Society On the Surface: Distinguishing Between the Explicit and Implicit

society on the surface

Pretend that you have just opened a cool, crisp can of your favorite soft drink. You take a few short sips and savor them, then take in a long gulp of that sticky sweet stuff. Now, if I ask you to describe that can of soda, how would you respond? My guess is that most of us would use adjectives like- cold, sweet, refreshing, etc. A huckster might instead describe the can rather than the beverage it contains and say it is- cylindrical, opens at one end, is predominately red and black. These are all of the directly observable qualities or experiences of the can of soda. They are its explicit messages.

Now let us say that you wanted to start a soda company of your own. What are the things you would have to know about soda to do so? Surely you would have to understand the explicit nature of soda in order to make a product that is enjoyable and marketable. But you would have to know some things about cans of soda that can not be related directly by cans of soda themselves. You would have to know about ingredients and the supply chains by which you attained them. You would have to know about properties of the packaging to be used.

If you followed those bits of explicit knowledge further down the rabbit hole of implicit messages you might learn about the resources used to create the ingredients. You might also learn of the labor used to harvest and adapt them and the socio-political implications of that process. And from this you could continue branching off endlessly into infinite new paths of knowledge that all contribute to a fuller knowledge of a can of soda. Eventually your description of a can of soda might be something like, ‘a sticky sweet beverage, often chilled, and reliant on resources, labor and supply chains associated with industrial era global oligarchs who often exploited their laborers/consumers and the environment in order to increase profits from selling  a product with disturbing health implications, and gaining a monopoly on socio-economic paradigms in the process’.

Everything you observe or experience has both explicit and implicit properties. Before we go further, lets get a better understanding of what those two concepts mean.

Explicit properties are obvious. Those properties are apparent through observations and direct experience. They are the properties on the surface. They are the content of the subject. Explicitness ‘is what it is’.

Implicit properties are not obvious. They often require further thought or research of properties or connections not immediately apparent to an observer. They are beneath the surface of the thing itself.  They are its contextual information, knowledge that creates a big picture of a world in which soda exists and its implications and underlying effects in that world.

I have spoken a lot recently about implicit information. Recent articles on Chaos, Like Buttons, Institutions, Facts, Niceness, Survival and Memes (and more Memes), as well as others, have all been an attempt to describe the often overlooked implicit information all around us. I have spoken about content vs. context and signifier vs. signified, as well as other semiotic confusion I often encounter with people. I have discussed Marshall McLuhan’s idea that The Medium Is the Message, which is an excellent example of understanding the difference between the explicit and implicit; as well as why implicit information has greater effects and consequences than explicit info. Because it is easier to attain the explicit and ignore the implicit, we often find ourselves ignoring implicit information and its importance.

Here is an interview with McLuhan that, although long, contains an incredibly rich amount of information and explanation on the topic.

When McLuhan spoke up there of mediums he included social systems and other cultural artifacts and ideologies. Besides the obvious mediums that appear in media, he was talking about how the implicit information about a thing always says much more about its meaning and effect on individuals and society than the explicit.

As our world grows more technologically and socially complex, we are bombarded with ever more cultural artifacts and social systems. There are always more and more mediums being created. And through media we are consuming more and more of the explicit information contained in them. As the bombardment of explicit messages increases, the implicit messages become increasingly hidden and faint. In order to keep up with the increasing amount and complexity of the explicit we have had to ignore the implicit to make room in our expanding collective consciousness. As a result we are constantly applying this shortcut compulsively. We have turned off our implicit thinking, critical thinking, in order to manage the avalanche of explicit information in our environment.

One strange outcome of this paradigm is that modern studies and tests assure us that we are growing increasingly more intelligent as a species, based on scales which measure our ability to regurgitate explicit information. And what determines the sort of explicit information test results reward us for regurgitating often depends on external agendas or attempts to specialize. The agendas are intentional attempts by power structures to condition our thinking and responses to be amenable to the power structures those agendas were created by. They dumb us down to manipulate us using explicit information overload and engineering. The specialization is a response to socio-economic paradigms which reward us for filling in areas of labor necessity that also often works in the overall favor of power structures. Yet the specialization narrows our knowledge to such a degree that even most specialists are buried in the explicit knowledge of their area of expertise to the degree that they cannot see where it fits in the bigger picture.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert A. Heinlein, from ‘Time Enough for Love’

Before we continue to analyze the problem of implicit-blindness in our society on the surface, lets look at another form of explicit information that behaves in very much the same ways as memes. In fact, many memes past and present have incorporated this far older medium into their own. The medium I am discussing is ‘platitudes’. Platitudes are common sayings that convey what generally seems like universally agreeable statements. But those explicit statements are always loaded with implicit context. And even when the explicit seems universally agreeable, deconstructing the implicit messages within it can reveal a platitude as being poorly thought out or outright deceptive or false. Yet because the assumption of universal agreement is also a part of sharing that platitude, those who reject it on the terms of implicit falsehoods can face social rejection, or be told that they should ‘chill out’, ‘stop overthinking it’ or not be so ‘unreasonably disagreeable’. Yet when the reason for disagreement comes directly from an investigation of the platitude using reason itself, intelligent responses to intellectual automata are not only considered acts of aggression, but make one susceptible to acts of counter aggression by those who reject the implicit. Lets look at a simple platitude-

Love is all you need.

This one is really simple because it has only three main areas we need to deconstruct to view the implicit information which negates the explicit message of the statement. Due to structure we will work in reverse with the three concepts.

  • Need- What is need? Need means that a condition must be fulfilled to avoid negative consequences. Human beings have several needs, but only a few of them must be met to basically live. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a standard often used for identifying the needs of human beings in their order of importance. Love is somewhere in the center of the pyramid of these needs, although one could, in theory, live without it.
  • All- How long do you think you would survive if all you had was love? How happy and mentally/emotionally healthy would you be if the only need being met was love, or even just stopped there on the pyramid? Does ‘all’ have any meaning in this context or is it just a small word with lots of hyperbole?
  • Love- Of all of the qualities of human experience, love may be the most subjective. Though we all agree that it seems to exist and even have similar experiences of it, we cannot say exactly what love is. Yet there are some things we know about love. Love can make you feel good, and it can make you feel bad. Loving someone, therefore, means that you will both make the other feel good sometimes and bad others. In fact, sometimes love requires us to hurt others, in order to protect them from dangers they are unable to recognize or protect themselves from.

When John Lennon wrote that trite crap, do you suppose he meant to say that ‘sometimes hurting other people for their own good is the only requirement for survival’? It is possible that he meant that. He died from an overdose of admiration before I was old enough to even consider that question. Yet what 99.99% of people think he is saying is that ‘so long as we make each other feel good, everything else will take care of itself’. In this case, even the explicit message is pretty dopey and vacant. Yet when examined even further for its implicit message, it is a completely idiotic and meaningless statement. Yet it has become so culturally persistent that it is now essentially a universal platitude.

(Exercise: Try reading the lyrics to Imagine by John Lennon while uncovering the implicit messages and see if you can get from one line to the next without wanting to knee his rotted corpse in the groin.)

Explicit information is subjective experience calling itself objective knowledge backed by the certainty of majority consensus. We are able to prop up our own self-awareness and identity on the explicit with very little danger to those concepts. Agreeing about the explicit forms the basis of social interactions and becomes a path to popularity or other social rewards. The explicit is often the feel-good content of daily interactions. Because it often makes us feel good or rewards us otherwise, it becomes a path of least resistance at best, and a total crutch at worst. When you add this to the fact that it is far easier to deal with the explicit, implicit messages are constantly being ignored, denied or scorned.

Yet explicit messages are like dots in a ‘connect-the-dots’ exercise. They are a necessary part of the end product, but are meaningless themselves. It is the lines between which gives shape and life to those dots, and the lines are the implicit. Our ignorance, distaste and rejection of the implicit is creating an intellectual environment of all dots and no lines. Even while humanity is acquiring more dots all of the time, we are becoming more like white noise than a clear signal. If we do not learn to be more connective in day to day life, to see the bigger picture or the forest through the trees, then we will eventually be awash in a cosmic sea of useless information. Dots that connect to no other dots. The noise of which will be too great to concentrate upon the implicit and save us from the feedback chamber of horrors that is explicitness overload.

It is critical that we begin to stop thinking from so many assumptions and operating from the micro. For our intellectual evolution to continue, humanity must train its minds to operate more often from the macro, and from that bigger picture to never take any information for granted. The society on the surface is one in which critical thinking is replaced by assumptions, in which we are always zooming in and never out; and in which explicit messages do not act as paths to implicit investigation, but become barriers to thinking about anything beyond its mere appearances.