A few people will find a book in their bookcase that they cannot decipher. As long as one does not know Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or Greek, one has no choice but to look for someone who can read, understand and transfer the scripture into an understandable language. The meaning of the hieroglyphs could only be deciphered in the Rosetta stone, in which a text was engraved as hieroglyphs, demotic and ancient Greek symbols among each other. There are books like the Voynich manuscript that could not be understood in the past six hundred years. Eventually, we realize that meaning can evaporate without translators, explainers, or experts – what a text means; how to make or use a tool; what purpose a monument like Stonehenge pursued; or how other people see the world.
With the current search for truth and the attempt to regulate language within the framework of political correctness, questions arise regarding meaning.
- What is the meaning?
Meaning is the very essence of people, things, locations, eras, and ideas. It is about the characteristics, the material, and immaterial characters of everything – what we perceive, think, exchange with each other, and do. These can be memories from the past, expectations about the future, and all sorts of abstract concepts. Means of expression are primarily words, images, haptics, smells, and tastes, or a mixture of these, like systems that are consciously or unconsciously shaped or emerge on their own. Meaning can be an idea, a theme, a concept/model, a plan, or a realization and describes
– building blocks that make up the whole,
– relationships between the building blocks,
– processes that consist of individual steps and have beginnings and ends,
– qualities that describe the merit of the named components,
– as well as all other aspects that go beyond everyday worldly wisdom.
To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein: Meaning … is what an explanation of meaning explains” (PI560).
- Where do we find meaning?
Meaning is found everywhere and always in people and things. The essence of people comes from their outer appearance, social situation, visible and psychological behavior, relationships, and social impact. Things contain meaning through form, function, and their prestige. However, only people can make meaning visible since there is no tangible entity containing meaning with the essence of everything. It takes observers to interpret and communicate meaning – without ancient Egyptians and especially the Rosetta Stone, it would not be possible to access the meaning of hieroglyphics until today. The context provides further clues – the time reference (yesterday, today, tomorrow), the place, or the culture.
- How do we acquire meaning?
We perceive our environment with our senses: visually, auditory, kinesthetically, olfactory and gustatory. The pathway into our consciousness is still unclear. In the end, external stimuli expand the mental models that everybody has. In the so-called first-person perspective, each person thinks for itself. The resulting thoughts are only accessible to the respective self. Exchange of views is only possible by providing personal interpretations and transferring associations of the deep structure into the surface structure (e.g., language, images, or sounds). In the process, the message is distorted, generalized, and parts are deleted. The recipients perceive everything with their senses and open it up again for themselves. The meaning is created in the mind of each person. Due to the first-person perspective, however, it can never be verified since it can only be conveyed to others via the distorted statements of the surface structure (see meta-model of language).
- What is explained by meaning?
In general, we associate meaning with information and knowledge. Only sensually perceptible stimuli and data are tangible – written documents, pictures, films, sound recordings, things and the like, as well as digital data (e.g., 01001101011001011011010110010100001010). Information results from data that have meaning (e.g., memes – human behavior analogous to genes). When many pieces of information come together, knowledge is formed (e.g., memetics is the study of information and culture based on an analogy to Darwinian evolution). Once knowledge creates beliefs that enable decisions and evaluations, then we speak of wisdom (e.g., Viral marketing exploits the insights of memetics). Meanings resonate at all levels, providing circumstances with beings.
- Lost in meaning?
As soon as we leave the first-person perspective and speak of shared meaning, we always deal with the lowest common denominator. And since the rest, i.e., the understanding of the individual, is inaccessible, we have to live with the fact that there are countless interpretations (i.e., meanings) for everything. All for themselves are right. Therefore, for us to understand each other better, it is not enough to distribute our surface structure unedited, but we must shape our messages in such a way that counterparts can understand them – by using their language and jargon, familiar symbols, and so on. Analogies that make the fuzziness manageable supports this. Now, if we can manage to accept other opinions for what they are, filtered statements of first-person perspectives, we will not be Lost in Meanings.
Bottom line: Understanding what meaning is, where we find it, how we can reveal it, and by what it is represented, then it quickly becomes apparent that meaning without people hopelessly vanishes. The Voynich manuscript is a good example. It is physically available, but no human can interpret the signs and images. Whether it means anything, and if so, what is unattainable for the moment. However, this bound parchment has been shown to survive for centuries. To what extent our current flood of data lying on IT storage devices will survive the next one hundred years is pure speculation. Or, in other words, the meanings contained in all these people and things are ephemeral because they do not survive time. The Voynich manuscript, however, has shown us that the meanings of tangible data are also volatile.
We are perpetually racing around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. Simultaneously, the Earth is rotating on its axis at over 1600 km/h – and we feel nothing. However, the Earth’s rotation and the constellation of the sun and the moon regularly create perturbations that put the oceans into oscillation. Those who have visited the oceans’ coasts could observe the wave that is slopping around the world. The tidal range, the strength of ebb and flood, is additionally influenced by weather conditions. The water level fluctuates by up to 15 meters, depending on the region. And then there is the great flood – a story passed down in various cultural circles. The flood sets the starting point for a new time after everything undesired is flooded and disappeared in the water masses. The flood has become a synonym for far too much due to its abundance.
A closer look reveals some interesting points of view.
The Earth is covered by 71% water. These 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water are kept in motion by the sun’s constellation and the moon. The tides consist of falling water, the ebb, and rising water, the flood. They alternate twice in 25-hours. In addition, the term flood is generally used for large water masses and floods of all kinds, e.g., information flood, image flood, mail flood, request flood, goods flood, stimulus flood.
In a figurative sense, the term stands for far too much.
Floods are caused by constellations of the sun and the moon, natural disasters, and man-made influences. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, or heavy rainfall result in torrential water masses in a wide variety of places. In the Anthropocene era, humanity creates damage to nature by sealing soils with urban and road construction, plants, and industrial agriculture. It creates an imbalance that leads to ongoing climate change due to the Earth’s steady warming and climate shifting. Melting ice at the polar ice caps and significant glacial regions lead to rising sea levels that threaten megacities, such as Calcutta, Mumbai, and Guangzhou, as well as Miami, New York, and Tokyo.
In general, floods result from far too much.
The water level determines the extent of a flood. Since the height of the water level in itself says nothing, a reference point is required. In the case of water, we differentiate between mean water level, mean low water, and mean high water. The highest high water is the biggest value ever measured. Besides, historic flood zones are identified. Construction activity in these areas is risky. However, after long periods without flooding, this does not deter people from building houses and streets again in these areas. A frightening example is the Fukushima region, where houses were built in known floodplains and promptly deluged again. Dam structures protect vulnerable areas as long as they are high enough. However, sea levels are rising due to climate change, requiring more extensive dam installations – until the water can no longer be kept out. The habitats of more than 250 million people, especially in the East of Asia and along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, are at risk of flooding in the foreseeable future. For the other floods (see above), levels still need to be established to speak of a flood.
In a figurative sense, there is also a need for metrics for far too much.
The effects of a flood are not limited to the actual flooding but also include the long-term aftermath. While earlier floods were passed down through gossip, today, we see videos that show what happens almost in real-time. In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake, triggering a tsunami that claimed more than 220 thousand lives and was immediately in the news and on the Internet. As a result, drinking water sources were contaminated, 1.7 million people were left homeless, fertile farmland washed away, and entire swaths of land became uninhabitable. Within a year, an estimated $13.8 billion was allocated to rebuild the affected regions. Today, 300 fully automated, land-based monitoring stations provide an early warning system. Floods also threaten all types of technical infrastructure. In Fukushima, unexpectedly severe waves led to a super hazard and still radioactively contaminated landscapes in the Sendai region. In exceptional cases, floods also create habitat. The annual flooding of the Nile provided the fertile soil and moisture that this early advanced civilization needed.
In the common parlance of far too much, floods overload and stress the people affected.
The flood has especially the meaning of far too much. This metaphor is applicable when something happens, is done or developed, is approaching, increases, or transforms. It overflows whenever the same thing keeps growing – e.g., phones are ringing incessantly, increasingly more emails arrive; decisions are requested more frequently; a message spreads virally on the Internet; a rising number of customers storm the shop; computer net use explodes; minor improvements challenge an overall system. The image of a flood is mainly used in different areas of communication – the flood of data that buries insights; the flood of informing needs that blur clear messages; the flood of demand that leads to a large number of offers; the flood of problems in which the fragmentation of interests drowns those who suffer. In most cases, floods are frightening. For this reason, the term should be accompanied by benefits: many requests are a sign of interest; mass decisions are a sign of momentum; massive amounts of data are a basis for expert analysis; multi-faceted problems are mastered with a structured approach.
It is, in most cases, commonly true that far too much is better than too little.
Bottom line: The flood is a bad image that arouses fears with its far too much. The term can be found for thousands of years as viral memes in a wide variety of cultures. Most triggers lead to severe threats to which we can only react. In the end, a flood causes significant damage. With appropriate preparation and follow-up, these can be mitigated as much as possible and eventually overcome. The same applies in a figurative sense to the abstract floods of perception, thought, communication, and action, leading to fear and distress in those affected. This makes the flood an ideal metaphor for far too much.