Saturday, September 4, 2010

Narrative Engineering

Counterintuitively, this data age has both granted information its wish to be free, and made the facts more difficult to obtain and ascertain. The crafting of narratives to convince people of certain propositions is as old as humanity, but now there are more people doing it faster and more profusely.

As much as the Content Economy ad-men (and -women, and -bots) want your eyes, the Narrative Gurus want your heart and soul. The Engineers of Reality strive to convince us what is right, what is wrong, what is healthy and unhealthy, and what is cool, fun, boring, or painful. They need you to buy in, and they exist in all varieties and have varying methods of attack.

In this battle, we are the infantry: your average internet user. The advent of user ratings and comments allows for the war to take place over every blog post and product listing in the world, provided it’s online. The comments, of course, range from the inane to the insane, the trivial to the trenchant. And as users spam, troll, and flamebait, their mini-narratives begin to form a larger one.

From above, broadcasters build and propagate their own narratives. The political entertainment industry becomes the shaper of American thought, whether by furor, candor, or humor. As this situation progresses, people line up as footsoldiers of a particular narrative-creating general.

Sometimes, even those who are aware of the role of narrative-construction in our culture still have to choose to buy in to one or another narrative. There’s not much middle ground between, say, believing that high-fructose corn syrup is benign or malignant. Further, some aspects of our lives require this buy-in as the price of admission. Religions, social clubs, political parties, and employers frequently require some buy-in.

Narrative not only drives the future of culture, it alters the past. A good narrative engineer doesn’t just tell you how things are, he/she/it tells you how things used to be. There was a Golden Age, perhaps, or a Dark one. Events in the past are now malleable in the hands of those who make opinion.

Narrative Awareness

An increase can be seen, of course, in those who identify and decry the attempts made to reshape our past, present, and future. There is a lot of power in changing people’s minds, and this power is sought by so many people with so many motives and allegiances. As our awareness of rhetoric increases, the power of the narrative decreases.

Each of us has a weapon in the fight against the abuse of narrative to alter reality. We all have social networks. As we discover the narratives being used to distort the world our loved ones live in, we can use our intimate, personal trust to defeat the bullhorns trying to confuse them.

The only reliable documents these days are primary sources. That may not last.

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