A Better Story

I learned a new phrase last week: Blackberry prayer. I was visiting my family in Southern California and my brother and I were talking about new communications technologies, the phenomenon of texting in particular. He described this scene to me. A group of teenage boys—fresh from a soccer game—pile into a parent’s car. The boys immediately break out their electronic devices and, assuming the Blackberry prayer position, began texting each other in the car as well as others not present. In complete silence.

It so happens that I’m reading about hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari in Southern Africa and their skill at tracking. A remarkable thing about the Kalahari men and women is that they can tell not only that someone has passed through an area but they can tell who exactly it was. The scientist doing the interviews marveled at this. These folks just laughed. It would be remarkable for one of them not to be able to know who had passed, when, and what they were up to.

The researcher argues that one reason for this ability as compared to people in more technology-intense industrialized cultures is that the people of the Kalahari have far less information coming at them. I don’t think that’s quite right. What is true is that what comes at us in industrialized cultures is certainly intense, but the trackers of the Kalahari also have a lot of information to attend to and act on. The principal difference, it seems to me, is the relationship between the source of the information and the people it affects.

For me, one of the most disturbing things about the Blackberry prayer is that those boys are detached from their immediate environment in a profound way. On the other hand, the Kalahari trackers are very much present in their immediate environment.

This is not Romanticism nor yearning for the simple life nor in praise of pre-industrial cultures. Under the right circumstances, a Kalahari child brought up in Southern California with those other boys would quite naturally assume the Blackberry prayer. Why is that?

While I was in Southern California, I watched some commercial television. In letting it wash over me, I recognized what was happening. The program and the commercials were telling me stories. One way to understand a story is that it tells us how things are, how they’re supposed to be, and how they shouldn’t be. They are depictions of desirable and undesirable ways of life. Depending on our demographic, we are or are not drawn to imitate them.

The trackers of the Kalahari are not taught. They learn by observing and imitating. They learn through storytelling. No one declares a right or wrong way of tracking. If someone tries, they’re ridiculed. There are no experts, even though there are trackers who are acknowledged to be better than others. The contrast with the boys in Blackberry prayer is that each tracker has a command of the technology of tracking and a command of the information provided by his or her environment.

News from last week includes these items. The drug maker Novartis was just fined $422.5 million for off-label marketing, which means its sales force actively encouraged physicians to use drugs for purposes that were not approved by the FDA. Another drug maker, GlaxoSmithKline covered up its research about its diabetes drug Avandia that is estimated to have caused 83,000 heart attacks. The Environmental Protection Agency is reversing a Bush era policy and reopening investigations into perchlorate in drinking water. Perchlorate is a byproduct of jet fuel manufacture and is toxic. The Federal Communications Commission removed guidelines from its website on cellphone safety. It now simply says that any cellphone approved by the FCC is safe, consistent with the policy of the cellphone industry.

Drugs, jets, and cellphones: our way of life is unimaginable without them. Or so we’re told.

Do these news items illustrate how a lack of information puts us at risk? Or do they instead illustrate how we are put at risk by a way of life where those who provide for our needs have very strong incentives to keep us uninformed?

We really know very little about the world that’s manufactured for us and coming at us with great urgency. Those that manufacture our world want us ignorant and uninvolved. Our assigned roles are user, client, customer, consumer, buyer. It’s a frightening story. We need a better one.