Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Sometimes, ideas suspended in the flow of thought will suddenly crystallize into an understanding.  This happened today while I was reading "Anathem" a novel by Neal Stephenson.  The novel opens in a place called "Arbre", which may or may not be Earth, in the cloisters of a quasi-religious order whose purpose is to preserve and advance that world's sciences.  Once every ten (or hundred or thousand) years, the cloister opens it gates to allow the secular world in for a period of days.  In preparation for this event, the young protagonist, Fraa Erasmas, and his cohort are grilled by their teacher to make certain they have a good grasp of "The Iconographies".   In this context, "Iconographies" refers to a set of well-recognized mental images that the secular people (the "saeculars") hold as their guide to the characteristics of the members of the order (the "avout").  Since the two societies seldom interact, it is crucial that the young fraas and suurs (brothers and sisters) be well prepared for the full spectrum of reactions — from friendly to violent — that they might encounter in their dealings with the saeculars.

Each Iconography is a caricature, often based on images from the saecular media, that the saeculars have condensed into abbreviated form over the ages.  For example, the "Yorran Iconography" depicts the avout as madmen in white lab coats who plot to take over the world while the "Muncostran Iconography" illustrates them as absent-minded though essentially benign beings who have the saecular's best interests at heart.

These depictions, stripped of their science-fictional trappings, are pretty common literary devices that have found their way into every medium from books to movies to cartoons.  In the examples above, I'm sure you'll recognize the shorthand for "scientist" with either a negative or positive spin.  There are similar images for all kinds of stock characters: the "computer nerd", the "millionaire playboy", "the dumb blonde", etc.  They are, of course, thin and hollow and bear only the most superficial resemblance to real people but we continue to use them everywhere  — and there's probably no end in sight.

So, what was it about this novel and its concept of "Iconographies" that grabbed my attention?  Let's begin by turning our attention inward, to you, my friend.

Within the compass of your own skull, you are a fully real, totally unique being.  From this perspective, you are, so to speak, the star of your own show.  The years of your life have built a story of joys and sorrows that you alone understand; have given birth to struggles, frustrations, triumphs and contentments, that nobody else in the world could ever fully know.

The next best thing to your personal understanding of who you are resides in your spouse, your closest friends, your family members.  They see a version of you that is less than your personal picture — but they see things about you that you can't see.  To them, you are a three-dimensional character in the play of which they are the star, though even after years and decades of knowing each other, there is always a gulf that can never be breached.  This is one of the mysteries.

If we broaden our circle to include acquaintances and co-workers, the picture of you begins to get sketchy and two dimensional.  Perhaps they know some of your habits, your interests or your notable eccentricities but little more.  Imagine how they might describe you to a stranger.  Your life in twenty five words or less.

Beyond this relatively small sphere, you are faceless and unknown (unless you bear the curse of celebrity).  The only means by which the vast bulk of humanity might "know" you is by the groups or categories to which you belong.  By this measure, I am a Man, I am an American, I am a Wiccan, I am a Programmer, etc.  Some of these categories may also describe you so, in those respects, you see a part of yourself in me.  In those instances where we do not share a category, you probably have a picture of what a member of that category may be "like".  This may be accurate to several decimal places or it may be something akin to a caricature.  This last case is the focus of my discussion today: most of the people in your world, in my world, in everybody's world are perceived as icons.

Its curious that we should have the term "icon" in common usage.  Up until 1973, when David Canfield Smith of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) applied the term to computer control elements, an "icon" (or "ikon") was a religious painting, usually depicting an important personage (e.g., a saint).  Today, it's hard to find anyone doesn't think of an icon purely in terms of little pictures on a computer or phone screen.  The icon represents in a very concise way, the entire experience of a computer program or some action within a program.  When you see a little picture of a house, you know that it means "take me back to my Home Page".   There are dozens or hundreds of common and well-understood icons and they are largely taken for granted.

I started this with a description of an imagined society in which large groups of people deliberately held themselves apart from one another except for brief periods.  In the long spans in between, lack of personal interaction reduced their understanding of one another to mere icons.  I would submit that much the same thing happens in real life as we quarantine ourselves within our comfortable warrens, congregating with others with whom share an increasingly narrow range of characteristics and interests.  When we encounter members of other warrens, be they political, religious, racial, national, etc., we risk being blinded by the icons that immediately pop in front of our eyes.  Behind that icon is a real flesh-and-blood person.  I guarantee it.  It's worth thinking about.