As an undergraduate major in the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University, I had amazing opportunities to interact with scholars from a variety of disciplines, and also plenty of awkward small talk ... of the in-flight variety.
On trips to and from Silicon Valley during school vacations, I inevitably found myself seated next to a well-meaning businessman who sensed my student status and asked the inevitable question:
Well-meaning businessman: What are you majoring in?
Me: A program called "symbolic systems."
Well-meaning businessman: Oh. [Awkward pause.] What's that?
Me: Well, it's basically a cognitive-science program.
Well-meaning businessman: Oh. [Awkward pause.] What's cognitive science?
Me: Well, it's the interdisciplinary study of the mind, combining methods and insights from fields including psychology, computer science, philosophy, linguistics and neuroscience.
Well-meaning businessman: Oh. [Awkward pause.] That sounds interesting. Well, enjoy your book!
Admittedly, I'm not a natural at small talk. But I had sufficient variants on this conversation to appreciate that the idea of "symbolic systems" is hardly obvious. Although we're steeped in symbols — which play a crucial role in understanding human culture, human intelligence and machine intelligence — we often take symbols and their power for granted.
That's one reason the Symbolic Systems Program launched a pilot competition last year to designate a "Symbol of the Year." Program affiliates (students and faculty alike) were invited to nominate and vote on symbols that "achieved widespread cultural importance during the year." As an announcement on the Symbolic Systems website explains:
Creating such recognition for symbols was seen as a good match for Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program, which focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.
Last year's competition resulted in the designation of the percentage sign (%) as the symbol of the year for 2012. The symbol, nominated by Louis Eisenberg (class of 2003), received the following citation:
From continued protests about "the 99%" and "the 1%", to Mitt Romney's "47%" remark, to the "fiscal cliff" debate, the percent sign appeared throughout 2012 on banners and in headlines. Its presence was a constant reminder that income/wealth distribution and tax brackets had become the main focus of U.S. politics.
While last year's trial competition wasn't widely publicized, it was a hit among those involved. It also received three minutes of fame on NPR's Weekend Edition, and has continued for 2013 in what might become an annual event.
This year's winner, announced just last week, is the equal sign (=), nominated by affiliated faculty member BJ Fogg (Consulting Professor of Education) and given the following citation:
The Human Rights Campaign's modified logo became a viral symbol for marriage equality in 2013 ahead of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in June. The embedded equal sign also featured prominently in similar logos, reinforcing an equality message that was echoed in the cracking of the glass ceiling for women.
The symbol received the most votes from a slate of 17 nominations submitted by program affiliates. Other notable nominations for 2013 included an icon of "the cloud" and the National Security Agency logo.
The Symbol of the Year Competition is the brainchild of Todd Davies, associate director of Symbolic Systems, who began as the program's coordinator while still a Ph.D. student in psychology at Stanford. He's now been involved with the program in one form or another for two decades.
Davies was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail. He explained that he was inspired to launch the competition by the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote.
In sponsoring the competition, Davies hopes to get more people — both within and beyond the Symbolic Systems community — "thinking about what symbols are, and the role that they increasingly play in our lives."
Davies has been pleased with the winners so far, which arguably illustrate two senses in which you might have a symbol of the year:
After we started the nomination and voting process last year, I realized there were different ways one could interpret the phrase "symbol of the year." My original intention was that it would be a symbol *from* the year, i.e. one that was used in a significant and interesting way during that year ...
[For example], one of my two nominations this year (which got very few votes) was the QR code. I nominated it because it gained more traction in 2013, and because it became a way to exchange Bitcoins through scanning. The QR code is an innovation in symbolhood, if you will, and ... was one of the many symbols *from* the year 2013.
But another way you could read "symbol of the year" is that it is a symbol *for* the year — one that represents something significant about that year. One nomination this year was the caduceus, which is a symbol of commerce and bargaining but has been used for a long time in this country as a symbol of medicine. The caduceus might be a good symbol *for* the year 2013 in the U.S., because it captures important themes from the year: the debate over health care, the mixing of medicine with commerce, the historical relationship between them in the U.S., and so on. But the caduceus did not itself play an especially big role in 2013.
Interestingly, both winners to date – the percentage sign and the equal sign – reflect broad-reaching social movements within the United States. In particular, they've beat out competitors that featured important but more local developments within the tech culture that permeates Stanford and Silicon Valley – such as the hashtag, the cloud icon, and the bitcoin symbol.
In nominating the equal sign, BJ Fogg was motivated by developments both beyond and within the world of tech. As he explained by e-mail:
I wanted to nominate something happy and upbeat for the symbol of 2013. I thought about the best aspects of the year, and marriage equality was the most inspiring to me. The equal sign was a natural fit.
In choosing the equal sign, Fogg also hoped to acknowledge important developments in women's roles within business and tech, including the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and the leadership of Marissa Mayer (a Symbolic Systems alum) as president and CEO of Yahoo! — both important steps for gender equality.
As director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford and an expert on the relationship between technology and human behavior, Fogg has a unique appreciation for the power of symbols:
When designed well, a symbol can influence our thoughts and our behaviors.
People pay more for clothes stamped with a certain brand. People are friendlier to others wearing the symbol of their favorite pro sport team. People wear symbols, like a crucifix, to express who they are to others and to reinforce identity to themselves. That's ultimately about guiding behavior ...
Besides underscoring the pervasiveness and power of symbols quite broadly, the Symbol of the Year competition highlights something unique about the Symbolic Systems program, which began in 1986 and isn't quite like cognitive science programs elsewhere. As Todd Davies explained:
From the early days of "cognitive science," I think there have been two broad approaches to modeling and theorizing about the mind as a computational device. One approach, more associated with psychology and neuroscience at the time of our program's founding, has been to look at the structure of the human mind and brain, and to build models inspired by that structure. The other approach, which was initially favored more by computer scientists, formal linguists, and philosophers, has been to try to understand the problems that the mind solves when it is being intelligent, and how to represent those problems formally.
While the program initially reflected the latter perspective more strongly, it's since grown to accommodate both approaches. Davies notes, however, that:
[Symbolic Systems] remains unusual in that we combine the science of understanding human cognition with the engineering of intelligent machines and interfaces, and the technical foundations of both areas, within one program. The dual focus has made our program popular among students, many of whom have a more applied orientation than cognitive science is generally associated with.
In fact, Symbolic Systems is now a well-known major on campus, with some cachet in tech circles. And thanks to the growth of cognitive science plus efforts like the Symbol of the Year competition, today's Symbolic Systems majors might have it just a bit easier than I did over a decade ago when they face the inevitable question: What are you majoring in?
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo