So why the name Totem and Token? A couple of reasons, mostly esoteric and not practical or connected in a worldly sense.

I’ve been looking at this idea of Animism lately and several of the concepts have struck me as still relevant and not only surviving in, not only thriving in, but driving our society. It’s the idea of how primitive religions began with animism, or shamanism, and became fully fledged pagan or occult outfits. Totem and token became icon and idol.

It’s this idea of imbued value into a physical object. See? Isn’t it already kind of metaphysical and airy-fairy? I’m trying to explain this even though I don’t fully buy it, but I’ll try. The thought goes that so-called primitive peoples crafted artifacts and tools, partially for utility but also because the human mind is creative (we have a lot of spare intellectual capacity). These artifacts, like wampum or high-end artwork, are tokens. It doesn’t have to be created by hand, but I think it is most apparent in handcrafted things. The real identifier is personal value. For me, for example, it is my guitar. I love my guitar, the way it feels and how it resonates when you play the exact right notes, but I would not go into a burning house for it. I think that is the second thing that identifies a token – willingness to exchange.  Yeah, I imparted a bit of my soul into this handcrafted lava lamp, but a boys gotta eat, so what’s the max your willing to give me for it?

From a personal standpoint, I think it kind of develops as something you have a personal inclination for and just can’t keep out of your mind. Maybe it’s how a cup fits in your hands or how the light falls on a desk, but this quality of the object speaks to you and becomes a token. That’s partially why I think there is such a resurgence in artisan or handcrafted goods and a focus on local economies. For one thing, tokens are tradeable, so they fit nicely into existing markets. But for another, they are imbued with a personal value which seems to, in a consumerist way, build a connection in an increasingly isolated society.

There’s also the fact that we’re in a lopsided recovery.

I think a totem is when a token starts to affect your behavior. One strong example was a young Carl Jung. When Carl Jung was a child he created his own little avatar of a carving on a pencil stub and a half-painted rock. He hid the two items in a box in his attic and he would go up to this avatar box and write messages in a secret language on bits of paper and leave them for this totem. This ritual supposedly brought him a feeling of peace and tranquility and it wasn’t until years later that he learned this sort of behavior was emulated in tribes and proto-religions around the world. He cites this experience as the primary reason for his studies into mythological thinking and the development of his theories of collective unconsciousness.

Crazy, no?

But Jung’s experience shows a key difference, I think, between token and totem. Totems change behavior. The ritualize behavior and reinforce choice. A literary example might be Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series or Jorge Luis Borges’ the Zahir. Actually, it is a long literary tradition to use objects a driving forces of the plot. Done poorly this is a MacGuffin. Done well, it creates mythos like the Holy Grail.

There are totems in everyday life though, this is not just a metaphysical generalization or arbitrary linguistic category to shuffle our relationship to objects around. The obvious one is money. Currency clearly changes our behavior and is literally defined by imbuing it with meaning. I have heard that even dangling a dollar bill in front of a group of people trying to complete a task makes them subconsciously work harder, even without an explicit promise of that dollar. This is to not even touch on how money is our true education system. Most college grads will be told no matter what degree that most of what they learned doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t – all that matter in the workforce is money. And over time, this is what explains most behavior patterns of the working class. This is not a new idea. Marx spoke of commodity fetishism and Shepard Fairey is well-known for his “This Is Your God” piece (more on that in a minute).

Another obvious one is your smart phone. Most of those apps and widgets have been conditioning you to check compulsively for a new like or retweet or view or whatever. This is the fuel for the well-tread ground of internet addiction. The education thing comes in again, as the most common and growing complaint among teachers is how kids are distracted by their smartphones. We raised the stakes with the smartphone by adding more information, or rather increasing the information density of the device. PDAs and pagers of yesteryear might’ve inspired a similar level of tokenism (I think a huge part of Apple’s marketing for their products catered to this token ideology), but adding the deep access of the internet has magnified the totem into something larger.

Both the smart phone and the dollar are now our idols.

Or at least icons. Icons, in the monotheistic, religious sense of the term, are usually frowned upon because of the fear that their existence will lead to the creation of false gods or idolatry. Iconography introduces idolatry. David Foster Wallace writes:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

I realize that part of this may seem trite or cliched, but I think it should at least be considered. If he is to be believed, then the totems of money and of our smart phones are already idols. Idols are totems that are worshiped. Totems that educate. Totems that are central to our being. And our desires for an internet of things and an increasingly financialized economy show a third paradigm of idols: growth.

I don’t want icons and idols.

I want totems and tokens.

There is nothing inherently wrong with money or smartphones or artisanal crafts. Imbuing objects with meaning is a relatively human enterprise. But I think offering a variety and diversity increases our resilience to protect us from the oppression of an overgrown ideology like financialized economies or addiction.   What this means practically is for engineers and designers to consider the human effect of imparting meaning and wealth to our surroundings and not simply look at each product as a technical issue. Design totems and tokens, not icons and idols.

2 thoughts on “Idolatry

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