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October 8, 2012

[2b2k] Skepticism about stories

The phrase “story-telling” raises my skeptical scalp wisps. I am a sucker for stories, whether of the Moth/ This American Life sort, or the literary art of, say, a Philip Roth or my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis. But “story-telling” also sometimes refers to a belief that even I consider naive about the power of stories to overcome differences, or to the commercial use of stories to manipulate us.

So, I went to the new “Future of Story Telling” conference with my skeptical hazmat suit on. But, it turned out to be an outstanding event. At the very least it helped me understand my skepticism better.

The event, put on by Charlie Melcher, attracted a great set of about 300 folks, including artists, lots of marketers and advertisers, software designers, scientists, and performers. And it used an interesting format that worked out well: Before the event, the conference made a 5-10 minute video for each of the presenters. (Mine is here.) Attendees were asked to choose three one-hour sessions based on those videos. The sessions began with a viewing of the vids, and then a 10-15 minute informal talk by the speaker. The rest was open discussion. Each speaker held her or his session three times.

I tuned mine after each go-through, of course. By the second time, I was setting up the discussion as follows:

Bill Casebeer was at the conference talking about research that shows that the brain releases empathy-producing chemicals when we hear a story that follows the classic arc. This reaction is universal, and when I had a chance to talk with Bill the night before (he’s a brilliant, enjoyable, and — most of all — patient person) I learned that chimpanzee brains also seem to work this way. So, I began my session by pointing to those findings.

But, there are plenty of natural brain reactions that we work against. For example, if the impulse for revenge were a natural impulse, we would try to thwart it in the name of civilization. Likewise if rape were a natural impulse. (This is the old sociobiology debate from the ‘Seventies.) So, I told my session I wanted to raise two questions, not as a devil’s advocate but because I’m genuinely uncertain. First, should we be resisting our brain’s impulse to see and react to story arcs on the grounds that the story arc often is a simplification to the point of falsification? Second, whether or not we reject the arc, does the Internet offer possibilities for telling radically more complex (and therefore more truthful) stories?

Then, I talked briefly about networked knowledge, because that’s what the organizers wanted me to talk about. Also, it’s a topic I like. So, I looked at Reddit (yes, again) as a place at which we see knowledge exhibited in its complexity, including the inevitable disagreements. My overall point was that our new medium is enabling knowledge to become more appropriately complex. If the Net is doing this to knowledge, perhaps it can and even should do this to story telling.

The groups at all three sessions focused on the question of whether story arcs falsify. I gave them the example of how your life is lived versus how it is retold in a biography. The bio finds an arc. But your life — or at least mine — is far more random and chaotic than that. One group usefully applied this to the concept of a “career,” a term that now we pretty much have to put in quotes. We don’t have careers so much as a series of hops, skips, and jumps. (“Career” has always carried class-implications, as did this discussion.) In fact, since (I’d hypothesized) everything is being reinterpreted as a network of the Internet sort, our path through jobs and among friends is itself beginning to look like a network. Small jobs loosely joined?

Some replied that even if your life does not consist of an heroic arc, every step of the way is a little arc. I’d agree that our experience is to a large degree characterized by intentionality (or, as Heidegger would say, by the fact that we care about what happens). But my understanding of the story arc is that it needs the intervention of an obstacle, but most of our plans go forward without a hitch, if only because we learn to be pretty good plan-makers. Further, I think the arc needs to contain a sense that it has more to say than what it literally says. “I went to a store for apples, but they were out, so I went to a different store” is not yet a story. It has to reveal something about the world or about myself: “I went to the store for apples, and the clerk was incredibly rude. Why can’t people be nice to each other? So, then…” Most of what we do has an intention, but not every intentional act is a story. That’s why I don’t see our lives as composed of little stories. And even if they were, putting those little stories together wouldn’t necessarily make the Big Stories we tell about ourselves true.

Some said that stories are not a matter of truth but of emotion. A woman from Odyssey Networks, a group that promotes interfaith understanding, told a story about hardened criminals tenderly caring for other prisoners. Quite moving. And I wouldn’t diminish the importance of stories for connecting us as creatures that feel, care, suffer, and rejoice. But I did want to raise the ethics of using a form of communication that appeals directly to our lizard brains. (Well, I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong portion of the brain. Lizards probably tell really cold-hearted stories.) I didn’t do a very effective job of raising this issue, but we could balance the prisoners’ story with a million propagandistic anecdotes from politicians (“I was in Phoenix when I met Josie Jones, a workin’ mom strugglin’ to make ends meet…”) and marketers. Maybe we should be really careful about using stories, since they can make us vulnerable to some very flawed thinking. And to be technical, I do worry also that the common ground that story-tellers find often may not be all that common after all. I have little confidence that we experience The Iliad the way the Greeks did.

It turned out that none of the three groups much wanted to talk much about the second question: the possibility of using the Net to tell more complex stories. That’s my fault. I couldn’t make the idea concrete enough because I don’t have a concrete-enough idea. In two of the sessions I did raise the possibility that some online multiplayer games are one place we might begin to look. I think there’s some value in that idea, for stories there are collaborative and emergent. But they also lack the coherence that a narrator brings to a story, and coherence may well be a requirement for a story. There are worthy experiments in having large groups collaborate on a single narrative, but that doesn’t scale stories so that they more accurately represent the chaotic and complex nature of life.

It may well be that stories need to be relatively simple and arced in the middle simply to be stories. And I would hate to lose the stories that come from artists, for great stories — or perhaps I should say truthful stories — transcend the simplicity the form imposes. But I continue to worry that story-telling outside of the aesthetic realm is a simplification that all too often falsifies. So, I wouldn’t want to give up stories. But I would be happier if we approached the form itself with a fundamental wariness.

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December 4, 2011

[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here's another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.

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September 18, 2009

The temptation of stories

Journalism at its best is a way to uncover and communicate the truth, subject to all the usual human limitations. But journalism’s fundamental form, the story itself, brings a special temptation to manipulate the truth for economic or aesthetic reasons. The temptation is resistible to varying degrees, depending on the type of story (the temptations are greater for feature stories than for hard-core reportage of the day’s events), the nature of the journal, and the standing of journalist. Nevertheless, the temptation is there, built into the form itself.

The very idea that there’s a story is itself a temptation. Maybe the story is on Facebook addiction or the rise in incivility. A journalist who goes back to her editor and says, “Nope, no story there” has disappointed the editor who now has to find another story to fill the hole in the paper newspaper or to feed the maw of the online publication. Not a big deal; it happens all the time. But if it’s fifth consecutive time that the reporter says there was no story there, it’s getting to be a problem. If it’s the reporter who has suggested the stories in the first place, as is often the case at many publications, she will be judged a failure because she’s wasted her time and gummed up the editor’s planning.

It’s not like it’s supposed to be in science, where a failed hypothesis is as valuable as a proved one, even though of course every scientist would rather discover that a new compound cures cancer than that it doesn’t. A failed hypothesis in the world of journalism is a story that won’t run, that won’t bring in readers, that won’t give businesses a page on which to place an ad. There are real prices to stories failing to pan out. Reporters are thus tempted to make the story work.

Even when the hypothesis of a story is true, journalists almost always reach a place in the story where they know what they want their interviewees to say. An interview is requested of a particular person to provide the “some experts disagree” statement or the “the implications of this are vast” verbiage. If that person doesn’t provide it, someone else will. Depending on the stage of the story, the interviewee may spark interest in a side issue or an approach the reporter hadn’t considered…resulting in someone else being called to provide the other side or the amplification.

This happens at some of stage of the story even when the topic is interesting no matter what storyline it takes. For example, the death of Pat Tillman is interesting because it is instantly symbolic: Football star turns down a life of fame and wealth in order to defend his country, and dies a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Beyond the basic reportage the day that it happened, it was bound to inspire journalistic stories. A reporter could enter with an open mind. Even so, she’ll enter with an open mind looking for an angle, which is to say, looking for a story. Is it a relatively simple narrative of an inspiring patriot who gave his life to support his ideals? Or was there “more” to it? That search for the “more” isn’t simply a hunt for unknown truths. It’s a search for a narrative that reveals the simple surface to be a veneer from which we will learn something unexpected. The reporter may have no idea what the more is, but once she gets a hint of it, she’ll be on it, and the narrative itself — if not personal ambition — will carry her forward. Maybe Tillman wasn’t as virtuous as we thought. Maybe his death wasn’t as straightforward as we were told. Maybe his story was of a life fulfilled or of a life wasted or of a life more complex than we’d thought. Maybe it’s about the government’s cynical use of him, or of the media’s own eagerness to find a hero. But something will emerge. And as it emerges, it gathers its story around it, and the reporter is off looking for the voices who will play certain roles in the story. Why? Because the story demands it.

At the very least, the temptation journalistic stories is that of all story-telling, the basic way we humans make sense of our world. Stories, not just in journalism, are about the gradual revealing of truth. The surface wasn’t as it seemed. The ending was contained, hidden, in the beginning. What looked continuous was in fact disruptive. Stories have a shape, and story-tellers fit the pieces into that shape. There’s nothing wrong with that, except in an environment where there’s economic and social pressure to produce a story. Then the temptation is to get the pieces to fit. And that can corrode the truth.

So can the simple fact that stories tend towards closure. They end. They’re done. Some circle of understanding has been drawn and closed, tip to tip. The story says, simply by ending. “This is what you needed to know.” There can often be truth in that, but there is always falsity in it. The world, its events, and its people escape even the best of stories.

Stories are not going away from journalism, just as they’re not going away from history, biography, or how we talk about our day over dinner. They’re fundamental. Stories are how we understand, but they also inevitably are constructions, incomplete, and organized around a point of view. All stories are temptations. Journalistic stories have their own special and strong temptations because of their economics and because of the nature of the medium in which they’ve been embodied. Now those economics and that medium are changing, diminishing the old temptations but creating new ones:

::: Because we are increasingly turning to publications that explicitly take a stand, the temptation to include false views for “balance” is diminished. But, the preference for partisan media creates a new temptation: To over-state, in order to attract attention. [Guilty as charged!]

::: The old medium limited the length of stories, forcing unnecessary trimming except in very special circumstances. The new medium has infinite space so that stories can be right-sized. But it turns out that prolixity discourages on-line readers, so the new temptation is toward brevity. It’s not clear if that’s an expression of an impatience that’s always been with us or if the new medium constitutes a new temptation.

::: The old medium’s inability to embed links encouraged journalists to try to encapsulate the world in a single column of text. The new hyperlinked medium can tempt authors to gloss over points and contradictions because they’ve put in some links, putting the burden on readers who are (usually) lazier than the writers.

::: The economics of the old medium tempted publications to appear valuable by being a reliable source of the single truth. While they of course have encouraged discourse on controversial topics, their bread and butter have been stories that “get it right” and thus serve as a stopping point for belief. Stories are the bulwark of authority, and authority is the currency of the old journalistic economics. The new medium now can include as many stories as we want, from as many different points of view, connected by curators above the stories and by hyperlinks within the stories. The story no longer has to tell the whole truth. It’s just one of the stories. But, while that’s true of the ecosystem as a whole, the old temptation to be a single-source truth shop exists for individual online publications, whether they’re commercial or personal.

Now, the form I’ve adopted for this essay, which is itself a type of story-telling, is one of balance: Old temptations matched by new temptations. It’s a form that aims at inspiring trust: “See, I’m presenting both sides!” And that itself can be corrosive. Indeed, in this case it is. While the old temptations are being replaced by new ones, the locus of truth is moving decisively from individual stories and publications to the network of stories and publications. The balancing of temptations misses this most important change. The hyperlinked context of stories creates not only new temptations to go wrong, but a greater possibility for going right.

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