Man is not a rational animal. Rather, man is a storytelling animal.
Look back at your earliest childhood memories. They are probably not tidbits of information learned in school that come to mind, nor theorems taken in during math class. They were more likely to be stories of events involving people and choices. Some of these early stories may seem random and inconsequential, but they occupy a place in our memories and still may have an influence on our values and decisions. We are told stories, we integrate ourselves into them, share them and cultivate them.
As we are seeing a rapid rise of what I can only refer to as untelligence, where large numbers of people are believing and sharing quite unreasonable stories, it might be useful for Part Two of the Untelligence Trilogy to examine how storytelling has evolved and what lies behind this apparently global increase in non-rational, random sources for decisions … both on personal and public policy levels.
This blog will analyse the following points:
- Revolutions in communications technologies have always resulted in significant social and political changes;
- Each revolution affects how stories are told (and who tells them);
- With each new communications technology, the values and narratives shift from a more community base towards a more individual focus;
- With each new communications technology, the storyteller shifts from a collective authority towards a source closer to the individual;
- Collective authorities tell stories that are wide and deep while individuals talk about what interests them;
- The most recent communications technology, social media, finds individuals and gurus saying what they want, with no need for evidence or authority.
- Untelligence thrives when messages need neither evidence nor authority communicated from the individual to a selected social media audience.
Stories and Narratives
There are certain shared features to all stories. They always involve characters, some deemed good, others wearing a black hat. Stories have a story-line and plot that evolve and challenge certain values held in place by a dominant narrative. Facts or evidence are not essential to a good story and usually defer to what the narrative deems important. This narrative provides structure for the story.
Narratives evolve with events and lead to value shifts. This blog is published on September 11, a day when the Western narrative shifted quite abruptly. When nations go to war, the narrative of good versus evil (heroes versus villains) is transferred onto the warring sides. Narratives could encompass aspirations or fears of the day: discovering new lands, great inventions, rising calamities, threats and disasters. Today I find myself personally challenged by people ruled by different narratives (natural is best, industry is evil and progress is an illusion) that lead to quite different stories than the ones I curate. The stories we share or write are housed in narratives with their own inherent value systems which guide how we interpret them.
For much of the history of Western civilisation, the Bible provided the key narrative for values and stories that direct people through their decisions and encounters. The Church controlled the stories that were to be told. Every Sunday, populations would listen to a story from the Bible and have it interpreted for them by a local emissary of the Church. Since books were scarce and hand-written, and most people were illiterate, these stories were revealed in art and sculpture.
With the introduction of Gutenberg’s movable type, access to stories began to expand (and challenges to the Church’s hold on the narrative weakened). Theatre reemerged and Greek and Roman classics were “reborn”. Books were no longer painstakingly written by monks hidden away in a monastery all their lives. Ideas were shared, libraries expanded and free-thinkers across Europe promulgated narratives of rationality, empiricism and discovery.
The invention of the printing press marked the first great evolution in the history of storytelling.
Storytelling and technology
I often tell my students that communications technology revolutions are the disruptors of history. Gutenberg had envisioned an easier way to print Bibles, not the tool to spread Protestantism across great lands. Centuries later, news publishers could confront the political order and hold leaders to account.
But it is only in the last century that communications technology revolutions had taken off, and so too have the shifts in the process of storytelling.
Telephone. Social commentators of the day rightly saw the widespread introduction of the telephone as a threat to the aristocracy. People no longer needed to present themselves or speak within the restrictions of social decorum.
Cinema. The ability to record voice and image on celluloid evolved into a tool for mass political propagation in the 1930s. Narratives could change quite quickly and intensively through the emotional storytelling tool of a cinematic reel (from Disney to Riefenstahl).
Radio brought messages into people’s homes (first as “chats” from leaders who could manipulate political narratives and later through musical genres that could define generations). Television created the means for narratives to penetrate the living room under the guise of entertainment and information around the family dinner table. Consumerism grew as commercial television provided a shot of adrenaline to the marketing industry with 1950-60s housewives glued to their daytime “stories”, aspiring to have the newest products for a happy life.
This last generation of humanity, since the mid-1980s, has seen the greatest communications technology revolution ever (and we should not be so naive to think this rupturing of the narratives will not lead to an equally immense social and political revolution). The arrival of the Internet, e-commerce and the digitalisation of the history of knowledge has fractured many of the institutions that had provided our narratives and dictated how the stories were to be told. In less than a decade, the spread of social media has upset institutional authority, media structures and political processes (putting non-experienced demagogues in power from Manila to Paris to Washington).
Evolutions in storytelling
Each communications revolution involved a shift in the manner of storytelling. From a pilgrim in Biblical times meeting the elders from the neighbouring village to the Shakespearean stage to the written word on printed page, story audiences grew. From the cinema to the household antenna to the smartphone, images and messages reached us via faster, more personal channels. Each storytelling evolution is a step further from the collective to the individual. Collectives mutually agree on rules to guide interactions; individuals do and say what please them.
Storytelling is tribal. The narratives that shape the values that permeate the stories and messages we receive are tribally endorsed. Should a message not meet the values of the tribe, it is treated as heresy. Depending on the strength of the narrative and the security of the tribe, the heretic (witch) is often expelled in the most inhumane manner.
The authority of the tribe has evolved from loose global entities meeting on Sunday mornings to share tightly interpreted stories to one of regional communities driven by celebrities and interests to, finally, today’s collections of individuals brought together by shared values writing their own stories. Parallel to the communications technology shifts, the stories themselves evolved from capturing the values of gods, then of kings, of leaders, of community gurus or celebrities and finally to the values of individuals casting their personal stories online.
Media has evolved from news stories being determined and distributed from the Sunday pulpit to the politically-represented town crier to publishers to editors to advertisers. With the rise of the Internet, the media has lost authoritative power, ceding influence to individuals with large social media accounts. We are now able to more freely select our media sources, define which stories we want to hear and which bits of information we want to consider as factual. I have referred to this narrowing of the tribal base to smaller social media communities of biased and closed off echo-chambers as the Age of Stupid for its ability to breed untelligence. In reality, it is a consequence of the most recent step in the individualisation of storytelling.
A place for knowledge?
There are different forms of knowledge (analytical, intuitive, anecdotal, participatory …) but scientific knowledge has dominated Western society for the last 400 years. Based on empirical observation, a rigorous logic, strict methodology and a reliance on facts and evidence, this form of knowledge has delivered technological progress and benefits to humanity at levels never dreamed imaginable. Doomsday prophets from Malthus to Ehrlich to most environmental activists today underestimated the power of science and technology to solve problems and deliver quality of life to humanity.
But with different forms of knowledge used to justify decisions, and no authority to enforce rational, evidence-based judgments across social media channels, the scientific knowledge has been seen to be losing its place in public dialogue. With the post-normal, post-modernist assault on the scientific method (for its inability to deliver the certainty we crave), intuition and anecdote have replaced evidence.
- From California to France to Italy and Romania, parents are choosing to disregard scientific views on vaccinations.
- The organic food industry lobby has managed to convince science-based industries to promote inefficient agricultural practices that have rejected the last 50 years of scientific research.
- The benefits of biotechnology, chemicals, plastics and pharmaceuticals are being stifled by vulnerable people who have been convinced to fear science and trust naturopathic alternatives.
What we had assumed to be advanced, modern technocratic societies have been shown to be no more rational and scientific than medieval mystics (… just with access to 4G).
Activism and Narrative Management
In my years as a lecturer, I have learnt the value of best practices and benchmarks in communications theory. My courses tend to focus on today’s pioneers – how activist groups and NGOs have taken the lead in developing technologies and manipulating public perceptions. In the early days of the Internet, Greenpeace learnt the value of online storytelling for donation harvesting. When they sacrificed a large number of innocent volunteers (The Arctic 30) to the consequences of the Russian prison system, they were canny enough to record their personal stories beforehand, transforming these victims of Greenpeace’s arrogance into heroic tales of climate warriors. The truth (that they screwed up in trying to take on Putin) did not matter and Greenpeace was able to change the story to fit their narrative. With social media, Greenpeace was again utilising the tools to transform each follower into a storyteller – a community of eco-warriors and superheroes.
As communications and PR monoliths (with comms budgets far greater than any corporate entities could ever dream of), NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were trailblazers in shaping social narratives via online communities (tribes). When the 2008 financial crisis hit (and the narrative shifted away from luxury eco-projects to more bread and butter economic issues), NGOs amplified the public rage with stories of corporate control and big business largess. They guided the narrative with stories first about how banks stole from the public, then how the oil industry was profiting from close ties to governments to chemical companies putting untested toxins and carcinogens onto the market.
These activists were impactful storytellers. The NGO strategy was simple: identify a donatable issue within the narrative, look for victims with tragic stories and identify a clearly reviled tyrant. They soon learnt they could raise more money if the victim focus moved from polar bears and whales to humans, and the best human victim stories were those fighting cancer. Cancer is an emotional story and purveys our Western narratives. We all know people who have suffered cancer. With social media, we now know people who know people with cancer, we read their blogs, donate to their causes and share their pain in the comments section. Cancer seemed everywhere, relentless and terrifying. Pointing to industry and scientific innovations as the cause, cancer became the driving narrative for activist groups telling stories on social media.
This was a great communication strategy, in line with the online technological revolution. But then something unimaginable happened.
The Rise of Untelligence
The social media revolution meant the individual became the storyteller. That hero Greenpeace created became a guru, building a personal tribe that could be used to sell personal influence, supplements, VIP memberships … quite simply, anything. They linked up with other gurus and no longer needed the big, slow-moving NGOs to give them a voice. Platforms like SumOfUs and Avaaz started selling services to these guru businesses; they networked and cherry-picked whatever they needed to advance themselves. The heroes filled their egos and started to run their own campaigns and stunts. By the time I got to the Monsanto Tribunal, the leaders were different. Greenpeace, who started the attack on GMOs and Monsanto was not even in the room in The Hague; a room dominated by gurus like Vandana, Gilles-Éric, Ronnie, Marie-Dominique and Andre.
The NGOs unwittingly created monsters who often had no scientific background, no respect for authorities or the consequences of their fear-mongering. They could say whatever they wanted and cultivate experts of dubious quality.
- “Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce!”
- “There’s glyphosate in your vaccines!”
- “Farmers are raping the soil by growing GMOs!”
Jeffrey Smith, Ed Group and Joseph Mercola were considered scientists, podcasts were evidence and retweets were peer reviews. Campaign consultants like Stéphane Horel and Carey Gillam became journalists and no one questioned their credibility or conflicted interests. News was about campaigns built not on facts but on stories (and those stories tactfully terrified people). Whenever experts chimed in, the tribes attacked them as industry shills. Somehow, a mid-sized seed and herbicide company was vilified to the point that people could believe they controlled all science and all governments. Stories don’t need facts and with the ultimate individual storytelling tool, social media, facts were far and few while fear festered in every share.
People felt they could select their own information, confirmed by those they have selected to be part of their community. This information could proliferate on an emotional basis rather than on evidence or valid data. This is untelligence, and in the social media world of individuals telling their own stories within narrow tribes, no one was going to challenge them. When the stories shift to topics like cancer and chemicals, fear and opportunity enter the discussion. Fear grows in the absence of trust and the gurus and opportunists worked to destroy the trust in science, the authorities and, in the case of food, the farmers.
Untelligence has been able to propagate to unspeakable levels because our storytelling environment lacks credible storytellers who are capable of holding an audience’s attention with tales of facts and safety. Untelligence has been able to spread in a narrative dominated by fear of cancer and mistrust of authority. Untelligence flourishes when fed by opportunistic gurus and industries like the organic food lobby and supplements peddlers.
To fight untelligence, we need to understand how narratives can twist and turn, how stories can manipulate and how storytellers can get their message out.
Postscript: Tell your story
I often marvel at how well the activists tell stories of victims, cancer and hardship and advance a narrative of evil capitalist corporations dumping toxins in school playgrounds. These activists’ communications skills are impressive, their campaign powers oppressive and their ethical standards obviously quite regressive. Their narratives defy facts, common sense and logic: we are living longer, with more affluence and social well-being, cancer rates are declining and food quality is improving. Their opportunistic alternatives will surely reverse that.
These disruptive little shits are using social media to deposit heartfelt stories of victims, building communities (tribes) around common fear-laden themes and expanding via networks of gurus (profiting from snake-oil sales to the vulnerable) to create an illusion of an alternative to the main societal narratives of science, trade and progress. With the financial malaise of the main media outlets, these groups are capitalising on the ease of placing activists into faux-journalist positions and manipulating the “news” interest-ranking process through communities of impassioned actors.
This is pure untelligence, but given the non-rational nature of storytelling, they have been able to manipulate public perceptions and spread fear for their own benefit and profit.
The only tonic to this torturous turpitude of untelligence is more storytelling. Whenever I speak to audiences of rational people with scientific backgrounds (far too rare today), I urge them to tell their own stories. Often scientists think that facts will lead the way – that all they need to do is provide the information and people will react in a reasonable manner. But being right doesn’t give someone the right. Facts need to be put into stories; narratives need to be benefits-driven. Being right doesn’t give you the right, and any manipulative activist will tell you that a good story can disarm truth any day. But if your facts can be put into a story people get, then it has a chance to shine a light on the explosion of untelligence today’s storytellers are using.
What’s your story?