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.