Whether We Like It or Not, Stories Change Us

When you hear the word “processing,” what do you think of? Probably of a little blue progress bar or a colored wheel spinning around while your computer, annoyingly, makes you wait.

But that progress bar shows us what our digital technology is doing every moment: It is interpreting, categorizing, and assembling every jot of information we throw at it. And sometimes, we give it so much information that its behind-the-scenes processes clog, and the excess spills into the places it usually reserves for functioning, for helping us click or scroll through our browser. Everything shuts down. It’s like it has squeezed its eyes shut, giving every space possible to properly and thoroughly deal with the information–a kind of processing we humans seem to have never learned.

This simple, digit-by-digit machine is incapable of giving anything but its full attention to the information that is thrust upon it.

We are in an age when information, assembled in the form of a story, is fed into us almost as frequently as it is into our machines. With young adults checking their phones more often than 70 times per day, and those checks often leading to the whopping 24 hours of time spent online per week, we are constantly pressed with stories: breaking news, a Facebook post, an angry Tweet with a hundred replies, an update from your favorite blog. And then there are the YouTube videos, the Netflix series, the instant-stream movies, and always a “Play Next” button bobbing at the bottom of the screen.

Whether or not we acknowledge it, these stories, squeezed fresh from the hard screens of our phones and laptops, dripping through our eyes and ears while our minds frantically scurry to categorize, to label, to file away, to make sense of each shocking headline, and each subtle gesture.

And yet our hands still hover on the “Play Next” button. Our fingers snap the moment the action fades. How long has it been since you have stopped, squeezed your eyes shut, and said, “Hold on, I just need to process this.” How long has it been since you have brought awareness to the messages sliding in your floodgates?

This Information Affects Us


“Kelloggs Frosties, they’re GR-R-R-reat,” a bright banner winks at you. You shop for your next box of cereal, and your fingers slide along the “GR-R-R-reat” one. You drive down the road, and seven billboards show an impossibly slim woman. “Fear no mirror,” the woman promises. What happens when your mind finishes processing, and without your awareness, orders you to pick up that box of cereal, or concludes that, since you haven’t had the advertised procedure, you should fear a mirror? What happens when we simply begin to nod along with what we see every day of our lives?

There is a reason companies pour literally billions of dollars into advertising. It works. It changes the way we see the world, and it changes the way we see ourselves.

In Paul Feldwick’s article, “How does advertising work?” he distills the effect that this information has. Rather than making a big, obvious argument, advertisements feed us certain images about the world, the brand, and ourselves, until, gradually, we begin to adopt those images as true. The key, he says, is their subtlety. He puts it this way: “When we don’t notice we are being influenced, we cannot argue back.”

The more we are asleep to the messages around us, the easier it is for them to influence us. Without waking up to this onslaught of ideas, we begin to be shaped without our permission.

And our Stories Are Affecting Us, too


But, of course, it isn’t just advertising that changes us. A subtler, and more powerful, vessel of information is the stories we immerse ourselves in–our books, our movies, and our TV shows. Perhaps we dismiss these vessels because we don’t believe they are trying to persuade us. We are in an era of entertainment, and our stories are designed for exactly that.

But these stories, regardless of their entertainment value, are doing precisely what advertising is: feeding us images of how the world “is,” what “good” people should do and look like, and what we should desire or reject. Stories act on the same principles, and build even stronger positive or negative emotions with certain images and ideas. Some of the messages can empower us in important ways. But many of them mold us to outlooks and actions that are destroying our society.

And the most dangerous part about this setup is that we are even more asleep to the affects of our stories than we are to our advertising. We cannot fully claim the messages for good. And we cannot fully stop the messages for ill. Who wants to suspect their favorite TV series of shaping their reactions throughout the day? Who wants to stop a thriller in the middle to ask how it might be affecting them?

Who wants to stop and process stories?

And so the stories we consume hour upon hour take deeper hold upon us than even the 70-billion dollar ad industry.

Let’s Wake Up

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Let’s bring awareness to the stories we consume. We need to see how these images, ideas, and messages are defining our unconscious currents. We need to learn an awareness that our culture never taught us.

Let us claim our stories. Let us open our eyes and see exactly what they have to offer, the good and the bad. Let us wade out of the thrashing sea of distractions and stand still on the shore, eyes open, breathing deep as we take the time to process.

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