Photo by Jonathan Kemper
Imagine you were only born 9 years ago, and you catch an adult saying a word you’ve never heard before. Being the curious type of 9 year-old (aren’t they all?), you do what comes naturally to almost everyone these days, when they don’t recognize a word: you Google it.
But how confident are you that you’ll receive a meaningful answer to your query?
In most everyday scenarios, the provided search result will near-instantly gratify and fill in your mind’s previous conceptual pothole. But a great many words, that are fundamental to a basic understanding of our world, by default do not yield a meaningful definition from the most popular global knowledge index on the internet. The meaning of these words have been hijacked by alternative definitions – many of them corporate brands.
And the list of these corrupted words is getting longer.
Words Are Losing Their Meaning
Phone manufacturers, ecommerce stores, car companies and other large organizations are leveraging their wealth and influence to overwrite the original meaning of fundamental words in our language. This results in additional context being required in all forms of communication referencing these words, in order to convey the intended meaning, thereby inducing a species-wide slowdown of language comprehension, and a dissolution of common cognitive ground between individuals.
This may be an unnoticeable phenomenon for those of us old enough to predate these organizations – and thus inherited the original meaning of these now-altered words – but for those born since, and the generations of humans that follow them, the very concepts attached to these words are being corrupted by associations based on short-term profit.
“In information security and programming, a buffer overflow, or buffer overrun, is an anomaly where a program, while writing data to a buffer, overruns the buffer’s boundary and overwrites adjacent memory locations.
Buffers are areas of memory set aside to hold data, often while moving it from one section of a program to another, or between programs. Buffer overflows can often be triggered by malformed inputs; if one assumes all inputs will be smaller than a certain size and the buffer is created to be that size, then an anomalous transaction that produces more data could cause it to write past the end of the buffer.
If this overwrites adjacent data or executable code, this may result in erratic program behavior, including memory access errors, incorrect results, and crashes“.~Buffer Overflow, Wikipedia
As our words are being increasingly called upon to carry multiple definitions – with the purchased definitions crowding out those that more directly describe our collective reality – our primary method of sharing knowledge with one another is becoming overwhelmed by the increasing amounts of information we’re attempting to process. It’s essentially a linguistic overwrite, that results in a buffer overflow of meaning, or what I’m calling (for the purposes of this essay) Meaning Corruption.
Experiment: Observe Meaning Corruption in the Wild
You can perform a brief experiment right now to see what I’m talking about for yourself.
Open an incognito or private browser window and Google any of the following words, then see what the top search result is for each.
|Do you see this first…||… or this?|
|Do you get this as the top result…||… or this?|
|Is this where you were trying to go…||… or here?|
|Were you looking for these folks…||… or this?|
|Do you get this guy…||… or them?|
What other words can you think of that are undergoing meaning corruption right now?
Information is Growing Exponentially, and Language Can’t Keep Up
“For sure, the new information technologies are fragmenting monolithic social consensus… when I was a kid, on Friday night, between 6 and 7, Gunsmoke was on CBS. You could have fairly high confidence that 30% of the American population was tuned in… As a culture, we were all at the same moment, sharing this experience.
Now, people follow their own interests, and so there is enormous fragmentation, and this thing I call the Balkanization of epistemology goes along with that. Now, we aren’t either Catholics, Lutherans, or Jews, now there’s a vast smorgasbord of possibilities – and it continues to fragment almost down to the individual level”.Terence McKenna, The End of Culture
Words are the transactional signals people use to exchange ideas and concepts with one another – and over time, the complexity of those concepts has multiplied by orders of magnitude, compressing an increasing amount of information and meaning within each finite word. No wonder words these days are spilling over with meaning, causing misunderstandings with almost every sentence!
Critically important words that were once commonly understood, like
now have much more frayed, fragmented, and in many cases, conflicting meanings today.
Listening to some of the subculture manifestos floating around these days may leave you feeling like you poked your head inside an alternate reality bubble. That’s because you have – some of the words inside that bubble probably sound familiar, but their meanings may have completely diverged from the ones rooted in your understanding. If words make reality, you’re quite literally witnessing the inhabitants of an alternate dimension as they go about their business.
The High Cost of Meaning Corruption
While we’ve marveled at the possibilities unlocked by the sudden pooling and interconnection of digitized global knowledge over the past three decades, we’re now also watching from front row seats, as the fabric of our ancestors’ generational wisdom and our children’s cognitive birthright is being unraveled in the quest for short-term corporate profit.
Imagine yourself as you travel through Time, believing certain fundamental things about the world around you – say, that the Sun rises in the East each morning. More importantly, you travel through Time, believing that there are many other people who also believe the Sun rises in the East.
Now imagine that, one day at the stroke of midnight, one or more of those people come to believe that “East” is actually perpendicular to the direction you call East. The fragmentation of the meaning of the word “East” causes a sharp divergence between your reality, and theirs, likely resulting in major confusion and possibly escalating hostility, as your competing fundamental realities attempt to assert their dominance – all in the temporary absence of everyone being able to behold for themselves from which direction the Sun actually rises.
Now, scale up this mental picture, to encompass many individuals in a society, and imagine that, again at midnight, they EACH come to believe that “East” is actually a different direction from everyone else’s definition. The many threads of our co-created reality start to fray like an overloaded rope. Cultures are held together by common language – without a shared cultural reality, we cannot coordinate the basic functions of a collaborative society.
This trend of cultural division due to meaning corruption is manifesting right when the complexity and magnitude of the problems our species is being called upon to collectively solve – climate change, misinformation, income inequality, et al – are peaking, and may be a factor driving our society into what cognitive science Professor John Vervaeke calls a “Meaning Crisis”.
As mentioned earlier, the corruption of common meaning attached to our fundamental words and concepts as a society “may result in erratic program behavior, including memory access errors, incorrect results, and crashes”.
Can you think of any examples of such glitches in the system, that you’ve witnessed recently?
If, as a society, we raise children that cannot by default recognize “apple” to be something you can eat, or the name of the brightest star in the sky by which they can physically orient themselves in the world, we will have failed them considerably. We will have allowed on our watch the erasure of hard-won fundamental knowledge that has taken our species many generations to encode and pass on, using language — survival-oriented stories that have continuously leapt from mind to mind in an unbroken chain, and bound together humans’ cultural realities for thousands of years, first via oral tradition, and later with the evolution of writing.
We will have set ourselves adrift, leaving each other to the whim of currents that flow towards unimaginably strange shores, and the frayed rope of our common reality will have snapped – perhaps irreparably.
We Need a Better Way of Encoding and Sharing Meaning
In 1948, mathematician Claude Shannon published his Information Theory, which underlies most of the digital technologies we take for granted today, including cellphones and the Internet. Author and futurist Robert Anton Wilson neatly summarized Shannon’s Information Theory as:
“The easier you can predict a message, the less information the message contains.
Norbert Weiner once simplified the meaning of this equation by saying that great poetry contains more information than political speeches. You never know what will come next in a truly creative poem, but in a George Bush speech you not only know what will come next, you probably could predict the whole speech, in general, before he even opens his mouth.
Obviously, the faster we process information, the more rich and complex our models or glosses – our reality-tunnels – will become.“~Robert Anton Wilson, Quantum Psychology
The growing amount and complexity of meaning we’re each attempting to convey to each other has outgrown our ability to accurately encode it via language, resulting in information loss and slower, more error-prone communication between individuals. If human society is to keep up with the cresting complexity of reality’s wavefront through time instead of getting barrel rolled in its trough, we must expand our capacity for accurately and efficiently coding, transmitting, and decoding information between individuals.
In other words, we need a new Codec to facilitate the co-creation of meaning.
In software parlance, a “Codec” – short for coder-decoder – is an algorithm that enables the rapid compression and decompression of (typically) audio and video files, allowing them to take up less storage space, as well as be moved more rapidly from one place to another over limited bandwidth connections. Without efficient codecs, we likely wouldn’t have streaming media services like Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, or Tiktok, because it’d be impossible to house and serve such colossal amounts of digital media efficiently, or profitably – and what comparatively little content they did attempt to serve would be received at significantly poorer quality and slower speeds.
Thus, if many of our societal problems stem from misunderstanding one another due to the inefficiencies of spoken and written language, upgrading our capacity for processing this information may help us understand one another more clearly, making it easier to coordinate human activity at a greater scale and fidelity than is currently feasible today.
But what could a better codec for human language look like?
The Good News: Better Codecs Are Already Evolving – Fast
So we find that our words alone cannot carry enough information to accurately facilitate the co-creation of meaning at scale – therefore we must expand our messages’ capacity for unambiguously conveying our intended meaning, in order to reduce the frequency of misunderstandings. Luckily, we already have several examples of language being enhanced to better facilitate meaningful communication.
One way we’re already doing this in everyday online communication is via Memes – by which I mean messages constructed from multimedia combinations of information, instead of single media, like speech or writing. Taken individually, the informational components of memes typically carry little meaning, but when presented together in-context, the parallel messages catalyze and reinforce one another to convey deep symbolic significance for the recipients. The juxtaposition of information encoded in multiple channels together contains powerful new meaning-carrying capacity.
Memes represent an evolution of language, because they’re low effort to create for a large and growing number of people today, and able to accurately communicate complex, nuanced concepts over great distances, with high efficiency and minimal meaning loss, compared to words. Powerful memes like “Diamond Hands“, “Money printer go BRRRR” and “HODL” are uniting and coordinating entire tribes of humans across diverse ethnic, economic, and political lines, by compressing emotionally-charged stories into tiny info packets, which can be sown far and wide via the Internet – often with explosive effects.
Emoji convey meaning compressed into tiny pictograms that can be displayed alongside text – like digitally pantomimed facial avatars that tag along with the written message, to give it additional emotional context and meaning.
Yeeees, I’m talking about Blockchain – but only briefly: by giving us a way to trustlessly and verifiably define a common reality among peers at a global scale (i.e. “At least 51% of members in this network agree that account X sent amount Y to account Z“), this technology appears to be an early-stage digital antidote to the ongoing meaning crisis in our society, where all centralized channels of mass information are accelerating meaning corruption, and proving increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors.
Going back as far as the 1100’s in Japan, a popular style of theater arose, which involved the performers using traditional body language cues to convey their characters’ emotional states and archetypal personality traits – with gestures sometimes as precise as the tilt of a head, or adoption of a specific foot position accompanying, or sometimes even replacing, the delivery of the lines:
Shosagoto pieces place their emphasis on dance, which may be performed with or without dialogue, where dance can be used to convey emotion, character and plot. Quick costume change techniques may sometimes be employed in such pieces…
Important elements of kabuki include the mie (見得), in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character…
Emotions are also expressed through the colours of the costumes, a key element in kabuki. Gaudy and strong colours can convey foolish or joyful emotions, whereas severe or muted colours convey seriousness and focus.~Kabuki, Wikipedia
So, we see that language is already breaking free of “just words” – but none of these newer forms of communication engage all of our senses at once, meaning they’re still only using a portion of the total bandwidth available to the human brain for encoding, transmitting, and decoding information.
Meanwhile, the complexity of our world is still growing.
The Metaverse: Language’s Next Evolutionary Step?
First, a clarification is necessary: I’m not boosting
Rather, I’m talking about the concept of the Metaverse as fully-immersive telepresence – a tool that gives its users the ability to communicate with their whole personas, at previously impossible distances.
Such a technology will enable us to compose, send, and receive full-spectrum representations of meaning and emotion, via all 5 of our organic senses, simultaneously. The messages we exchange with one another via the Metaverse will be as finely nuanced as if we were talking face-to-face. We will each become walking metaphors, able to project vast amounts of additional contextual information like nuance, tone, pheromones, gestures and body language along with our words over great distances, making for far less predictability in our communications, and (in many cases) far more accurate comprehension of the sender’s intent.
“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learned from others, and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.“~Aristotle
And this is just the start – the digital nature of the Metaverse, and the tools that evolve within it, will rapidly facilitate the decoupling of the individual from their static physical appearance. How we choose to appear to others will morph not just from day to day, but from conversation to conversation, or even multiple times per message, as we’re each newly empowered to maximize others’ understanding of what we’re trying to say!
This sounds wild, but a parallel of this communication method already exists in Nature, thanks to the Octopus, which telegraphs its emotional state by changing the texture and color of its skin to match its mood.
With the arrival of the Metaverse, our minds are preparing to shed our inflexible primate bodies, and expand into the 3rd layer of cognitive substrate – past the organic limitations of the Limbic system, beyond the Neocortex, and reaching deep into the realm of the digital, connected & distributed Global Consciousness – a Triocortex, perhaps?
Political Ripples in the Metaverse = Shockwaves IRL
If you could appear however you like, whenever you want, how would you choose to present yourself to the world?
The answers to this question will likely sound the death knell to the bedrock ideology of Identity Politics – after all, every single human in history was born into a body they did not choose, so it’s fairly safe to say that, given the opportunity, most people will opt to at least test drive different avatars in the Metaverse. No-one ever chose from birth to be black, female, cis-gendered, or disabled, so what are the odds they’ll feel bound to the same political ideology as other people who resemble their physical form, when they are suddenly free to appear however they choose to anyone around the world?
“A samurai, Megatron, and a giant talking cheeseburger all walk into a voting booth…”
As we meet and interact with each other in this brand new realm of possibilities, it will become plainly obvious that no two people think exactly alike – and therefore, they can no longer be cynically lumped together into political voting blocs, simply based on skin color, gender, or indeed any other superficial traits. The archetypal fantasies of our imagination will begin bleeding into the “real” world through our avatars, and without a new common cultural reality to hold them together, the boundaries separating today’s major political factions will likely collapse.
We Must Re-engineer Language to Break the Meaning Barrier
When a jet approaches a certain high speed, called Mach 1, the sound waves caused by its air resistance begin to bunch up and collide with each other. If the aircraft isn’t appropriately designed for this speed, it will lose its stability and violently shake to pieces, unless it can hold itself together, and apply more thrust to accelerate through that resistance. When it does, a massive shockwave called a Sonic Boom is unleashed, which heralds the jet punching through the sound barrier, as it goes on to cruise at hypersonic speeds.
It’s usually a pretty smooth flight after that point.
The accelerating complexity of our world is thrusting our society towards its Meaning barrier – a resistance threshold of collective comprehension beyond which our words literally fail us. If our tools for encoding, and sharing information are not appropriately reconfigured and reinforced to handle this transition in the rate of Meaning creation, the resulting shockwave could cause our society to shatter into billions of dis-coordinated individuals with no common truth.
The Metaverse, with its limitless canvas for creating and sharing new forms of language, could be the streamlined communications vehicle that propels humanity past this threshold. As we breach the Meaning barrier and accelerate into vast new realms of its representations, we’ll all simultaneously apprehend a new human truth that binds every single person together:
And I’m pretty sure words won’t – can’t do it justice.
“One of the concepts that’s probably going to take a real pounding as we move into the future, is the preciousness of the individual personality…
I can imagine a future where bodies are nodal points in a web, and you just settle where it’s comfortable for a while, and then move on, and make room for someone else. And you don’t have to own a body, and you don’t have one personality, one body, you can become context-dependent.
And as avatars flourish… by ‘avatars’, I mean the software constructs that are how you appear to other people on the Internet – these will be your personalities. We’ll eventually all have 50 or 60 avatars hanging in our virtual closets, and you’ll get up in the morning, and decide, ‘Do I want to be a meteorite, the Queen of England, a German pop star?’ whatever.
Mood and diversity will rule.”Terence McKenna, The End of Culture