Where do symbols live?

If the original Nike swoosh, on a sheet of paper in a filing cabinet somewhere, disappeared, what would happen to the value of Nike? Or to the way you feel about your sneakers?

If the negative of a famous photo is burned in a fire, or a painting is stolen from a museum, what happens to the symbol it’s related to?

As soon as an object becomes a symbol, the object itself becomes separate from that story. In fact, freeing the symbol from the object gives it more power, and allows it to spread and become ever more relevant.

My town is trying to decide whether or not it should spend millions of dollars preserving a defunct carbon-steel water tower. But whether they preserve it or not, the symbol of the tower remains, and the stories we tell ourselves about place and time remain as well.

Spending the money on education, climate remediation and equity will all make the symbol more powerful than steel restoration ever could.

If you want to turn your object into a more powerful symbol, it might pay to get rid of the object.