How to frame our planetary future

The Great Framing War for Information

“Which frame?” by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

by Mike Meyer

We need to reframe this planet’s story. Framing is the context that we use to set a story for human understanding. At the simplest level the frame of a story is the life of the person writing or telling it. Our species of animal has come to dominate this planet through our use of language, our mindful presence of time, and our ability to shift perspective from ourselves to someone else.

We have used this with great effectiveness in the development of scientific knowledge that has allowed us to build tools that, themselves, function in information processing (another type of storytelling) at levels beyond our innate ability to understand. As we know the speed of that change and the distance from the cutting edge of our species knowledge to the majority of people’s way of understanding is creating a widening gulf and producing strange distortions in human understanding.

Much of that distortion is the result of differences in framing of the stories we tell. It takes work to consider the framing of a story. We don’t usually listen for framing unless there is something that causes us to question the veracity of a story or its apparent conclusion. Human stories are always teaching something. That’s why we have stories. That is, literally, how we think.

We start out hearing stories such as the Tortoise and the Hare. First we need to learn that tortoise is another word for turtle and hare is another word for rabbit. The apparent point of the story is that rabbits are quick but impulsive and turtles are slow but methodical. The real point is that, while rabbits are faster than tortoises, in certain situations being slow and methodical can win a race that rewards steady persistence. And speed may be wasted if it is not used effectively.

But when you start out you need to work very hard to get to that level of understanding. The first conclusion is that rabbits are kind of stupid and conceited and turtles are steady and reliable. That is the framing of the story. But if you stop there you miss the real point.

Everyone learns that stories have morals. But the framing of the story creates a particular world that allows that moral to become the dominant point. If you don’t understand the frame as a frame to accomplish this you may end thinking that rabbits are stupid and turtles are reliable. Obviously that is not correct. It may not matter much in your life but it would if you had to deal with lots of turtles and rabbits.

Cultures are ways of framing the world and all the people in it. If you consider an isolated and naive culture it uses stories, all stories in fact, to frame how to tell good people from bad people or whom you can trust from those that you can’t. This includes how you should act and what you should expect of other people. Languages and stories provide for acculturation. They train you in the culture. This is the source of bigotry such as racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.

Here is a very good discussion of framing from the American journalistic perspective. This explains the author’s youthful discovery of framing while watching the news about hurricane Katrina. Specifically how American news sources framed stories about people struggling to survive in two very different ways. Pictures of white people trying to find food and necessities in destroyed stores as people trying to survive. Pictures of black people doing the same thing were described as black people looting stores.

One young black person, Joshua Adams, saw this, understood about the framing he was seeing and that most white people would not. They would assume that they did not need to look for a frame. As a result he became a journalist.

The war that we are in

We are now struggling to build a new, planetary frame for the human story. The fact that we don’t have one is the cause of a growing range of disasters. It is becoming obvious that without a new, planetary frame we may not survive.

In the same way America is failing rapidly because of a range of inappropriate frames that are cultural and, also, purposely manipulative. I think it is possible to say that a failing culture, nation state, or ethnic group is the result of bad framing for their stories.

At one level you can say this has always been true. Conflicting cultural or national frames result in wars, conquest, or domination. Successful conquest is the result of successful cultural framing. People learn to frame stories in new ways that they find rewarding for many different reasons. Framing stories of things that always show your conquerors as intelligent and wonderful people can be rewarding. Unfortunately that may not be true.

But let’s back away from this a bit to see it in a larger frame.

My point here is that historically people spent their lives hearing stories in a consistent cultural frame. That was just the way it was. Conflicting framing happened at a much higher level as people used the framing of stories, news as an example, to define the world as it should be. Most people did not need to bother with having to identify the framing of a news item. If they did it was because they didn’t trust the source of the story because it conflicted with the normal way stories were told.

What has changed is that we are all on the front lines of framing warfare. Our cultures are breaking down because we deal daily with literally thousands of stories with different framing. Because modern, predominantly western culture, has spent the last three hundred years learning to communicate in mass media with the idea of convincing mass audiences to do something we have become very good at manipulating the framing of stories.

All of us live with great awareness of advertising and what it is trying to get us to do. In the 21st century effective advertising has moved increasingly into indirect modes. We watch stories for entertainment that have products being used and praised or shown off as part of the story. This is, of course, placement advertising. The idea is to get us to like Samsung because we saw screens, phones, and appliances that were all Samsung on our favorite police drama. No mention was made of buying Samsung.

With the inundation of people by personalized information flows we see many examples of the last product we searched for on Google in all the sites we visit. So we need to be aware of this. The reality we see is now designed for us online based on framing by the companies that make the things we look at and buy so that we will buy more.

Hopefully you are saying, yes, we know that. That’s a problem as we all end up in our personal catalog world of things we are interested in. But that is the world we are in and we cannot rely on someone else removing the framing that we create for ourselves. It’s silly to even suggest that.

Fifty years ago the world was dealing with two super frames. The USSR and and the USA. People were supposed to be loyal to the framing of their superpower and to watch for efforts to sneak the other framing into our stories. That was confusing but people got the idea as long as the clues were pretty big and simple.

Now we are each a superpower in a war that is all about framing. If you can get people to buy into a way of framing daily stories in their life, you win. No need to fight. The battles are psychological and delivered by media. You just need to isolate your conquered population so they don’t see too much of any other ways of framing the same stories.

In the American arena of the Great Framing War we have Fox News that has succeeded in getting a portion of the American population to buy into their framing of stories. The Donald Trump led regime is the result. This works primarily in rural or single culture suburbs that can select not to watch any other source of news. It doesn’t work in metropolitan areas with diverse populations and higher educational levels aware of the nature of framing. Even less educated people who have lived in multiple cultures have a much stronger understanding of how framing works and are more resistant to it at the crude Fox News level.

China is attempting another approach based on their historical, cultural frame. They are attempting to censure all other frames for stories but theirs. Their success requires power to monitor all information flows and isolate the population. China’s huge size and traditions still works. But they know this is a long battle and that they must make their official framing acceptable to an increasingly wealthy population that cannot be completely isolated as they once could.

China has a different approach than America but the same problem. Forcing a single framing on a population is dependent on the people who have bought into it becoming self censuring by refusing to look at any other way of telling their daily story.

In China, while the central control of internet censorship seems intimidating, and it is, the Chinese are very skillful at identifying framing and removal of words that they can’t use. They quickly substitute other words to tell their story with their framing. That is not likely to ultimately succeed except for carefully trained and isolated populations. I hope that is not the planet that we live on now.

We are all, as I’ve said, on the frontlines of the Great Framing War. If we are hard working and careful we will not be fooled by the automated systems that tell us all stories with someone else’s frame. These things are rapidly becoming more subtle and all pervasive.

Successful creation of a new planetary frame is the only way to control the continuous assault of manipulated information individually designed to program us to some group’s end goals. In another sense we need a new ethic that makes it wrong to manipulate information without a clear indication of the source of the framing being used.

What do we do and what is the planetary frame?

Our national governments are often the enemy now. Our economies in capitalist countries are our enemies. They want to frame our daily stories to their ends. We need to counter that by always watching, not just the story, but the framing. If you think about what is missing from the stories you are seeing, that is a technique.

You don’t see people of color in anything but criminal settings? That is white supremacist framing. Freedom is allowing the very rich to deny you wellbeing and health? That is predatory capitalist framing. Good people are always frightened of illegal voters? That is authoritarian framing.

As you can see this is massive change in how we must think and live. It is natural for humans to not think critically about all the stories they are told everyday. If we can agree an open and neutral framing for our planetary news then we will have one important objective foundation and roof to shelter us as we reorganize ourselves for the common, planetary challenges we face.

Obviously this source of news and information in order to provide the veracity and validity that we need cannot be a product of a capitalist system or any national based system. It must be owned by all of us and monitored by all of us. We’ve never done this before. Can we do it?

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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