Show Me the System
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Show Me the System

Modern media burps stories. Foreground:  a blood-shot eyed stick figure freaks out (your instincts).
Modern media is sort just burping tons of stories at you. And you eat it up, cuz evolution. And no systems-level problems get solved.

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 ofour species’ .

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 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:

  1. : Modern media engages our evolutionary instincts for short-term survival — but provides little long-term survival value in the modern world.
  2. (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.
  3. : 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.
  4. what exists, what to create, and [SPOILER ALERT] the launch of an organization to do just that (!)

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:

  1. posed with impending threats, we with , the same instincts that protected us from predators
  2. our brain rewards us for — because novelty once signaled a scarce resource we should consume immediately
  3. our brains maximize chances of survival and minimize energy spent surviving by constructing , 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:

A table contrasting symptom focused approaches with wholistic, systems approaches.

The 5 guiding principles

Embracing a vision for systems thinking media forms means embracing that:

  1. . 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.
  2. is more valuable than debating existing answers. Deep understandings adapt to changing systems; one-off solutions don’t.
  3. Perfection isn’t possible (or desirable). Instead, we should enable systems to continuously adapt by creating , particularly from those whose voice often gets drowned out.
  4. Social problems are overwhelming. To gain momentum, . 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.
  5. 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?

What exists

A lot of systems thinking/storytelling tools, organizations, and practitioners are already at work. (I’m aggregating them here.)

For newcomers, here are 3 great (and free) jumping-off places, in ascending length:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. . 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?
  3. 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?
  4. . 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! We’ve launched a website to centralize the movement, and we need your ideas and content.

Visit ShowMeTheSystem.org, sign up for updates, & uncover a world of resources!

Or, reach out to me directly! davidnmora ‘at’ gmail

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We live in an interconnected world. Yet we see and talk about it in bits and pieces. So we’re inventing media forms that let humanity see the big picture of our most important problems. Visit ShowMeTheSystem.org

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David Mora

David Mora

Systems storyteller & software engineer. https://davidmora.us

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