Stories and Society

There’s a promising new Substack, The Story Rules Project, written by Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black. Their subject:  How stories affect the human mind and emotions, and how they can be used to reduce polarization. (I must note that stories can also be and often are used to increase polarization.)  There are already several posts well worth reading.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind,” said Shelley, and indeed, it’s not only written stories that have an impact on how people think and feel, but also poems, music, plays, sculpture cartoons …also video games.  All are ‘media’ in a broad McLuhanesque sense.

I’m reminded again of Neal Stephenson’s book In the Beginning was the Command Line, in which he contrasts explicit word-based (textual) communication with graphical or sensorial communication, and applies this contrast both to human-computer communications and to human-to-human communications.  Here, I will be focusing on that second application.

As an example of sensorial communication Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

…a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most visitors will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

One thing about the sensorial interface is that it is less open to challenge than is the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

Moreover: when you accept a point of view based on written materials, you have a good chance of being able to explain to other people why you hold that viewpoint.  This is much less likely when you are influenced toward a view based on something you saw at a theme park or experienced in a videogame.  In that second case, you are less likely to be able to defend your position in debate…since you really can’t identify exactly why you hold it…and are more likely to respond with anger and a demand to cancel your opponent. I think this explains some of the unpleasant characteristics of present-day political discussion.

So-called “Tunnels of Oppression” have been a thing on college campuses for quite some time…here’s an article I found describing some of them.  The article is from 2008, but additional searches indicate that these have by no means gone away.  These are clearly examples of the sensorial communications mode, which, as I noted above, is less open to challenge than the textual interface. Again, it doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.  This is propaganda more than it is education.

And in a society in which sensory communication threatens to become overwhelming, shouldn’t one of the primary responsibilities of the university be the preservation of the text-based communication mode and the propagation of the ability to deal with this modality? Don’t “Tunnels of Oppression,” by their very nature, tend to undercut this mission?

Indeed, how many college students today know how to take a proposition and then go to the library and/or the Internet and assemble seriously relevant facts and arguments, pro and con? And is there any evidence that this ability gets any better after 4 years in college? (Or, for that matter, 8 years?)

Of course, sensorial communication is by no means new.  Medieval cathedrals communicated their faith through their very structure and decorations. On a considerably lower artistic level, political cartoons first began to appear in the early 1700s, and developed considerably throughout the 1800s.  (“Let’s stop those damned pictures,” said Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall famously. “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me—my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.”)

On the other side of Stephenson’s dichotomy, the invention of the printing press circa 1440 greatly increased the relative importance of text-based communication–see this post and discussion at Quillette:  The Communication Revolution

But today’s technology has opened up new possibilities for communicating and influencing via images, sensations, and emotions.  Movies have long been an important factor–Leni Riefenstahl’s films surely contributed to the rise of Hitler–but today’s proliferation of screens and the increasing amount of time spent on them will likely increase the impact of this moving-image means of communication…indeed, probably, already has.  Here’s something Peggy Noonan wrote back in 2016:

“This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism.  They have received most of what they know about political history through screens  They’re college graduates…they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book….They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.  Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect…Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama.  Reading about it shows you a dilemma.”

And, of course, screens are no longer just for display: they have become interactive.  And this opens up new channels for influence.  As early as 2013, the Obama administration released a video game featuring global warming and gender issues.  There will surely be a lot more of this sort of thing…and a well-designed videogame will very likely be even more effective than a movie at bringing about opinion change on an emotional level (although often equally disconnected from any serious argument for the truth-value of the opinions being propagated).

It has been argued that changes in communications media don’t just affect what people think (and what they think about), but also how they think.  Socrates was concerned about the effects of writing, fearing that people would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” and, worse, that they would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.  Much more recently, the argument that the type of media has as much impact as does its content has been famously argued by the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany, has some interesting comments about the impact of the then-new media of radio, photography, and the phonograph. Arnold Schoenberg, for one, was a harsh critic of radio, saying that it “accustoms the ear to an unspeakably coarse tone, and to a body of sound constituted in a soupy, blurred way, which precludes all finer differentiation.” He worried that radio gave music a “continuous tinkle” that would eventually result in a state wherein “all music has been consumed, worn out.”

Weitz quotes Joseph Roth, who lived in Berlin in the 1920s:

There are no more secrets in the world. The whispered confessions of a despondent sinner are available to all the curious ears of a community, which thanks to the wireless telephone has become a pack…No one listened any longer to the song of the nightingale and the chirp of conscience. No one followed the voice of reason and each allowed himself to be drowned out by the cry of instinct.

Roth didn’t much like photography, either:

People who had completely ordinary eyes, all of a sudden obtain a look. The indifferent become thoughtful, the harmless full of humor, the simpleminded become goal oriented, the common strollers look like pilots, secretaries like demons, directors like Caesars.

It has become common to observe that the Internet is reducing attention spans–although I think this is really more a specific factor of social media than of the Internet in general.

Okay, this is probably enough for one post, maybe more than enough. These are interesting and important topics, IMO.

Your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “Stories and Society”

  1. Thank you for pointing to The Story Rules Project, David! Fascinating to read your thoughts here on propaganda, sensation, the disappearance of reading, and the creation of populations primed for authoritarianism….

  2. David,

    That’s a great post which touches on some key issues and the links to O’Connor and Black’s Substack looks promising

    I agree with you in the different ways that people communicate with one another including different verbal, you mention poetry, as well as nonverbal modalities to which I would add architecture. Indeed architecture not only involves communication between people across time but also from culture/history to the individual; consider how the architecture of a cathedral is designed to convey not only cultural meaning but Christian metaphysics to the believer.

    The point of departure that I would take with Stephenson and Noonan is their applicability to not only our age (Stephenson wrote his original essay nearly 25 years ago) but within the larger context of philosophical thought. Both pin their critique on the notion of a corrupt mediated experience, that the razzle-dazzle of modern life with its imagery is simply a GUI that is laid over reality and prevents us from accessing both it and the contemplative life through rational and logical thought

    I am just finishing up Stephen Hicks “Explaining Postmodernism” and he places the great turning back with Kant and the Counter-Enlightenment. Kant’s belief that there were some aspects of Reality that that lay beyond the ability of human reason and logic to decipher. In some ways that released great waves of creativity, the English Romantics, come to mind but in a larger sense it fatally undermined Western culture still suffering from its loss of faith.

    Hicks argued that there is a straight-line between Kant’s work to save reason and Heidegger’s work that laid the foundation for postmodernism. Kant and later Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer saw reason and logic and therefore text as merely one more mediated, sensory experience which then evolved into the 20th Century as they being no better or worse than any other sensory experience in discerning Being. In fact the Postmoderns would argue that words are social constructs that not only prevent knowledge of Being but acts as tools of oppression by those who falsely claim to hold such knowledge.

    In short what Stephenson and perhaps Noonan would see as a bug, the Postmoderns would see as a feature. To them Noonan’s diatribe about sensation would seem incongruous because they would claim that such perception is just valid way of discerning Being as the text of a book and given how language is a tool of power perhaps even more so. To use Stephenson’s use of the GUI as a metaphor for a mediated environment, they would say knowledge of Being is by definition mediated. Hicks would argue that this isn’t some passing fad but rather a movement with roots going back hundreds of years. This is the world we live in and it is not going anywhere soon.

    Thanks for the mention of O’Conner and Black, I will check them out.

  3. Mike…”knowledge of Being is by definition mediated”

    I’d say the degree to which it is mediated is a function of the type of society, the type of technology, and the kind of work an individual does. If you are a Plains Indian in 1830, your knowledge about the prevalence of buffalo this year is directly observable, either by you yourself or by people you know. Pretty similar for a white homesteader. But if you are a business executive in 2023, your knowledge of sales, inventory levels, and customer satisfaction is mediated by a whole lot of people and systems.

    Similarly, if you were an electrical engineer 60 years ago, a circuit design was something you drew on paper and tried out with the aid of prototyping boards, soldering irons and analog oscilloscopes. Today, you’re likely to be writing logic equations for a hardware definition language, the action of which will be mediated by some kind of layout software.

  4. Somewhat related: a piece about the loss of the ability to comprehend cursive writing

    Not sure how worrisome this really is…personally, my handwriting is & always has been terrible, and reading it not particularly pleasant. Also, per the point about reading books from Kindle–really, so what? It’s still the same text as a paper book would be (unless someone decides to elide certain parts, which is a different issue)…I’m happy to see people reading at all.

  5. Not sure what that e-book reference was either. Using my tablet as an e-reader not only gives me access to tens of thousands of books anywhere in the world, but allows me to :carry” all of those books where ever I go. Also I find it much easier to read e-books as opposed to hard copy on a plane.

    To respond to your earlier comment, the philosopher of today would say that everything a person comes to know is through sensory experience and therefore is subject to mediation if not through variability in the sense organs than through the ability of the mind to comprehend what is sensed. To the Postmodernist, even text is problematic because it represents not only an imperfect social construct of reality, but one that is predicated on maintaining a particular hierarchy of social power.

    To put it in terms of popular culture, how do you know you are in living in the world or in a simulation? You can say that you can prove it empirically by counting buffalo or drawing a circuit that works, but that only gets you so far.

    To Stephenson who was looking for the command line or the source code, the irrational philosopher (and that;s the real name for them) would say that you cannot escape a mediated environment no matter how deep you go, it’s turtles all the way down. Infinite regress

    I’m with the camp that states we should be teaching our students how to read meaty texts and training them in logical and rational thought. The problem in getting to that environment, the one that Noonan desired, is linked to practical policy and the philosophical dilemma I just outlined. Our educational system from the liberal arts side of higher ed, to our teachers colleges, and now to many of our leaders in K-12 stands is steeped in that form of irrational thinking and therefore in direct opposition to what Noonan describes and I desire and would kill any such initiative in its infancy,

    I understand that she wrote that column a while ago, but we should be clear that the problems we face in properly educating our kids is not just weaning them away from the razzle dazzle of technology, after all the notion of technology ruining kids’ minds has been around ever since the TV. It is also, and perhaps even more so, the fact that the educational system and the philosophical system that underpins is actively opposed to what she wants

    My take? You want kids who can think for themselves and are trained with a degree of intellectual rigor, don’t send them to public schools. That’s what vouchers can help with.

  6. In that second case, you are less likely to be able to defend your position in debate…since you really can’t identify exactly why you hold it…and are more likely to respond with anger and a demand to cancel your opponent.
    I’ve spent a lot of time running movies and TV shows through on my internal screens, pondering the stories. (I might be a little overboard on a self-examined life.) Mulling them over and stopping a scene and turning it over lets you do what you’re talking about. And I find myself seeing things…. I see why a story appeals to me, and how it uses that appeal to advance an idea – especially if that idea is antithetical to what I believe or know. I also ruin songs for people by pointing out what the lyrics mean (or sometimes an alternate version of what they could mean.)

    The reason this works is because it’s EASY to do it that way – simply take in the visual/sensory and enjoy it and thereby absorb whatever message it has. And human nature prefers easy to hard.

    They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.
    Reading requires (mostly – see Cosmopolitan for counter-examples) that you comprehend. As you identify, sensory can only require that you feel.

    a state wherein “all music has been consumed, worn out.”
    Given its evolution over the last 20 years, he might very well be right.

    One interesting bit you left out: memes.
    Memes are the democratization of the editorial cartoon. They take some known scene – something visual to which the culture at large will have reference, and tweak the words to trigger your discord reaction, then laugh at how the two work together. And it communicates an idea through that combination of image and word (often misspelled, but that’s another story) to reinforce a feeling/concept apart from argumentation.

    Excellent post.

  7. Memes are the democratization of the editorial cartoon. They take some known scene – something visual to which the culture at large will have reference, and tweak the words to trigger your discord reaction, then laugh at how the two work together.

    This is also how performer-activists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert work. They use ridicule, curated photos and videos, and facile rhetorical juxtapositions in place of logical arguments and evidence.

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