Understanding Meaning

Jul 06 2005 by Michael Bayler Print This Article

Meaning is treated here not as an attribute of information, but as a crucial part of human experience, a component of belonging, sharing, understanding, perceiving, associating, finding relevance, feeling inclusion and trust, seeing value, engagement, attitude, belief, acceptance, receptiveness, expectation, and often attraction and desire.

It's the starting point, the platform, for most things good. Its absence or reduction precludes or undermines safety, understanding, organisation, trust, communication, leadership and management, compassion, identification, community, social structure, confidence and trade. And of course, enjoyment and fulfilment.

Meaning in 20th century culture

The nightmares that Franz Kafka articulates so uniquely, in works like The Castle, The Trial and Metamorphosis, are all defined and linked by their vacuum of meaning. Meaning has been surgically removed from his protagonists' worlds. And look at the human experience that remains. Note that it is an obsession with information, manifested as an insane bastion of bureaucracy, that keeps meaning away.

The Gallic shrug that was existentialism was an attempt, by Camus, by Sartre and colleagues, to come to terms with, to make sense of, to create useful coordinates for, this same vacuum of meaning.

The terror evoked by Orwell's 1984 is derived far more from the vacuum of meaning he describes, than from the comparatively cartoonish Room 101. And here information is used to do more than keep meaning at bay. In 1984, information, the currency of betrayal (surely the absolute reversal of shared meaning), is a killer.

How we experience meaning

Meaning seems at its root to be about connections: between individuals, between groups of individuals, and, also, within individuals, in that it can be experienced powerfully as new or better links between previously disconnected internal bits of us. A powerful sensation, this reduction in personal fragmentation. And of course, we also experience meaning as new or better connection between hitherto disparate ideas.

Meaning is, while rooted in the isolated experience of the individual, shared socially. What's more, it seems to increase when shared, as we can see at a football match, or in a group therapy session. Whether energy or entropy, positive or negative ... both are accelerated, deepened, profoundly impacted by tribal connections. It can go well, it can go very badly.

We are understood, validated, a previous transaction or service encounter is remembered. We are heard, seen, acknowledged, our needs are intelligently anticipated. A spark of recognition is ignited unexpectedly. A feeling of increased personal or group energy marks new meaning.

Meaning is lost when you do one thing, having said another. When you fail to deliver on a promise. When you ask a question and turn your back on the answer. When you fail in authenticity. Most importantly perhaps, when you don't listen, ignore, when you fail to respect. When you scorn, put down, render invisible the cares and concerns of other humans. We experience this as entropy. This loss of meaning, increasingly, is our experience of brands. Why can't you just walk the talk, we ask.

So, what happens then when meaning is under attack? We lose ... almost everything worth having.

How we got here

The decay of Meaning is the culprit for an awful lot of the bewildering issues facing the human race, not merely commercial, but also political, environmental, social, emotional, spiritual and religious.

Why is this such a challenge now as opposed to earlier in history?

It's information again, but information now massively distributed, pushed into every corner of our experience, by the new networks.

Dissonance, the direct experience of the little betrayals of which the world was always so forgiving (or at least ignorant), happens so rapidly, so tangibly today. Promises are made and visibly broken within a short period. Service expectations - ramped up most memorably by the Amazons spawned in e-commerce - are sky high.

We know so much more. And what we see is, so often, disappointing.

Information (as networks and data) both supplies the necessary platform for, and, with the evident reaching of its limitations, sets the stage for the next scene, an intense focus on meaning.


About The Author

Michael Bayler
Michael Bayler

Michael Bayler is a strategist and futurist based in London. He specialises in the impact on brands, organisations and individuals of developments and trends in culture, media and technology.