Constructing a New Narrative
We are in the process of trying to cultivate a new world. This is a daunting process and oftentimes it seems absurdly ill considered. Yet, reflection consistently indicates that it is our task whether we like it or no. And so . . .
The discussion thus far has identified the central importance of “sensemaking” to the formation of effective communities. In a (potentially futile) effort to break this massive task into bite sized pieces, I’ll try to separate it into a series of “smaller” posts. In the present post, I’ll try to quickly sketch out more fully the nature of sensemaking, how it develops and how it fails. In the next post, I’ll attempt to map out the parameters of what an optimal (or at least “much better”) sensemaking environment might look like. And then in the third, I’ll begin proposing concrete initiatives that have a reasonable chance of implementing some of this optimal sensemaking environment in the near term.
The Nature of Sensemaking
More or less from the time that we are conceived, our developing bodies are absorbing experience and assigning it “meaning”. For example, as a newborn, we map the various sensory qualities of our mother (her smell, her voice, the outlines of her face and body) to the various feelings that her presence evokes in our developing body (safety, comfort, fulfillment) and “make sense” by cohering these different phenomena into a singular notion: mom.
This sense making is pretty much the primary content of development. It includes everything — even stuff that we would ordinarily not consider “sense,” like wiring up the connections between hands and eyes that allow for hand-eye coordination. But the portion of sensemaking that we are interested in here is focused on the “maps of meaning” that we construct as we are developing in and navigating our world.
Every experience leaves some trace. Some traces reinforce each-other and “cohere” while others interfere with each-other and inhibit or break-down connections. The result is an increasingly nuanced set of maps that we use to simplify the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of life and to help us navigate our world effectively. Touch a hot stove once and you will quickly craft a map that reminds you that anything that resembles a hot stove is not for touching. Get bit by a neighbor’s dog and you might edit the map “dog” to differentiate between the friendly, loving ball of fluff that you grew up with and this other, much more dangerous thing — thereby updating and “improving” the maps that you use to navigate, parse, evaluate and judge experience. Taken as a whole, your set of maps is your personal “sensemaker”.
Like it or not, at least within the current mode of human understanding, if you want to be able to make sense of your experience, then you must use — and can only use — your sensemaker. It is the tool that you use to convert undifferentiated experience into something that you can deal with, make decisions about, act on. It determines what gets and holds your attention. It resolves your disposition to experience. What is going on? How should I respond? Should I explore? Is it a threat and should I prepare to defend myself?
As a consequence, the quality of your sensemaker — the degree to which your sensemaker provides good, effective means to action — is one of the most important elements of your ability to navigate the world. So, what influences the quality of your sensemaker?
Your Experience of the World
At the core, of course, is you and your direct experiences. The kind of being you happen to be (e.g., your genetically inherited tendencies) and how that interacts with the kinds of experiences that you happen to have. Every experience leaves a trace. A coarse example might be simple physical trauma — a severe blow to the head in infancy is going to result in significant, long-term effects on your sensemaker.
More subtle, of course, are the more lightweight details of everyday experience. Since your sensemaker plays such an important part of how you attend to and dispose yourself towards experience, there is a lot of self-reinforcement going on. Perhaps your mother sang you to sleep when you were an infant. So you have mapped a connection between certain kinds of sound and deep, comforting nurturing. As a consequence, when you experience similar sounds, they might get your attention and you might be disposed to interact with them. Perhaps this is the first step towards a more discerning ear for music and a lifelong engagement with that slice of experience. Every experience leaves a trace. Enough similar experiences leave a mark. Enough similar marks leave a groove.
There are two real challenges at this level: bad mappings and supernormal stimuli. A bad mapping is commonplace — when you are first mapping some experience to another, you literally have no idea what you are doing. As a consequence, you might include some extraneous, unnecessary or just plain wrong material in your mapping. For example, perhaps the family dog has a red collar. And it is the only dog you experience for years. You might map “red” to “dog” — and for years later any time you see just that color of red you get a certain fuzzy feeling.
Most bad mappings are immaterial. Little hiccups in our sensemaking that matter little. But many bad mappings are the cause of real challenge in the world, particularly when they are deep and tied to strong emotions like being loved or feeling safe. A big part of maturing and becoming capable of effectively navigating the world is the process of identifying and resolving your inherited set of bad mappings. This isn’t easy and most people will live their entire lives with numerous bad mappings.
A major part of reinventing sensemaking is having the courage and capacity to find and remove your bad mappings. This can be a slow, painful and frightening challenge. And finding a way to catalyze it at enough scale to matter will be a significant undertaking.
If some mapping is quite effective for a very long time — say the association between the taste of fructose and the fitness of mammals — then the resulting mapping will be very deep indeed. All the way down into your genes.
And this usually isn’t a problem — after all, the mapping got that deep only because it worked and worked for a long time. But a real problem arises if some change occurs in the environment such that the signal (“sweetness”) is disconnected from the thing that is really sought (“nutrition”) and can be provided at an intensity that is “super” normal. In the wild, this is relatively uncommon. But we human beings have become masters of supernormal stimuli. And this is a fundamental problem for contemporary sensemaking.
In a previous post, I discussed the specific challenge posed by advertising (Advertising is Culture Pollution). But, of course, advertising is only a particularly intense example of the broader problem: our ability to give ourselves what we want has far outstripped our ability to sense what we need.
Up until about thirty thousand years ago, equating “sweetness” with “healthy” was a useful error. It worked. If you equated sweetness with “good, healthy, nutritious, desirable”, then you survived and passed on your genes. But as human beings began to take over from raw nature and more and more of our lived environment was a human constructed environment, the gap in this error between what you really need and what your sensemaker is tuned to make you seek became an exploit.
It turns out, it is possible to refine the sensation of sweetness away from the context that associated it with nutrition and have the signal without the thing that it is supposed to deliver. Not just possible, but incredibly profitable — because a spoon full of sugar makes everything go down.
This deliberate use of supernormal stimuli is a kind of black magic because it gets in behind your conscious sensemaker to lead you into all sorts of bad (self destructive, fitness diminishing) behaviours. And it is the sort of thing that is very hard for individuals to overcome, if left to their own devices. Alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, television, Facebook. All are examples of painstakingly crafted supernormal stimuli that wreak havoc on our wellbeing unless and until we overcode our default sensemaker with new habits and new intuitions.
But how do we come to craft these new habits? Occasionally, through personal experience. Hit rock bottom, have a moment of clarity and you can begin the process of recoding your personal sensemaker away from the supernormal stimuli of alcohol, for example. But that doesn’t scale. Our ability to hack our sensemakers far outstrips our ability to learn from personal experience.
Fortunately (and as we shall see, unfortunately) we human beings have evolved a very powerful sensemaking technique: we are capable of learningfrom other people’s experience.
For almost all humans, the fraction of their sensemaker that is formed entirely from their own direct personal experience is rather small. I don’t have to actually touch a hot stove to craft some sort of useful map around it. I might watch my older brother touch a hot stove and then witness his pain. My map won’t be as intense as his map — but it will be good enough to keep me away from hot stoves!
Moreover, I don’t even need to directly experience him touching the hot stove. In many cases, a story is adequate to the task.
“There I was walking through the woods. The night was cold and so dark I could barely see the trees around me. The woods were absolutely silent. And then I felt it . . . a presence. The hair on my neck stood up. My stomach clenched. I saw yellow eyes glowing in the darkness and then a low growl. Before I could even breathe, the wolf was on me. If your father hadn’t come, it would have killed me. As it was, I was left lame and without my eye . . .”
Fables, tales, stories, even simple directives (“don’t touch, hot!”) are all different forms of narrative. We humans have adapted the capacity to share experiences in imaginal form — and, therefore, to construct our sensemakers as a result of our interaction with narrative. This innovation has proven so powerful that narrative is almost as important to human beings as sensemaking itself.
Depending on how much time you spend alone in the wilderness, it is likely that the vast majority of your sensemaker has been constructed by narrative. Spiraling out from your closest family, your friends and associates, your community, your society — your culture.
It can sometimes be surprising how very much of our sensemaker has been constructed entirely though narrative. So much so that it is reasonable to suggest that “our” sensemaker is not really ours. Rather, narrative has become so overwhelmingly fundamental to our sensemakers that it is often useful to think of human beings as the agents of stories, rather than the other way around.
Regardless, it is clear that in an increasingly complex world where your personal experience can account for only the tiniest sliver of potential experience, it is only through narrative — and its ability to allow individuals to benefit from the experiences of other individuals — that we can hope to collectively make sense of our world and become individually capable of navigating that world successfully.
Herein lies the problem. By necessity in the contemporary environment, the vast majority of our sensemakers are constructed by and for human created experience. But, for a variety of reasons, we humans haven’t yet gotten good at helping each-other co-create effective sensemakers. In fact, a big chunk (perhaps the most important) of our current problem can be found in how often we do precisely the opposite and the consequences thereof.
Anyone who has used a computer in the last decade is well aware of the problem of malware: be careful installing 3rd party software on your system. Oddly, we are vastly less circumspect when installing 3rd party narrative into our sensemaker.
The sad fact is that an enormous amount of the narrative that circulates through our various cultural environments was devised by tyrants for the purpose of tyranny. Since the dawn of civilization, and the beginning of both the possibility and the necessity of large-scale hierarchical organization of humanity, those on the top of the social pyramid have been faced with a serious problem: how do we keep the masses in order? To be sure, the carrot and the stick played a very important role in keeping everyone in their place and pulling in (more or less) the same direction. But when it comes to really keeping people corralled, nothing beats a well crafted narrative.
Consider, for example, the narrative of the “great chain of being” and its connection to the “divine right of kings”. For more than a millennium, this set of stories kept most of Western Civilization believing that it was entirely right and natural that, simply by virtue of their birth, some people should rule and others should serve. To push against that fundamental truth of nature was both futile and immoral. It wasn’t by accident that the Founders of the United States kicked off their Revolution with a new narrative:
Narrative is strong stuff and it doesn’t matter whether it was actively cultivated or the result of passive adaptation. Narratives like “don’t rise above your station,” “defer to authority” or “women are the weaker sex” have been introduced both overtly and subtly to developing sensemakers for thousands of years.
Woven into the fabric of civilization they become self-fulfilling prophecies and self-reinforcing structures. Powerful, omni-present and extremely difficult to shake-off, our cultural legacy of malware is one of the principal generators/reinforcers of the “scarcity mentality.” Consequently, the individual and collective practice of liberating ourselves from malware narratives and constructing new narratives adequate to the Great Transition is one of the great tasks of the present moment. For an excellent example of this process in motion, I suggest the ongoing work by Venessa Miemis, here.
Of course, as I discussed in this post, much of our contemporary sensemaking landscape is pushing in precisely the opposite direction: confusing, confounding and demoralizing us. Analgous to the challenge of supernormal stimuli, we have simply gotten too good at “shaping the narrative”. Where PR, propaganda, marketing and spin, were once relatively blunt and shameful instruments, they are now table-stakes for any professional endeavour. The result as been an evolutionary arms racebetween the forces of manipulation and our collective ability to make good sense of the world.
Nowhere is this battle being fought more fiercely than on the shape of the battle-ground itself. Perhaps the most important influencer of both narrative and sensemaking: the architectures of experience.
The Architectures of Experience
McLuhan was right. At the end of the day, your sensemaker is a result of your experience. And both the nature and content of your experience is deeply influenced by the “architectures” that shape your capacity to experience.
If you live in a world where most people get around by walking, your field of experience will tend to be limited to a pretty small territory. You will share a lot of time with the people who live nearby. Your narratives will be constructed out of much of the same stuff as theirs (the same woods, the same rivers, the same crazy old man in the mountain) and, naturally, will tend to be shared and reinforced with them. As a consequence, your community will tend to develop a relatively parochial and homogenous narrative.
When the railroad comes through and suddenly it becomes as easy to ride one hundred miles as it used to be to walk ten, everything changes. Suddenly you encounter new people with new stories. And, if you are so inclined, you can travel to new places that generate new experiences — reshaping your sensemaker in complex ways. Perhaps your sensemaker will tend towards cosmopolitanism. Or, perhaps your sensemaker will react negatively to this novelty and will tend towards a more reactive conservatism – “the old ways are best”.
The architectures of experience are like fitness landscapes for sensemakers. Some architectures (like newspapers and broadcast television) are amenable to certain kinds of stories and story-tellers and will select for them. Other architectures (like the Internet) present a very different landscape and will select for different kinds of stories and story-tellers.
Broadcast media, for example, are characterized by an “author / audience” relationship. One person has the megaphone and many people listen. The implication, of course, is that one person’s set of narratives will get a lot more adoption than everyone elses. The strategy, then, is simple: be the person who controls the megaphone.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. There are a lot of forces at play. By example, the Soviet Union’s overall narrative landscape was all too happy to take advantage of broadcast’s ability to have a monopoly on Pravda. In contrast, in the United States of the same era, strong legacy narratives like “the freedom of the press” and “the informed citizen” were an important part of the overall narrative ecology and tended to counteract the “natural” centralizing tendencies of broadcast.
Nonetheless, the shape of the architecture of experience is a uniquely powerful influence on both narrative and sensemaking and will generally “win out” over enough time.
Understanding this fact helps explain a lot about both the opportunity and the challenge of our effort to compose a new narrative. On the one hand, the world-historical emergence of “the Internet” (including its mobile aspects) presents a radical departure from the centralizing broadcast architectures that dominated the past several centuries. The almost instant emergence of a global, nearly costless (once the infrastructure is in place), largely decentralized communication architecture connecting almost everyone in the world to almost everyone else is arguably the biggest disruption in a fitness landscape since a certain meteor sent the Age of Dinosaurs into oblivion.
Yet while the success of the Internet at challenging the dominant narratives has been much lauded, the actual results have been more mixed. While the rise of the Internet has crushed the power of some of the old media (see Record Companies, Newspapers, News Magazines), much of the thus liberated power has been re-cohered around what Bruce Sterling calls “the stacks.” Record companies have been replaced by iTunes. TV networks seem to be in the process of being replaced by YouTube, Netflix, etc. It seems that wherever you look, the liberating energy of the decentralized Internet has been broadly captured by gigantic, centralized platforms like Facebook, Google, and Apple. Platforms whose scale, resources and access to “big data” gives them the power to shape the Narrative at a level that would have brought a tear to Old Goebbels’ eye.
This is unacceptable and untenable. We cannot have our sensemaking structures hacked and manipulated by the cynical abuse of supernormal stimuli and malware that leaves us utterly disoriented, demoralized and divided. We cannot have our sensemaking architectures owned and controlled by opaque forces over which we have little influence. The world is far too complex and we humans are far too powerful to long endure this kind of stupefaction. The collective challenges of the 21st centry are far too significant. This trajectory will doom us all.
On the other hand, if we take ownership of the conditions of our sensemaking and take care to craft narratives and architectures that are optimized for truth rather than control, we really have no idea of what we are capable. What I feel I can say with confidence is this: through this keyhole lies our best hope for a desirable future.
Next: The Parameters of an Optimal Sensemaking Architecture