Narratives in Echo Chambers

Warning! The following article will have a discussion of events in Orlando, as well as spoilers for The 100 and Penny Dreadful. Please proceed at your own risk. To act as a buffer, please enjoy this artwork of Chirico Cuvie from Armored Trooper VOTOMS…shirtless:

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(a.k.a Fitness Goals)

Humans build narratives. We have a need to understand, and to do so we create stories. The scale can change from “Why is he wearing that shirt?” to “Why did the universe form?” but we look at the world and dream structures around its elements. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing. The ability to create narratives, to build stories, allows us to explore and dream. The scientific method is storytelling with fact-checking and testing.

The danger comes when we create stories in echo chambers. Not vacuums – no one operates in a vacuum – but echo chambers. Writing is often thought of as a lonely endeavor and, yes, the mechanics are very solitary. You need to focus to get words down on the page and it’s difficult to do that with other folks hovering around. Even collaborations require separation. Listen to the “Making Of…” for Cabin in the Woods and you’ll hear the writers talk about working on different floors in the same house.

But once the mechanics are done, you need to get the work out there. Other thoughts, other perspectives, and other voices are vital to honing any creative work. This is magnified when you start on very collaborative forms, like television, film-making or writing partnerships. It’s very easy for the echo chamber to expand and create an atmosphere of groupthink. Decisions are made which, when looked at from outside the chamber, now seem questionable.

For me, two recent examples of this were the death of Lexa in The 100 (and the whole Bellamy storyline) and the ending of Penny Dreadful. In both cases, I see the seeds of echo chamber narratives. I’ve written about The 100 before, but in the case of Penny Dreadful it’s the head writer, John Logan, and the man in charge at Showtime thinking this sudden ending was thematically and dramatically appropriate.

Had they a engaged in a conversation with someone outside the office, I think they would have gotten a distinct, “Yeah, that’s BS” response most watchers of the show are now evincing. Genevieve Valentine said it better than I could. But this decision, down to the “no announcement that this is The End” smacks of one made in an echo chamber, with no outside views or dissenting voices. Just the show runner’s voice reflected back on him and amplified.

Now, the showrunners of Penny Dreadful and The 100 have every right to take their shows wherever they wish. That’s their project, their job, etc. And it can be said that these are ephemeral narratives. But these narratives have more of an impact than we like to admit. They enforce larger societal narratives which color the way we see the world, and interact with other people.

It creates lazy, self-justifying narratives one doesn’t have to question or examine. You can simply say, “I feel this completes her journey back to God and a retaking of agency” without actually demonstrating it. In the echo chamber, everything reflects back and says, “Yes, it does.”

Where this becomes terrifying are in cases like Orlando. The story of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub is a complicated and horrifying one, which touches on threads of gun violence, terrorism, toxic masculinity, and homophobia. It is not a simple one-note narrative, but a tapestry.

Echo chambers unweave the tapestry. We like simple narratives. If you believe this is a terrorism issue, then your echo chamber amplifies those aspects of the narrative – drowning out questions about gun access, abusive machismo and hatred of LGBTQ individuals. It works the other ways as well. You filter out all which doesn’t fit your narrative, and surround yourself with a protective, re-enforcing shell.

Traveling

Two posts this time around, mostly to cover a long silence. On May 21st I married.

Andrija and Lisa

And about a week later, we went on our honeymoon to Dubrovnik, Croatia; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. I’m still working on processing the 1.5K photos I took of all three cities. Aside from giving me time with my wife to explore new places (and, in the case of Dubrovnik, introduce her to a city which dominated my psyche since I first saw it thirty years ago) it reminded me of the importance of travel.

Let me illustrate:

 

This is one (one!) of the lounges in the Grand Alchymist hotel in Prague. Created from two residences and a convent, it is absolutely unique. I’m still at a lost to describe the wide variety of Baroque decorations. Even one of the simple rooms (which we had) was a marvel. This place was unique, from the first time we stepped in to the last moments there, we marveled at every little detail.

I never would have experienced it had I not traveled. I never would have had a conversation with Michael, one of our porters, on coming to Roosevelt Island or walking along the George Washington Parkway in DC, were I not there. I never would have seen an old, battered android seated in the Alchymist’s courtyard with a cup of tea in its hand.

We cannot stay static. I’m lucky; I’ve gotten to get well away from my home and see different parts of the world. Not everyone has that chance, but there are other ways to travel, even if it’s just hopping the bus into a different neighborhood.

Talk to people. Look outside your world. Go places where you can hear different languages being spoken. Explore. Experience is the best way to feed the creative part of you.