Chronicle, Context, and Narrative

Humans think in narrative. We love stories. Give us two or three incidents, and we grab a plot to tie the incidents together and make them meaningful to us. The web is made up of what Weinberger called Small Pieces Loosely Joined. There is a fire-hose of facts, concepts, speculation, and minutiae in text, images, and videos  inundating us all the time on the web, coming at us in ways not so much meaningless as unorganized. In this flood, we struggle to find form and thus meaning using social tools such as search, social bookmarking and various social media platforms.

Topics and people are the organizing principles. Search engines offered us topics and people. Facebook started by simply offering links between people. Twitter reduced the content bites and added topics in the form of hashtags. Google+ insists on people with real identities and gives us topics with “Sparks”. However the threads of topics and people we pull out of the webstream are not narrative, but incidents, a kind of chosen chronicle of this-is-what-interests-me NOW. We create for ourselves our individual contexts of chosen chunks of information.

This makes us particularly vulnerable to false narratives. The people we’ve chosen to follow, (increasingly because of their charisma and attention-hungry PR smarts), tell us the narratives that increase the attention, power, and money that they crave. We are too busy to do anything other than to swallow their hokum, their cynical appeal to our need to feel better than others, our need to not have to do anything but blame. You’ve seen them on tv and heard them on radio.

The culture that grew up as a result of the printing press and the Enlightenment emphasized so-called “critical thinking”, the practice of working at discerning what “made sense”, what the careful sifting of facts and the careful looking for proof revealed. This made sense in a time of limited text and information. The question I have is what happens in a time of information overflow? What happens when we have an abundance of attractive people whose motives we don’t know handing us narratives, creating contexts by cherry-picking from available chronicles, and feeding pre-cooked narratives to us? How do individuals discriminate and find, if not a capital ‘T’ Truth, a reasonable, sensible, compassionate truth to live by?

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