it adapt by allowing good, fresh ideas to form and spread if they resonate with enough other brains or if they resonate with the brains that have 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 as they arise.
In early 21st century America, we are witnessing a vigorous 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 tragic events in Charlottesville, VA.
Of course, 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 is a defining feature 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. We will return to this thought in a moment.
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. In the earliest civilizations, only kings and priests (often one and the same) controlled the political symbols and religious texts giving them enormous sway in societies they ruled. As monetary symbols came into existence, individuals successful at accumulating money gained wider levels of influence. As technology advanced, more and more control over symbols was delivered into the hands of less elite individuals. 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, allowing commoners to share symbols more easily making it possible for them to coordinate and break King George’s grip over the Americas. America’s 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 coordinated the schedules of trains across great distances which opened the door to the accumulation massive amounts of wealth by railroad titans who also became very influential political actors in society. Newspapers, along with the development of radio and television, provided powerful new ways to disseminate symbols to a mass audience. These mass symbolic transference technologies gave rise to the advertising industry to promote the consumption of other symbols. Anyone who gained control over a significant share of these mass communication technologies had a much easier time acquiring considerable influence over society by controlling the symbols consumed by the broader population.
Although these technologies that spread the symbols far and wide enabled vast amounts of disruption and spread the balances of power within society, they are nothing compared to what is coming.
In the past past twenty-five years, two new technologies have arrived that will profoundly change 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 psyches 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 while also inhibiting our ability to determine 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 gets 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 much more unlikely.
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 the current US government tell us that we should ignore the symbols in scientific research papers that say we are headed for near certain global catastrophe as a result of CO2 emissions. Second, we see a huge rise in the challenge of authorities that used to be able to generate very potent symbols that audiences accepted with little serious push back. Now, the authority of news organizations, politicians, government agencies, businesses, unions and other established institutions is under constant assault, 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. One 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. Its importance, meaning, and the authority to imbue it with power will come under increasing attack which will eventually lead to chaos. A society that cannot agree on the fundamental meaning of one of its most fundamental symbols will not function well.
Some societies de-emphasize or suppress the free creation and exchange of symbols in an effort to maintain social cohesion. China controls its communication channels tightly to prevent the introduction of disruptive symbols that might undermine existing political power structures. I don’t argue the United States should follow this path. As I’ve pointed out, the promulgation and curation of symbols from a single authority leads to a very brittle and unhealthy society and usually only to the benefit of the few who control the meaning of 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.
We are only at the beginning of our epistemological journey into an open sea littered with symbolic flotsam and jetsam. We still see a shoreline behind us and will still be guided by the beacon of the Enlightenment for some time to come. But before too long those will disappear. Time will place increasing amounts of distance between an age when symbols had potency and the coming age when most symbols become mere noise. And even though we have not yet traveled very far from safe harbor, we are already experiencing major strains on our vessel and are taking on water. Symbols are the glue holding our vessel, our shared reality, together. As these symbols become weaker through dilution, the problem will likely only to get worse.
Perhaps a rescue craft arrives to restores the power of our symbols. And hopefully it’s benevolent. Or, perhaps the death of shared symbols will open the door for some new extraordinary, unknowable method of coordinating our actions. Whatever the fix, we better hope it comes soon. The open sea does not look very inviting and, with the strong gales of climate change picking up, our time appears to be very short.