Do not read this entire entry. Not just yet. Take a few moments to look beyond the words in front of you and to the framework of your web browser. What do you see?
A button for BACK and FORWARD, RELOAD and HOME. Perhaps another set of signs for OPEN, PRINT, and ATTACH. These signs are universal to those who have used a computer, independent of their native spoken or written language.
The HOME button is not likely to invoke an emotion for you, no matter how many times it is pressed. Use the OPEN button to load a photo of your parents, sibling, child, best friend, or favorite vacation spot and you may experience a rush of emotion, even a warming of the skin on your face, hands, and in the center of your abdomen.
Now take a moment to look beyond your web browser, and around the room in which you reside. What signs do you see? Perhaps ones which direct you to the restroom or exit? There may be others which ask you to refrain from smoking, or to remove your shoes, or to turn off your mobile phone.
Relatively benign communications which offer information and direction more than motivation or stimulation of emotion. But what if we were to replace those signs that instruct how to abide by the rules of that public place and replace them with signs that hold entirely different, perhaps symbolic meanings?
Imagine that you visit an internet cafe to enjoy a cup of coffee and to catch up on email. The coffee is fresh. The staff are responsive and polite. You sit back in a large, soft sofa, and with your first sip, your eyes rise from the lip of your mug only to be immediately taken by an odd assortment of images painted on the walls of the cafe. You look twice to make certain you are seeing things correctly. You set down your coffee.
A swastika juxtaposed to a Christian cross. A sickle and hammer. A pink triangle and stiff middle finger erupting from a closed fist. A fist raised high with sleeves rolled back aimed at a human eye. A large, erect phallic pushing up from the center of a flower. The numbers ‘666’ displayed too often, too large for your own comfort.
What kind of establishment have you entered? Suddenly uncomfortable, you ask for the coffee remaining in your mug to be transferred to a take-out cup and you depart. Amazing, isn’t it, how the simple assembly of shapes color can have such control over our emotions, even our sense of comfort and safety.
Power in Symbols
Why do the police across the world spend money to erase gang graffiti as quickly as it is painted on the sides of buildings? Why will a middle finger raised in impolite salute invoke a physical fight? Is it anything more than skin, muscle, and bone moving in a controlled fashion? You did not throw an object, nor touch another person, and yet, the offense of such an act may be treated as harshly as if you had in fact caused bodily harm.
When does a sign become universal? Can a universal sign become symbolic?
The news in the U.S. is often rich with discussion of freedom of speech and of the press, the boundaries within which we are allowed to talk and write sometimes gray. But consider the power of signs were you to walk down the street of any city or town in any country with a poster which portrayed a gun juxtaposed to a photo of the President. How long would it take before you were interrogated by the police?
I do not intend to uphold this action, rather to showcase with clarity the power held by relatively simple shapes arranged in a particular manner as a means of invoking very strong emotion, even physical response by those who behold them.
Some cry at the sign of the Christian cross, so deep does their faith run; others salute the crest which represents a branch of the armed forces, so strong is their tie to their country. Some will kill to defend a word which is sacred or holy. Riots break out and more than 100 die following the satirical depiction of Islam’s profit Muhammad. An artist is heavily criticized for placing a Christian cross in a bottle of urine. An anonymous artist helps to relieve the tension in highly dangerous, gang ridden streets of Rio de Janeiro by painting the sides of buildings and the fronts of steps with massive images of women’s faces. The face of Mother Mary is discovered in a stone or a loaf of bread and people travel from great distances to see this miracle.
The Nike ‘swoosh’, the Apple ‘apple’, the United Nations ‘UN’, and the United States ‘$’ hold international recognition. If I recall correctly, a ban was placed on advertising cigarettes within 2000 feet of a school when it was learned more school-age children in the U.S. recognized the face of Joe Camel than that of the President, Martin Luther King, or Mickey Mouse.
Past, Present, & Future
Humans have for millennia used signs and symbols in art to tell stories, to invite or scare away spirits, to provide directions to travelers. Some sign systems evolved into written language, as with the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Others, as far as we know, told a story without the implicit structure of language, conveyed even in relative simplicity.
The power of the ancient Native Americans draws attention, even fear among the modern peoples of the American Southwest. Why have modern Navajo desecrated the faces, necks, and arms of particular rock art on the Northern boundary of their Nation, along the San Juan river? Why does this act yet invoke a sense of awe, even a chill on a warm, summer day as though a cloud bank had for a moment covered the sun?
Perhaps for the same reason that Hollywood has for decades produced movies which leave us wondering, “Could it be true?” Riddles and clues in the form of cryptic signs and symbols guided Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, Ben Gates in National Treasure; Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and James Bond.
I am moved by this line of thinking as I have recently begun to read “Man and his Symbols” with opening chapter and edited by Carl Jung; by my travel this year to Kenya, Ghana, Turkey, and England; and with the final effort now being applied to iConji, a language of symbols for digital communication.
Each day I am here in London, even as a native English speaker, I take note of the signs for city bus, Underground, STOP, ‘mind the gap’, NO SMOKING, toilet, ATM, and cafe.
Even with the rise of English as a dominant language in international commerce and travel, as metropolitan areas gain speakers of a greater number of languages, it is universal signs that continue to grow as the simplest, most powerful means of attracting the desired attention.
In the U.S. too, I have noticed an increase in the use of signs and symbols in billboard and poster advertising. One such ad in the Denver International Airport for a university has only signs, no words, to make clear it’s communication. A shop on East McDowell road in Phoenix too has a roadside billboard which uses character representations to communicate the services provided.
As with the IBM logo, open logos force the human mind to close the gap, to complete the story and when accomplished, the image is held with a greater level of intensity and meaning.
We are visual creatures, emotionally moved by what we perceive with our eyes. Since the first time we as a species could manipulate our surroundings, we have left art to visually record our stories, to direct and to caution. As the meaning of signs may change as generations pass, what universal sign do we leave as a warning to those who may discover our buried nuclear waste ten thousand years from now?
I believe our future, as much as our past, will be communicated and recorded with signs while the fundamental nature of being human will continue to give power to symbols. No level of education, no foundation of science will ever completely erase our core need, as a species, to find meaning in symbols.
But if what Jung wrote is true, that a symbol cannot be invented by a single person, then are all symbols intrinsic and eternal? Or can new symbols be incorporated into the human psyche?
Only time will tell …