We love stories. As far as we know, human beings are the world’s only story tellers, although it’s possible that songs of the Humpback Whale may, in their way, be stories. The stories we tell are narrative, which is to say, with words that convey events and images. Even though film and video now dominate entertainment, unless it’s documentary footage, a word-story always comes first.
Combine stories with belief in the supernatural, and you’ve got a winning combination. From the Bible to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, to Marvel’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, supernatural stories seem to fulfill an essential human desire, the best of them even becoming foundational authority of great power. Religious stories that have promulgated institutional dogma have fueled and continue to fuel power conflicts between loyal adherents and the loyal adherents of competing stories.
The development of the printed word or character was a major event in the evolution of stories and the cultures they affect. It’s not just the printed word or character that’s had an impact, however; the impacts of the media that carries words and characters has been even greater. Professor Harold Innis, whose teachings greatly influenced media critic Marshall McLuhan, pointed out that communication media itself is powerful. The expansion of the Roman Empire, for example, would have been impossible were it not for the media of papyrus scrolls through which written instructions were conveyed. It is with this recognition that McLuhan coined the adage “The Medium is the Message.” The best current example of the truth of McLuhan’s adage is Twitter and social media overall, where how well one is trending carries more weight than what one actually does.
There’s real life, and then there’s the life of the mind. In this day and age, it’s the life of the mind that often dominates. The life of the mind is unreal in the sense that imagination is not itself something you can touch or see. Ultimately, it’s the power of story and the media that conveys it that allows imagination to manifest as real. Books, scripts, and the entertainment they generate have made the dividing line between real and unreal more and more difficult to discern. We are increasingly fooled into believing that imaginary stories are real, besting our “lyin’ eyes.” “Fake media” has resonance precisely because reality is now so easy to fake. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, it’s going to get worse, much worse. If not already, Orwell’s media-manipulated world of 1984 will seem quaint by comparison.
Einstein didn’t help. His theory of relativity, a powerful story indeed, rendered common sense obsolete, converting faith in what we can observe subject to suspicion. Beginning in the 1970s, postmodernism undermined the idea of truth altogether, eventually leading to Kellyanne Conway’s support for “alternate facts” and Marjorie Taylor Green’s “Jewish space lasers,” the tipping point when unreal story unseated 21st century reality.
With the rise of digital media and the explosion of “news” sources, “the democracy of truth” has devolved into mass delusion. For many, real life now appears suspicious, a maliciously scripted deep-state drama; as a consequence, people are progressively being trained and indoctrinated in madness. Our culture, increasingly unable to distinguish the real from the unreal, with no source of information considered reliable or legitimate, inevitably and tragically ended up with unstable Donald Trump’s tower of babble and enduring the paranoid stories of his MAGA followers.