News is not enough. Humanity needs system-illuminating story forms.
We’ve all felt it: the sense of overwhelm and helplessness after scrolling through news updates. Everything seems plagued with intractable problems, and all we can do is watch.
But this feeling is not a reflection of reality.
It’s a reflection of our species’ immature communication tools.
Humanity’s problems are real. But were almost never seeing them in the light needed to solve them.
If our species is to survive (and thrive), we need to invent media forms that harness storytelling to understand complex social systems. These media forms will not just tell us stories about the systems we live in — they’ll help us see how our story fits in, illuminating where we can have the greatest impact.
This manifesto explores this idea in four points:
- How we got here: Modern media engages our evolutionary instincts for short-term survival — but provides little long-term survival value in the modern world.
- Why this is a huge problem (particularly for people trying to change the world): we need to make complex, evolving systems work for our planet, not tell simple stories that produce overwhelm and focus on symptoms.
- What we need to do differently: Illuminate systems and our roles in shaping them, rather than focusing on blaming individual events. And do it in a way amenable to human cognition.
- Where do we go from here: what exists, what we need to create
1. How we got here
Modern news media works by engaging our evolutionary instincts for survival
Recently, our species invented ways to burp simple stories at each other every other second. And we’ve totally eaten it up.
Why? Our species runs on stories. Particularly alarming ones. When news media harness this part of us, it’s really harnessing our evolutionary hard-wiring:
- posed with impending threats, we crave constant updates with clear villains, the same instincts that protected us from predators
- our brain rewards us for novelty — because novelty once signaled a scarce resource we should consume immediately
- our brains maximize chances of survival and minimize energy spent surviving by constructing the simplest story that can integrate new information with our existing experience, rather than what accurately describes a larger network of interdependencies
2. Why this is a huge problem
The survival of our species depends on solving system-level problems. News media delivers little value towards that.
Humanity’s modern challenges don’t have simple (static) villains, heroes, or solutions. Solutions come from finding leverage across ever-evolving systems and by building unity, not demonizing.
If you agree with those assumptions, then we’re in serious trouble: our method of global communication & representation is largely counterproductive to the global change we need.
News focuses attention on symptoms & events, ignoring root causes or how we can directly work together to fix them.
So, do we need to radically change existing news media?
We don’t need to make the news media change. We can just build resources specifically for change-makers.
While public perception & involvement is important long term, systems-level change is typically lead by a small group of people strategically leveraging power.
Modern news media fails precisely when it needs to appeal to the lowest common denominator of human instinct. We can get the highest leverage by building media for those already poised to make the biggest change: current and prospective change makers.
3. What a systems-centered media form would do differently
Systems-focused media illuminates a problem in the light needed to solve it at the core. Let’s break down what that looks like for across 3 key sectors of society:
The 5 guiding principles
Embracing a vision for systems thinking media forms means embracing that:
- System-level problems define our lives. We deserve to be able to see them — and our role within them — with all the richness of storytelling and technology (including forms yet invented!) Computers open up the possibility for new tools of thought, but news media has just given us a faster-paced version of what existed before. This is a species-critical failure, and we need to fix it.
- Framing a problem better is more valuable than debating existing answers. Deep understandings adapt to changing systems; one-off solutions don’t.
- Perfection isn’t possible (or desirable). Instead, we should enable systems to continuously adapt by creating tighter feedback loops between entities, particularly from those whose voice often gets drowned out.
- Social problems are overwhelming. To gain momentum, focus on small wins. Systemic problems exist precisely because of their mechanism to resist change. Helping people see what’s immediately possible generates more traction than pushing a decades-away theoretical stance.
- Media must fit the limits and strengths of human cognition. Existing media succeeds by engaging our hard-wiring in the worst ways. We need to beat them at their own game, and invent media forms that are as compelling — and ultimately more gratifying.
4. Where do we go from here?
A lot of systems thinking/storytelling tools, organizations, and practitioners are already at work. (I’m aggregating some here.)
For newcomers, here are 3 great (and free) jumping-off places, in ascending length:
- Talk: How to Simulate the Universe, in 134 Easy Steps, by Nicky Case, provides contestant practical steps to create systems focused media. (Nicky’s work at large teaches systems thinking through interactive explorations.)
- Article: Using Story to Change Systems, by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, explores how stories can illuminate systems problems and coherence socially and in our cultural narratives.
- Book: Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows, provides a gentle (yet powerful) intro to systems thinking.
Work to be done
Systems thinking isn’t anything new. It’s found in ancient faiths and modern science. But we’re missing three crucial things to establishing system-centric media:
- Gather & summarize existing knowledge & resources. These should be accessible to people who already care about systems change (and building tools to help with it.) These should cover two big ideas: resources for thinking about systems, and the cognitive underpinnings that make these paradigms digestible for humans. In other words: This is how we approach things, and what makes it effective with our audience.
- Document the tools (mental or explicit) systems-level practitioners are already using. While science & engineering tools are well known & sophisticated, there’s less captured regarding qualitative practitioner tools (eg policy/advocacy, sociology, public health, spirituality). In other words: These are the tools people already built for themselves, how can we learn from them?
- Do experiments in systems storytelling. This needs to happen across a spectrum of complexity: “idea bites” that communicates an essence in a few seconds, videos that makes a compelling case in ~2 min, actual pieces that demo within 5–12 minutes, in-depth essays of 15–20 minutes. In other words, This is what we’re creating, isn’t it awesome? (here’s a 5-minute experimental talk I gave for EYEO Festival 2022)
- Connect a core community of highly invested system storytellers. This is about support, but also about critique and growth. In other words, We’re the people making it happen, and we’re supporting each other to make this form worthy of humanity's greatest challenges.
“So, is anyone doing that stuff? And can I help?”
Yes and yes! I’d love to talk & connect you with the community.
Reach out to me directly: davidnmora at gmail, or on twitter @davidnmora