We see them on all our screens. TV, laptop, tablet and phone. These are people who we as a collective, have decided are worth our continued attention. The nature of an icon is very interesting because it spans nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, location and time period. Big names like Gandhi, Hitler, Kim Kardashian or Bill Gates are instantly recognisable. How much we actually know about them, what role they play and if they are ethical or not is in some sense irrelevant. Certain people for one reason or another have become a meme of their own. The culture that we live in has generated and is spreading a certain version of these people. A version that they themselves can’t control. It’s difficult to say exactly why this happens and what the effect it has on the world (and us as individuals), but the fact that a child birth can have worldwide media attention is peculiar to say the least. I am of course talking about Prince George or the ‘Royal Baby’. Kate Middleton and Prince William’s son. If we just think through the facts of that event, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the media world is completely insane. A woman gave birth. Actually, that is even more interesting than what really happened. Let me go into further detail. A white, healthy, wealthy woman, part of the British royal family continued the 1000 year long lineage by giving birth to yet another person. What happened is exactly what we expected to happen. Yet, somehow the worlds media decided it was important enough to cover the hospitalisation of a pregnant woman for at least 24 hours, and then subsequently comment about how the baby indeed looks like a baby.
This icon obsession that we have does not always have to be an international affair. We all have many personal, but less known icons. There are certain people we admire and respect but have never met. We could be following their work for years, and have them impact our lives immensely, yet we don’t really know who they are. It is a common occurrence when you meet someone you admire and realise that they aren’t so different from you. They are, after all, human. This realisation also occurs when you grow up and start to see your family members as people. As individuals with their own flaws, hopes and dreams. Many of us can recollect times when we finished school and saw a teacher in the ‘real world’. Then it suddenly hits you, they are normal people and not just authority figures. They want to get drunk, do drugs and have sex just like everyone else.
It appears that we create memes of people who we have decided act as an authority figure on any given subject. Once we decide to place a person on an authoritarian pedestal, we instantly simplify that person. We remove ambiguities with their views and personality, then finally create a meme that is more easily spread around and digested. I think that the spread of iconic memes is probably related to our evolutionary history. The creation and adherence to the word of the icon is probably one of the many reasons that allow our species to be successful. The fact that we pay attention to people whom other people consider intelligent or wise will in general help us both individually and as a collective. Taking what Mahatma Ghandi says seriously is a very good idea, but of course following Hitler is not. I think this is the crux of the problem with the creation of any icon. They are relatively easy to make and spread, but can potentially be extremely dangerous and hard to remove. They enter our collective consciousness, and depending on the effect of the meme, it can either expand or contract it.
Our minds are lazy and make us inherently susceptible to the creation of icons. This bias that we have is being constantly challenged by both reality and the scientific method. The scientific method appears to be the only instrument of thought that we have created to dispel the illusion that the icon meme creates. It does this by creating an algorithm whereby the only memes that are accepted into the scientific library are the ones that can be objectively verified. Authority is meaningless when it comes to scientific ideas. Now the algorithm that the scientific thought implements is not perfect, and sometimes bad memes do enter. These memes can cause major disasters, and compromises the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. However, there are defence mechanisms in place that can combat these memes. To give an example of this, consider the idea called “spooky action at a distance”. This was a phrase coined by Einstein that referred to a prediction in quantum mechanics, implying information could be transferred faster than the speed of light. According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, nothing could travel faster than the speed of light. This is not a simple statement that Einstein had made. General relativity is extremely accurate and reflects most of what we understand about the large scale universe today. Einstein was of course a major contributor to the advance of physics, and his opinion about matters of physics were taken very seriously. However, this is completely irrelevant when it comes to science. What counts is evidence, and even if one of the most brilliant scientist that have ever lived thinks that an idea is wrong, his opinion has no bearing on what is accepted as fact in the scientific community. In the end, quantum mechanics was shown to be extremely accurate in its own predictions, and Spooky action at a distance or “quantum entanglement”, appears to be how reality (at least on the small scale) works.
The question is then, how can we as individuals protect ourselves from the illusions that icons create. How can we truly be independent from the influence of negative icons? I think the answer lies somewhere in the way science deals with them. We need to create mental auto-correcting meme detectors that can reject bad thoughts and let in good ones. To put it simply, we need to acquire better critical thinking skills. Whenever an icon is presented to us, we need to try our best to analyse their ideas simply based on their reflection of reality, and not the relation to the icon producing them. We also need to find ways to remove dangerous memes that have passed through our mental barriers. A good way to do that might be to re-asses on a regular basis whatever basic assumptions that are being made and see if these truly fit with reality. This way of thinking is not easy and since our brains are naturally lazy, it might not be intuitive for us to think like that.
The only thing we truly have is our own minds, and if we want to stay happy in this world, we need to protect them and make sure they are not easily manipulated or damaged.
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