In Wednesday’s Munchies, I shared some “purple pills” from game designer Gabriel Leydon. It’s not warm and fuzzy.
The psychological manipulation he describes feels like fighting over scraps. The scraps might be lucrative as the internet captures whatever attention the pre-online world had a grip on, but it’s not a foundation for wide prosperity any more than a private equity roll-up. Yea, they still increment “GDP” but so did constructing the Death Star (this doubles as a Clerks reference…iykyk).
And I don’t want to fall into the same idealistic trap Leydon describes in 70s futurism to pretend that C does not R.E.A.M
But there’s a non-Shaolin-inspired “C” that also rules everything around me — confirmation bias. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “cash” but it’s becoming more it’s fungible with it. (FOXA stock price is the exchange rate)
What does that mean?
It’s getting harder to know what’s true today. That’s not news. Everything we read is through a prism. The light we shine through it is our own priors and the refraction is perfectly predictable — the projected image will be the impression that minimizes the surprise between our starting beliefs and the interpretation of the new knowledge. If they hear the word “school shooter”, a liberal auto-presumes a MAGA-hate-pilled domestic terrorist and a conservative suddenly cares about mental health or anything else not starting with the letter “g”. 25 years ago they scapegoated video games and Keanu Reeves in a trenchcoat. The point is that our minds are made up because we are lazy and surprises are cognitively expensive (in the short term).
Your prism is a cope. Or a dishwasher — it saves you time. And because our minds are already inclined to take such shortcuts, the media just needs to keep bringing food to the cell. If horoscopes didn’t already exist, I’d accuse XKCD of leaking the partisan news business model:
I have mixed feelings to report.
It’s possible to fabricate new prisms. Angled to project a wider spectrum of understanding — smarter, more empathetic, courageous. It sounds nice but there’s a problem. The allure of the prisms in front of you now is they make you feel comfortable. Self-righteous. In control.
That means it hurts to have your horizons expanded. Learning is a struggle. If it’s not, it’s just review. You can do elementary math puzzles all day and feel proud but you aren’t growing. (Which is why that “expensive” moment of surprise is so valuable — it is the learning stimulus).
And this is where the storyteller comes in. The best stories, in my unapologetically smug opinion, are the ones that burden your mind with a lack of closure. They whisper “withhold judgment”. Their ambiguity is the most honest reflection of our condition. Their objects endure mistakes, hard choices, triumphs, and redemption. But the best won’t wrap it all up in a lesson (see Roger Ebert’s 2010 review of Lost In Translation). That trains us to stay immature. Fairy tales and parables are for kids because they’re developing a conscience bit by bit.
You can tell when a grown-up hasn’t grown up. They need laugh tracks and characters with face tattoos for hints on how to feel.
After reading The Sympathizer and finishing Ken Burns’ 20-hour Vietnam documentary, I’m again humbled by how complicated and inconsistent we are. Such stories grab us by the face and force us to look at our hands and what they’re capable of. At both extremes. (1 min clip by one of the veterans on war being “finishing school”).
The importance of (good) stories in raising our self-awareness came to me obliquely. I just finished that 4-hour George Carlin documentary on HBO Max. I really enjoyed it but the line that keeps echoing:
People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3am. So, I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals. Every person you look at; you can see the universe in their eyes, if you’re really looking.
It’s a reminder. The best stories are written in our lives. You just have to get together to hear them.
Happy Mother’s Day