All Art is Propaganda
285,000 years ago, somewhere in the place we now call Kenya, Homo erectus discovered she could use red ochre to paint on a cave wall. In that moment the propaganda war was born. It is a war that wages on today, though the terrain has changed. It is a war of ideas and of concepts, of words and of symbols, of identities and of ethics. You are fighting in this war, whether you know it or not, every time you communicate. As a soldier or as a general, you are a semiotic warrior in a great memetic conflict. You may as well be intentional about it.
The supreme importance of this war of ideas is rooted, perhaps paradoxically, in the fact that the humans are so cooperative. Our capacity to work together is unrivaled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. We cooperate in our billions, across continents and across generations, to execute complex and evolving social programming. We are both the products and the authors of this programming, and continuously participate in a species-wide negotiation to update and revise the codes and conventions we live by. To alter this programming is to shape the trajectory of the human race. These are the stakes.
A Brief History of Human Communication
Across most of modern humans’ 200,000 year history, the pace of change has been slow. Individual influence was tempered mostly by the physical limitations of the technology of the day. Even the most contagious ideas took centuries to spread, painstakingly and inaccurately, from mouth to ear.
The advent of the written word roughly 5,500 years ago allowed thoughts to be preserved across generations and to be shared with higher fidelity. Movable type printing emerged in Asia and Europe in the tenth and fifteenth centuries respectively, spreading literacy and opening a new front in the war of ideas. Even as the cost of printing came down over the ensuing centuries, large presses achieved and maintained relative control over the flow of information and editorial space remained a limited commodity.
Communication in the Modern Age
Our various forms of electronic communication, from the telegraph to the internet, have only been with us for the most recent 0.1% of our history. It is impossible to appreciate, from our place in time, how instantaneous planet-wide communication will change us. One unmistakable consequence of the internet age, however, has been the elimination of editorial space as a constraint. Now, with unlimited space to produce content and easy distribution to a global audience, every individual is empowered to become a formidable ideological force.
It has been said that the average person will meet about 80,000 people in their lifetime - approximately 3 people per day for 73 years. By contrast, there are currently a few hundred million YouTube videos with over a million views. Most of them were created by perfectly ordinary people with an idea to share. The average middle-school student with a smartphone holds in their pocket access to a greater audience than they would be likely to meet in a dozen lifetimes. It’s likely that, within a decade, even these numbers will seem quaint as platforms consolidate and audience sizes swell.
As modern semiotic warriors, our greatest constraint is attentional. In order to take advantage of the great opportunity afforded to us by our age, we must discover how to capture and retain the attention of an audience.
The Ethical Imperative
As we come to understand how ideas spread, and as we begin to experiment with the creation of meaning, it is essential that we consider the implications of this knowledge. It is not enough simply to become critical of the messages that surround us, we must also cultivate a careful attitude toward the messages we transmit. We should become ethical, intentional, and strategic communicators. After all, the power to communicate is the power to transform the trajectory of the species. Use it with care.