by Possible Modernist

I was thinking today about how flags are a remarkably old technology that have been in constant use for an incredibly long time: a large piece of cloth used to display, signal, or communicate something, especially when attached to an apparatus designed to increase its prominence, such as a spear or a flagpole.1

There are two elements to this. At a basic level there is the material technology — some sort of fabric that is durable and flexible enough to create a flag that flies in the wind, along with pigments to decorate it. (One could use just the material as it is, but pigment enables much greater flexibility). The real power of the flag, however, comes with some sort of coordinated meaning.

In the simplest case, a flag could present a unique symbol that is not necessarily understood by others. One could try to come up with a design that would communicate an intended message in this way, although there is no guarantee that it would be interpreted correctly. (I think here too of the question of how to mark sites that are filled with depleted nuclear fuel to help protect future people should there be a societal collapse). Still, a flag flying above a town on the horizon communicates something, independent of its design.

For most flags, however, the functionality is premised on a design that will be familiar to at least some people. Consider the standard for an army. Such a flag serves both as a focal point for troops to rally around, but also a signal of strength, and a call to arms. A recognizable pattern (as with a national flag) can similarly serve as a symbol of strength and unity for those who follow it, and potentially as a source of fear among those who would oppose them.

The reach of flags expands considerably once they are systematically combined, however, such as in methods used to signal between naval vessels. A set of standard flags allows for constructing a code that is capable of expressing arbitrarily complex messages. Such communication is essentially a kind of written language, and demands a certain level of skill and coordination among those who would use it. With an investment in this technology, individuals suddenly gain the ability to communicate silently over long distances, potentially in a way that would be indecipherable to outsiders.

Somewhere in the middle might be something like a white flag used to indicate surrender. This is more of a communicative flag than one that is purely symbolic (though of course it also has symbolic importance), though one in which you are only trying to communicate a single, fixed, message, and in this case you hope it is one that your opponents will also understand.

Today it’s far less common today to see flags used for encoded messages. But as a technology for symbolic communication, they are still extremely common, seemingly existing in a form that is essentially unmodified since they were first created.

  1. I learn from Wikipedia that the study of flags is known as vexillology”, which is delightful.↩︎