Deconstructing the God Game

Old woman or Young woman

Rachel Maddow used a trompe l’oeil image to illustrate how people from opposite ends of the spectrum could hear two completely different things when listening to Elizabeth Warren talking about the relationship of the wealthiest 1% to the rest of society.  Neuroscientists tell us that the brain has mechnisms called mental maps we use to create models of reality in our minds.  From primitive creatures we as predators developed more sophisticated brains that could take rich sensory data and construct moving mental maps to model prey.  The better we could model their intentionality the better our odds of survival. What we believe other creatures are doing allows us to respond with survival-effective responses (flight, attack, procreation and so on). These narratives of what role these other creatures play and what we can do in response to them are understood by neuroscience to be common not just to hominids but to all mammals.

The image on the right can be modeled by our mind as an old woman or a young woman.  Unlike the image, when we model the intentionality of a politician, the politician probably did not mean to entirely different things.  Yet we can listen to the same words and walk away with multiple different models of what they were talking about.

If it was possible to influence which model the public chose when listening to a politician, such knowledge would be a source of significant political power.  The more one can control the narrative that people think in, the more one can control what they see, and how they think about what they are seeing.

In evolutionary terms this only became possible when narratives could be communicated to others. The network of ideas in the mind that is the narrative could be transferred to other minds via communication networks.

It gets scary when the vertical networks represented by mass media into the homes is allowed to be consolidated into the hands of the few. Folks like Bob Schieffer ladle out the bromides about how we can rely on good old American common sense, assuring us that it doesn’t matter how much money the nefarious scallywags use, or how much a particular network pushes a particular narrative- Americans are pretty good at figuring out what makes sense.

There is good reason to be skeptical of Schieffer’s confident claims.  Jane Mayer at the New Yorker illustrated just how deluded that perspective is. Her story boils down to this: a member of the 1% (Art Pope) targeted 22 democrat legislators who were running  in North Carolina elections. He succeeded big time- knocking off 18 of the dems- simply by spending heavily on communications that created false narratives about the democrat candidates.

There is a huge threat when the wealth of vertical communication networks are monopolized by the few. To modify Supreme court Justice Louis Brandeis‘ warning:

“We may have democracy, or we may have wealth of communication concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

That is why we must do all we can to enhance the nexus between the vertical and the horizontal networks of the internet and social media. It is here that the democracy of the viewers exercise their power to remix and interpret what is downloaded to them

Mass media sites are incorporating blogs and twitter feeds so that communication can be bidirectional as well as horizontal.   Some are experimenting with allowing content generated by viewers influence the reporting.  As for horizontal social communication, this medium allows viewers to generate news themselves, as is the case with the global Occupy Wall Street events.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-10-30, in cognitive science, narratives, neuroscience, reality bending, social media's impact. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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