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The New Human Narrative

The simple reality is that Homo sapiens understand the world by telling stories, listening to stories, reacting to stories. This is what we do everyday. Most of the time we are telling stories to ourselves, sometimes to family, friends, coworkers, and strangers. Many of our stories are shared with others and built by collaboration. Often we just listen to someone else’s story. Then we build more stories based on that experience. All of these stories together build the narrative of our world.

In any given story there are a lot of things that are understood and don’t need to be explained. The more intimate the collaborative story the less background information that needs to be established. We know what is meant and we know the history of the others and the way they react in the context of the group narrative. In these close settings we can get to essential, new information more quickly with some understanding of how our collaborators will react based on experience in the shard narrative.

When we meet new people in a new group the challenge is to find existing shared narrative elements. We do that by questioning known, safe narrative markers, career, employment, neighborhood, sports, weather, schools, children. From that we begin to build a new collaborative narrative. Sometimes that is easy and sometimes that is quickly aborted as critical definitions are not compatible. The level of shared stable definitions of terms determines the ease of creating a comfortable social group.

We all know this but we all live in these narrative flows without thinking about the process of building shared meaning except in specific situations. Joining a group requires introductions to identify and share narrative elements. Socially we do this with greater or lesser ease. People who do much organizing, sales, or collaboration work use learned techniques to create quick identification of narrative structure. They usually will create a specific narrative to avoid conflicting story lines disrupting a specific set of goals for the new group. Teachers help create learning narratives that involve all of their students. Successful business meetings are structured to focus on new information usually by starting out with introductions and reintroductions to establish everyone’s preferred points of connection. How good you are at this directly affects your role and success in the group. If you want to succeed you need to spend time building your own public narrative and identifying the elements of your personal narrative that are useful for each of your professional, business, or personal social groups. But that is not the point here.

Evolving narratives and new roles

We are all part of very large narratives. My point here is that we instinctively perform this narrative function. That means we learn to build shared narratives as we learn language. We became more practiced at it as we mature and we may become professionally adept at it in the narratives that are important to us. We also may choose to end a specific narrative and start a new one by changing jobs, relationships, careers, neighborhoods, cities, or countries. Many people do this by changing their name, perhaps not legally, but by changing the preference for how they are addressed. Some people do it by changing genders. The ease with which people do this influences the inclusivity of the society.

My concern is the foundational elements of our largest narratives. We have long recognized the problems of urban living. In fact the base problem of urban living is generally defined as individual alienation. This was a factor in the rise of the great religions in the earliest urban systems, e.g. Christianity in Rome, two thousand years ago. As urban areas have steadily grown they have continued to be very demanding to manage socially hence the rise of public structures to support and administer them. There have been steady evolution and innovation in shared human narratives that are the stories of our cities, kingdoms and then nations. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the spread of increasingly similar urban narratives adapting to larger western style nation-state narratives around the planet. For developing areas this is continuing.

The steady evolution of representative style national governments and use of market based economics focusing on capital acquisition to support broad growth has been our most successful narrative. By the last decade of the 20th century this narrative became the form for the great majority of nations. At that point it was thought to be the end of history just as that narrative began to fail. Something fundamental changed. Our biggest narratives began failing because the basic, underling, assumed, background elements of the narrative are no longer acceptable to significant segments of the population. The story has changed in ways that no longer make sense to many people. The easy inclusion of people that became much more common in recent years has added new types of people to the new, larger narrative. Where this works, primarily urban regions, the social and economic benefits are transformative. Where older narratives still dominated and there was no great motivation to change inclusion created a growing tension.

This is the tension that has been used by traditional fascist and racist groups. Their answer is to reject the new larger narrative and demand that we return to older, smaller narratives that do not have a role or place for the new types of people who have been added. But this is predominantly true only of the more traditional and least urban parts of the population. The unexpected collateral damage of this rejection is the breaking of the old national narratives that have held western, industrial societies together through change and success for several centuries. Suddenly we aren’t one anymore but several. And we don’t even share the same language anymore as words that once held a common meaning, such as “fact” now are obviously different. What happened?

Virtual and Real or Real and Virtual

Everyone knows that social media is part of what is happening but a big part of the confusion and growing panic is the inability to find a cause for so sudden a change. Because the most important organizational structures of the failing narratives are governmental people are focused on that.

As many people have been steadily discovering (re-discovering?), the nature of human, social communications have been consistent for several centuries. All of our human organizational templates are based on relatively small communities in physical proximity. The effect of our telecommunications revolutions over the last one hundred and fifty years have facilitated a tighter and quicker integration of these small, social units into larger structures. The way that people have operated has been consistent since the Neolithic and the rise of agriculture and towns. The changes have been in quantity and speed of communication not in the nature of human social communication. But that changed dramatically at the end of the 20th century.

Human societies are hierarchical, whether rigid or loose, but we have always been most comfortable in distinct or overlapping groups that we directly interact with on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. The most comfortable group rarely is over one hundred fifty people and usually ten to twenty. Our broadcast (one to many) technologies made it possible for people to become celebrities “known” by millions but that is special. We may, in a professional capacity, deal with hundreds but those are professional and very limited narratives.

If you think about this it will, I think, make sense. The rise of the web has made us aware of the fire hose of information instantly available but the fact that we know about it indicates it is not really a problem. We simply ignore the vast universe of information except for specific situations with frequency of use controlled by our age. But social media has changed the nature of human society.

This may seem obvious but it is a profound change. There are so many people like us now. and they are close as our neighbors but we have lost our natural process of vetting new acquaintances and establishing the broader range of shared experience. The importance of virtualizing our traditional way of vetting new relationships is seen in the networking techniques of LinkedIn and Facebook. But that is not the same as our traditional reliance on physical proximity and history with related family members.

And that has been a troubling and growing problem recognized with radical changes triggered by the last election in the US, BREXIT in Europe and the neo-nationalist narratives suddenly coming to life in Europe. Many people did not realize that they were joining narratives that were not based in fact. The critical shared element of defining facts has fallen apart. We can’t agree because the language used by some no longer makes sense to others.

Urban living has always been the domain of people who appear to share your narrative and are very good at building you into theirs. The country bumpkin wises up quickly in the big city. We are all new immigrants to the big city of digital and virtual reality. We understand this once we know what to look for . . .

The story of modern government and economics is failing in the cloud of political confusion. Trust of government has disappeared. The fundamental narrative of pseudo representative government tied to market and capitalist economics was not designed to work in virtual, highly dynamic, non-local communities. It appears that many of the existing elements of government are no longer needed. For the non-inclusive populations they have been taught that their government is bad and not to be trusted for no other reason than the oligarchs are vested in removal of taxes and support for anyone but themselves.

This is the ultimate nature of capitalism based on greed and monopolization of production for endless growth and power. Ironically this short sighted goal has destroyed the narrative of government control of which is now up for grabs. For the inclusive, primarily urban populations government has failed to respond quickly enough to new needs to support the new economic instability as capitalism fails for the great majority of the population. This is the modern social role of the old governmental structures that were expected to limit the greed of capitalist organizations while insuring the basic rights of health, welfare, and education.

For the minority non-inclusive populations they have nothing but a distrust of government that must be responsible for the loss of jobs, and transformation of traditional social structures. And have not seen anything from the new heavily promoted planetary economy. They are completely lost and have lost control of their local governments that have been playing them for the benefit of the old oligarchy that knows enough about what is happening to be frightened and very defensive.

The old narratives have failed or are failing. The new inclusive, urban populations know that the old narrative and systems are dead but don’t know what is coming. The non inclusive populations know that things have changed but have no idea of the nature of that change so have fallen prey to the pied pipers of fascism and siren song of return to the past. We are dealing with the rise of two alternate and completely incompatible narratives.This, for now, is our future.

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Mike Meyer

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .