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?)