Stories are fundamental to humans. They are the software of how our minds work. From how we plan our day, why we do something a particular way, who we trust and who we don’t, how we see ourselves within our society, we have a story to explain and aid us. They are narratives that make sense of human lives. They are code for complex relationships. We tell anecdotes and jokes, advertise our businesses, imagine fictional lives in novels, write metaphors for love in poetry, explain why someone is guilty or innocent of a crime. We communicate using stories, constructing narratives small and large, fitting our lives into bigger histories. We often think of ‘stories’ as entertainments, but stories shape us. They can be part of oral traditions, written in words on paper, symbols in wax, glyphs on papyrus, carvings on stone, pictures in galleries, images from cameras, music, theatre and mime. Stories can be told with all kinds of metaphor and device that can find a lodging place in our receptive and fertile minds, sometimes even in the form of illusions to fulfil our expectations and aspirations. We invent angels and demons to illustrate the faces of good and evil. Stories are short cuts, relying on commonality of understanding to fill in and broaden the experience. There is satisfaction and comfort from this. A reinforcement of our place in society. Stories are powerful. We understand this from our earliest years. Stories are part of what it is to be human. But what are stories? Can we see them, and touch them?
The simple answer is, of course, no. But stories can be as real as lived experience. They are a link to it, a deep form of human-to-human contact, relying upon our extended concept of self. They reach out to our collective mind. Stories are essential to how our minds work, how we operate. The narrative of our lives is a story. As is our history. Stories serve many purposes. They can entertain, inform, teach, enrich. Guide us to an understanding of a situation. They bind people together in networks of stories, becoming part of bigger ones, becoming the current edition of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, the paradigm for our current existence. We don’t have to think about the stories we use, they are natural to us.
Stories aid the cohesion of societies. They can be used to undermine and control them. Another meaning of the word ‘story’ is ‘lie’. Sometimes an idea can form around a less than settled notion of what it is we want and believe. Propaganda has ever been used by dictators to create and modulate a collective paradigm for the advancement of the regime. Communication technology has developed particularly quickly in the field of social media, much because we are happy to be more connected with others. We have taken to checking our phones regularly to reassure us of our place in society, that we are not forgotten by our friends, or missing out on some new idea. It is not all warm and fuzzy friendship. With modern media, we are fed news and other information at an unprecedented rate. We want to be part of the scene, one of the pack. In the hands of malign influencers, a story can be used for dark purposes. We have seen it recently, undermining democracy in various parts of the world. The moral base has been undermined by public exposure of lies and wrong-doing in government. Somehow it is not called out and investigated. It happened in plain sight. We learn to accept poor judgement from those who lead us. Where is good old moral bedrock?
Propaganda has changed the course of human history. Simple metaphors, exaggerated pictures of ‘others’. Dog whistle slogans. Pamphlets extolling the ‘right’ attitudes. Songs that promote a common righteous goal. They work! Those things exist still, but are now spread more rapidly and in new ways via the internet and media feeds. We are part of a bigger and more quickly moving story than ever before. Stories are dangerous. Stories can be planted, news meddled with, reactions influenced. We need to be firmly anchored in our notions of what we believe, and what we want to be, in this era of rapidly transmitted information. So many fictional alternatives are presented, and we are used to game-playing with no ‘real’ consequences. Ideas bounce quickly between people, what they have seen on television, played in on-line games, found on web-sites, heard as sound-bites, heard as news, ‘fake’ news, and skilful ‘factoid’ devices and all kinds of videos and quasi-truthful expositions. It is easy to get dissociated from reality. Our minds create associations quickly. It doesn’t take much to influence us. Online bots are designed to play on our vanities by offering ‘personality’ quizzes and IQ tests. We become targets, our profiles harvested, and stories tailored to our belief systems and interests. Even without the internet, simple links readily form ‘stories’ in our minds. A picture juxtaposed with a simple caption is easy to assimilate. We can pick it up as easily as a virus. Compounded by other feeds, we begin, unconsciously, to form opinions as things play on our emotions. Our opinions are regulated by emotions. We can be influenced all too easily to concretise negative ideas.
It should be possible for a ‘benign’ agency to counteract the malign. But for every interference, some nudge from an equilibrium, the checks and balances swing. How they settle is not necessarily obvious. Some energy needs to be taken out, inertia installed to prevent the swings and roundabouts becoming death rides. One day, the story of our time will be told to the young people of the future. They may well laugh at our naivity. But we are the products of our stories.