From the very beginning of human existence, Man has relied upon mythological images and symbolic metaphor to help bring meaning and purpose to his life. Today, we use these images as snapshots in order to define the many evolutionary stages of human history, helping to condense the complexity of each era into a single, easy to understand archetypal symbol. For example, when we think of Man in prehistoric times, we imagine him as a spear wielding master of nature – just as the early cave paintings depicted.
During the Ancient Egyptian era, he became the master of his fellow man and is most commonly represented by the iconic golden image of King Tutankhamen. As scientific method emerged during the Renaissance of early European modern history, Man stepped out from underneath the mystical authority of God to become, not only the dominant force in nature, but the master of the universe – apotheosized by Leonardo Da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned Vitruvian Man. Even more recently, our multi-national, industrialized, globally conscious epoch can be summed up by the image of a tailored suit wearing Modern Man On The Move – trading his spear for a brief case.
These mythological images – or symbolic metaphors – fulfill an important purpose in the evolutionary process, helping Man not only understand who he is but who he was, and most importantly who he will become in the future. Without these strong self-images Man loses his sense of identity, the very structure of society can fragment and the risk of losing our meaning and purpose becomes a very plausible reality.
The Modern Man on the Move. Briefcase Man
As we have seen over the last several decades, it certainly seems as though Man has lost grip with his true identity. Our Western world is undergoing such a drastic technological transformation that it has proven increasingly more difficult to define Man with a single iconic image and this is characterized by today’s massive societal instability and unprecedented chaos that threatens to overturn our Western traditions and values. It certainly should come as no surprise that, as we analyze the cause and effect of unbridled technological advancement: like how the division of labour reduced once fulfilling lives to the most mechanized, menial of tasks; or how urbanization led to an unhealthy dependency upon institutions; or, how the standardization of the Western school system robbed Man of his individuality, that we are now seeing a crisis of identity unfolding in this most nondescript of eras – an era that can only be defined by its inability to be defined.
Following the 1960’s, a large section of the population became disillusioned. People began voluntarily disengaging from society in search of an meaningful identity but failed to find one in a culture driven by faceless commoditization and consumption. At the time of Stanford Research Institute’s study in the 1970’s, society had already existed without a true sense of purpose or meaning for a considerable length of time, and according to the experts, this lack of a strong self-image was having an immense negative impact on western society as a whole. The Western world was in desperate need of an image makeover. But, what would the next image of Man look like? And, in what direction would this image take us? These were the questions that a small group of scientists and consultants working out of Stanford University in Santa Clara Valley California (soon to be known around the world as Silicon Valley) were determined to answer.
“Might it be possible that a more adequate image of humankind could lead to a renewed sense of wholeness and to better behavior-both individual and collective?” pg. 15.
Published originally in 1974, and revised in 1982, The Changing Images of Man was the culmination of an eight month study administered by the Urban and Social Systems Division of the Stanford Research Institute. As they explain in the introduction, various intellectuals from the fields of social sciences, humanities, engineering and physics collaborated in an attempt to:
“1) illuminate ways our present society, its citizens, and institutions have been shaped by the underlying myths and images of the past and present.
2) Explore the deficiencies of currently held images of humankind and to identify needed characteristics of future images and,
3) Identify high-leverage activities that could facilitate the emergence of new images and new policy approaches to the resolution of key problems in society.” Essentially, the basis of their study was to identify and consider the viability and efficacy of all the possible ways in which they could socially engineer the American public towards a new self-image. The key research staff at SRI was led by Project Director O.W. Markley and assisted by an Advisory Panel with several well known public figures including world famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner from the Harvard Department of Psychology; Henry Margenau from the Department of Physics at Yale; well known cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead from the American Museum of Natural History; and popular mythologist and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell.
“Society grows ever more complex, specialized and interconnected, and the production and distribution of essential goods and services is increasingly dependent on the continued integrity of human institutional systems. Human systems, however, depend on trust, agreement, and political law rather than on unchanging “natural” law, hence they are inherently less stable in times of rapid cultural change than are “natural” systems. They are particularly sensitive to breakdowns caused by war, terrorism and simplistic attempts at societal reform.” pg. 10
Within the three hundred page report, the researchers at SRI identified seven different functions of society in which the power of images could be used to acquiesce the population into a state of subservience. These functions were mainly derived from Joseph Campbell’s previous work on mythology and his knowledge of past civilizations. They included: mystical, cosmological, sociological, pedagogical or psychological, editorial, political and magical. Contained within these 7 functions are the many institutions, government agencies, organizations and groups that serve as authorities in society. While the researchers found Joseph’s mystical and magical functions to be largely ineffective due to the public’s inability to consider the former anything more than superstition and the latter to be negatively associated with the diminishing power of the church, they did find the other functions worthy of further exploration.
The cosmological function is “to form and present images of the universe and world in accord with local knowledge and experience. This function is performed in our society today by the scientific community and we see a grossly exaggerated reliance on the word of scientific ‘experts’ and the emergence of a new quasi-religion called ‘scientism’.
The sociological function enjoys perhaps the widest interpretation and includes the social sciences, various social programs, special interest groups, non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations as well as mass communication, Hollywood, and the entertainment industry. Today this function most assuredly includes social media giants like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter – all of which just happen to have got their start mere miles away from SRI within the city boundaries of downtown San Jose California, right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The pedagogical or educational function includes the public school system as well as the higher learning institutions of academia and has proven to be most effective in shaping the direction of western society. Today, both the public classroom and the university campus have become perfect breeding grounds for the enforcement of social order and the manufacturing of public opinion and are now the ideological battleground upon which the very fabric of western values and traditions are being viciously shredded to pieces – primarily led by violent, ill-informed protests at Berkeley University, which just happens to be located in Oakland, just north of Stanford.
The editorial function of society is performed by the “funding agencies (government legislatures and departments of program planning, foundations, and so forth) who also represent special interests in the selection of which aspects of reality should be collectively ignored and which attended to”. Today foundations like Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Open Society all play major roles in the shaping of society not only domestically but on an international scale. (see my previous articles, Philanthropic Foundations and Why They Are A Problem, and How Foundations Created Academia in which I go into further detail).
The political function is distinct from the strictly sociological function and “appears wherever a myth or institution of society is deliberately employed to represent the claim to privilege and authority of some special person, race, social class, nation or civilization”. Today our society has been inundated with these types of social justice authorities demanding equality of race, class, gender, and ethnicity.
According to the Changing Images of Man, the authoritative powers within the above mentioned 7 functions were then applied to all four “sources of societal problems” in order to affect the very beliefs, values and perceptions of society. These four levels are made up of: (1) the state of society, (2) behaviour, (3) motivations, and (4) basic values. As figure 7 demonstrates below, we see how the state of society can be directly affected by the individual actions and behaviours of its citizens. The scientists and researchers at SRI had rightly concluded that it is upon the foundation of our basic values and perceptions that our motivations are built; and our motivations will manifest themselves into reality through our behaviour while our collective behaviour as a society ultimately determines the general state of our society as a whole. Which raises the obvious question most pertinent to this specific discussion. Where do our values and perceptions come from?