Stop the Newspeak stories

When the U.S. FedBizOpps (Federal Business Opportunities) Web site advertises a workshop entitled, “Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts”, it’s time to face up to the shadow side of storytelling. Since the workshop took place February 28, 2011, I figure the workshop URL may disappear any time. So let me assure you that even if the link is broken when you click on it, this workshop is for real.

The full title was “Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts.” The hosting agency was the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Here’s the description:

This workshop is intended as a precursor to exploring the neurobiological mechanisms which undergird narrative processing so as to establish fertile ground for connecting our understanding of the neuropsychology of stories with models, simulations and sensors salient to security concerns. To this end, the workshop will focus on surveying theories of narrative, understanding what role they play in security domains, and establishing the state of the art in story analysis and decomposition frameworks.

If you remember Orwell’s 1984, you may recognize an unnerving similarity to the Ministry of Truth and its Fiction Department. One of the first things the novel’s government had to do was normalize a new language. Newspeak turned ordinary stories on their head.

Wandering through the DARPA Web site, where war is normalized as nothing more alarming than business strategizing, I got to thinking about George W. Bush on “weapons of mass destruction”, Sarah Palin putting cross hairs on the districts of pro-health care reform Democrats or the Harper government’s decision to scrap the long-form census because it was “coercive and intrusive”.

What all three examples have in common is a defective story with serious ramifications. Soldiers and civilians continue to die in Iraq. Palin supports powerful forces working to keep Americans from having universal health care. The Harper government’s decision to scrap the longer census means there will be inadequate information on which to base policy and funding decisions. When questioned about their actions, Bush, Palin and Harper all created new stories to explain how right they were.

George Orwell explained how it works in his appendix to 1984, “Principles of Newspeak”:

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.

I believe in the power of story but acknowledge its knife cuts both ways. We owe it to our children and to the seventh generation to avoid Newspeak, to tell stories that shed light, that inform, that inspire and that, ultimately, lead to a better world.

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Simonne - March 9, 2011

This caught my eye… I find it interesting that when I have conversations with my son, I feel like I am hearing a different language. I have been telling myself that it’s probably because I am getting old, out of touch with the language and culture of the new era our kids are living in, perhaps even losing my intelligence and connection with the “real world”. But your post made me wonder if what I am hearing is a form of Newspeak, the language of politics, technology, academia, intelligentsia. It has made made me feel more comfortable with my quest to return to the ancient roots of things, where, more and more, I am finding wisdom that is universal but astonishingly simple, and “common sense”. My insights say “Of course, that’s how it works. How could I have missed that?” And I hang onto that, and hope my kids will find it too.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom



storyroute admin - March 9, 2011

In years of working in education and government, I found the same thing – people using “in” language to describe things that would not be guessed from the choice of vocabulary. Handy shortcuts sometimes give us a sense of common experience that isn’t actually based on common understandings.

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