Story Time

For nearly two years now, pandemic pandemonium has masked other dangers and crises, personal and global. And though it keeps sucking the oxygen out of no less pressing debates, none of those troubling pre-pandemic trends have gone away. Meanwhile, certain words and ideas – breakthrough, variant, spread, underlying – have been repurposed and repeated to the extent that their sense may be permanently disabled. And as this crudely staged Theatre of the Plague shows little sign of ending, more people are finding it hard to remember life before the pandemic.

As someone blessed with the option of maintaining social distance, unlike so many essential workers exposed to constant risk, I’ve faced minimal stress except for missed visits to my mother, who died the same week her nursing home reopened after almost four months of lockdown. Achingly sad, but nothing compared to what countless others have suffered. And still are suffering… as Covid rules and etiquette take up space in our heads, creating new hoops to jump through, which makes us more forgetful. What megafires? The air’s full of hostile droplets and particles, not smoke and ash. What carbon footprint? My hands are sanitised.

In this childlike social climate, with short-sighted authorities enforcing arbitrary rules reminiscent of school, it’s possible that stories have never been more important. Story. The word derives from Latin historia. Who’d have thought? It’s not as if stories only treat the past or facts; quite the opposite. And yet stories, with all their potential to enthral, have been colonising terrain once allotted to logic at the same time as Big Tech has been infantilising society. ‘Facebook’? What regressive tool coined that name? Social media has returned us to the school playground, a zone of hormonally driven distraction. And now it’s time for all good children to roll up their sleeves, while the bad ones get detention (or write essays).

Is it sheer coincidence that as historical knowledge has receded from the cultural stage (despite the spotlight on identity politics and the wealth of personal histories emerging), stories – about the future, AI, the multiverse, the metaverse, race, class, gender, the death of nature, the birth of a brand and more – have rushed in to fill all vacant space?

History is no longer a narrated continuum so old that we’ve lost sight of its beginning (unless you buy Genesis), but a digital grab bag from which to pick facts to fit our sales pitch or thesis. The phenomenon of story has reached epidemic proportions. ‘Our Story’, I read on a tub of coconut yoghurt. Would you believe it began with a shipwreck in Fiji…

‘Stories are the means by which we navigate reality,’ writes author and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, in his essay ‘The Vaccine Moment’, ‘but they are also the means by which we control it – and by which we are controlled.’ I’d like to think I understood this instinctively as a child. But from what I recall, if that can be trusted at all, I experienced the stories I read and was fed via TV and cinema with a kind of naivety; I entered fully into them, identified with the protagonist, whether it happened to be a bird, a fairy, a mermaid or a wild stallion. I actually sought to embody these characters, hiding in the garden or galloping round the house. It’s a stage children go through. But how many outgrow it? A quick scan of reviews on Goodreads suggests that plenty don’t. A book won’t compel unless readers can identify with a main character. Compare such reviews to those written by professionals and story analysis starts to look like a discipline few people possess.

Humans, at least the affluent subset, have never had more scope for entertainment. As a child I used to watch TV for up to five hours a day, starting after school and ending at bedtime, often doing my homework in front of it. I don’t watch much now, yet most of us know adults who do, not analysing what they view in terms of arcs, tropes, themes, morals etc., but losing themselves in the drama. And because, as Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message, they do the same when watching or reading the news.

TV is the medium that primed us for the internet. And now stories are streaming at us, we’re mainlining entertainment while delegating more and more of the work once done by our brains. Remember encyclopedia salesmen? Now it’s Wiki, cadging donations. Ever wonder, when you were a kid, if God saw everything you did? Well, now God does. He’s poised to answer your questions before you finish typing them; even if you can’t spell, God can read your mind – or what’s left of it. If you can credibly call it yours. Indeed, as children of the digital apocalypse (the original meaning of which is revelation, not doomsday), can we trust we’ll recognise real truth if or when it’s revealed?

The thing is, much of the power that various stories wield over us comes from what their tellers choose to withhold. Omit information and the listener’s or reader’s imagination will automatically fill in the gaps. Logic plays a part, but it’s more like an editor tweaking what’s written already. We jump to assumptions based on the stories with which we’re most familiar, whether they’re logical or not. And the more familiar these stories are, the less conscious this process is likely to be. In cases of ‘dementia’ or cognitive impairment, the tendency is called confabulation. Up until the end of her life, my mother could invent so freely that anyone would have believed her; only by checking with her carers did I know what or whether she’d eaten. Yet severe short-term memory loss isn’t confined to 90-somethings. As the global dementia epidemic is worsening, a comparable phenomenon is afflicting mainstream entertainment. Thanks to ubiquitous ads, you needn’t set foot in a multiplex to notice the rise of the remake. And that’s not all.

Given that the sorts of stories known to please big audiences exploit the laws of cause and effect (chronological or not) via the mechanics of set-up and pay-off, the storytelling factor in many blockbusters (and not just sequels) is showing advanced signs of decay. And while it seems that some consumers will passively lap up any old crap, others are feeling betrayed. If as many humans complained about, say, climate inaction as they do about breaches of the implicit studio-audience contract, governments and their corporate sponsors might be forced to change tack. But entertainment is the dummy we’ve been programmed to suck on to distract us from a world that’s turning more toxic by the nanosecond.

And if the made-up narratives that keep people glued to their screens are losing integrity as the entertainment world consolidates, what about the ‘true’ stories currently guiding our culture? Any worthwhile story, be it fiction or reportage, is just the tip of an iceberg comprising in-depth research: a solid entity floating in a sea of random facts and figures. But not unlike icebergs proliferating as they break loose and drift away from fast-melting ice shelves and glaciers, stories are multiplying as their foundations disintegrate, resulting in fewer stories with any firm basis. Each of us can do our own ‘research’ online, but the information ocean is fatally contaminated. Forgetting for a moment Covid’s biological status (good luck with that), no idea in the brief history of the internet has ever gone more viral. It’s infected and distorted every major information source that serious researchers used to rely on. Could Covid, or its official story, actually be a symptom of underlying conditions – political, economic etc. – that we ignore at our peril?

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