A few years ago, a small girl was caught in a war zone with bombs exploding all around her. Her six-year-old fingers grapsed tightly to the assault rifle she had been given for her own protection. Her heart raced, the sweat made it difficult for her to keep hold of her weapon. She looked left and saw the fear in her seven-year-old brother’s eyes as he grasped his weapon as well. She looked right and saw her mother’s sweat dripping down her forehead. The sweat was real. The fear was real. The war was not.
This girl was the daughter of a meth addict who had believed, and who had made her daughter believe, for several weeks that they were at war. They locked themselves in their house. Every sound they heard, the mother explained, was another bomb going off. They were in real danger of being utterly destroyed at any minute. Finally, the mother told her children they needed to make a run for it. She armed them with rifles and tried to escape the “war zone” by fleeing their Northern Colorado apartment complex, sending “defensive” shots out into other apartments to defend against “the other side.”
This is a true story of a case I helped prosecute as a DA. The sweat was real. The fear was real. The gunshots were real. The story was not. But the children believed it.
I’ve mentioned this story before with regard to the power of framing. I mention it again because it is vital for us to understand in our age of digital information.
If you think about it, everything you perceive is filtered thorugh a lens and becomes your story. That’s true on both an individual level and on various group levels (familial, intrafamilial, national, societal).
An easy example, which Yuval Noah Harari uses in his masterpiece Sapiens, is money. Money is, at its core, just an idea. It grew from the practice of trading real goods but was eventually substituted for nothing more than a stand-in (paper dollars, iou’s otherwise known as checks, and now digital blockchains). These stand-ins only work to allow us to trade real goods when everyone agrees on the same story about them: that they are valuable and to what degree.
Money is a story that tends to be helpful in the sense of providing a useful tool for societal progress. But not every story is helpful.
Imagine a woman who wakes up in the hospital. She has come out of a coma with bruises all over her body. She has no idea what happened to her. How might her feelings be affected if she is told (a) she wrestled a would-be attacker to the ground to save five children verses (b) she was violently raped and left for dead? Her bruises could literally be exactly the same, but they will hurt so much more in scenario b. And she doesn’t have the tools to know which one is reality.
When our perceptions were based on external, material things — meeting and talking with people in real life, seeing the real world around us, even hearing second-hand information from someone who was at the actual scene — those perceptions were more closely tied to reality, and their effect on us was slower, than they are now that so much is filtered through digital information that literally travels as fast as an electron can move through matter.
Humans are already hardwired to misperceive. From our eyes to our ideas, we miscalculate and misunderstand in order to preserve our senses and strengths for other things. If you could somehow fold a newspaper on itself 100 times, how thick would the end result be? Your intuition probably tells you maybe a foot or two. In reality, it would be the thickness of…
…93 billion light-years. 93 billion light-years!
You are not built to understand reality. You are built to survive. So what now when you are being given stories at the rate of wildfire?
Start by understanding that if your Instagram feed is full of a given topic or idea, you will most likely start to feel an undue emphasis on that topic or idea. You may overstate the importance of it, the relevance of the issue in society, the reality of the issue itself even.
And here’s the kicker: if that topic or idea causes you pain, then overstating it likely causes more pain.
Would you tell a person suffering from anorexia to buy a plethora of fashion magazines? Would you want your autistic child to surround themselves with stories where interpresonal charm wins the day? Would you tell a bankrupt family member to subject themselves to loads of advertising about consumer goods?
If you had a dear friend who was very sad, would you want to constantly tell them, over and over, that they were depressed? How much would you want them to dwell on it? And what if they were technically just sad because a terrible thing happened to them, but now they’ve reframed normal sorrow as a clinical condition that they believe they’ll suffer from their whole life?
Now add to this the power of automated algorithims, specifically calculated to increase the amount of belief your friend has about their depression, and put that power in their hand in a way that is specifically calculated to get them to spend more time staring at it.
That’s the power of the digital stories we tell ourselves. That’s the rabbit hole you can get yourself into.
We live in an era where the power of stories spreads like wildfire. Our online worlds have become our realities. Or at least, we think they represent reality. These digital worlds are controlled by algorithims that can affect us to a degree that the advertising gurus of the past would never have dreamed of.
We are a little girl shakily holding an assault rifle in a war. But there’s no war.
What’s worse, we are literally living on alternate universes from our neighbors. They may be living their normal lives in an apartment in Northern Colorado while we are nextdoor in a war zone. Millions and millions of people are walking around every day in completely different realities from one another. All because they allow completely different stories to shape their digital worlds.
So what to do about it? It’s a problem far too big for one little blog post. We can start by simply acknowleding that we are affected. We can put our minds together to come up with ideas for a better future. For now, though, all I can say is, maybe put this story down and go for a walk without your phone. It will do you good.
If you enjoyed or learned from this story, please click the claps 👏👏🏾👏🏽👏🏼👏🏻, share, and spread the word, so others may enjoy and learn as well.