Archimedes of Syracuse, an Ancient Greek mathematician, engineer, and inventor, was obsessed with the idea of leverage.
“If you give me a lever and a place to stand,” he famously said, “I can move the world.”
The blessing of leverage is that it allows you to do a lot with a little. The curse of leverage is just the same. It’s a double-edged sword: it will magnify your mistakes just as readily as your successes.
In social systems, symbols are one of the “longest levers.” Symbols allow us to do a lot with a little. They:
- Squeeze meaning (the cognitive equivalent of a “zip” file)
- Simplify meaning (making the complex accessible) and
- Signal meaning (allowing people to signal their association with something without words)
But you can’t merely “declare” a symbol. You have to give it meaning before it becomes any sort of lever, and that’s the hard part.
Recently, two farmers entered into a legal dispute because of a symbol. One farmer sent the other farmer the terms of an agreement, and he responded with a “thumbs up” emoji. He claimed the symbol was supposed to signal “yes, I have received the contract,”but a judge agreed with the plaintiff: it means “yes, I agree with the terms of the contract.”
Before it became a matter of law, the meaning of the symbol was an ambiguous negotiation between people.
There’s ambiguity around every new symbol. The faster we can clear away the ambiguity, the faster we can access a new lever for influence.