Stories of Emotion as the World Shuts Down

The following is adapted from part of a conversation with Aditi Khorana, Lisa Gill, and Virginie Glaenzer as part of the Pass The Mic series from AcornOak.

It seems ages ago that our stories about future seemed to be dictated by digital technology. Ray Kurzweil promised us The Singularity. Rana el Kaliouby promised us computers with emotions. VR headsets were going to be on our faces all the time.

All that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reacquaint ourselves with the urgency of the physical world. We yearned for toilet paper rather than new technologies. There was no emotionally-aware artificial intelligence to save us from the grinding desperation of isolation from other human beings. We are wearing cloth masks when we go out, not VR headsets.

We have seen how the power of data mining falls apart when basic human social networks are neglected. Quantum supercomputers have failed to bring us a vaccine, or even adequate treatment for COVID-19. In the age of the coronavirus, we are relying on digital technology to get by, but the technology is just a tool, not a hero that saves the day.

The Search for New Stories

Suddenly, the fantasies of data-driven utopias that dominated the early years of the 21st century have become irrelevant. People are grasping for new stories to tell, ones that feel connected with the disorientation of life under a pandemic that drags on and on with no end in sight.

None of us know how the crisis is going to end, but we can’t remain in ignorance for much longer. In order to stay sane, and to keep our societies from falling apart, we need to make plans for how to get out of this mess, and how to persevere in the meantime. We need to construct new frameworks of meaning that don’t require us to rely upon elaborate counting machines to rescue us.

Data-driven digital technologies offer us the worst kinds of stories, the kinds of stories that tell us all about the factual details of what’s happening, but with no sense of purpose, no motivating passion to help us transcend our daily struggles, give us hope, or even show us the meaning in our fear. If we only go with the data, we can see patterns, but we don’t know what they mean.

In our search for new stories to match the strange new reality 2020 has brought us, we need to turn back to the heart of our humanity, to the subjective experience that keeps us moving forward when the facts of the situation seem hopeless. When we can’t know the objective reality of the challenges we face, we need to learn how to tend our emotions again.

Emotions are stories. They’re very frameworks for the interpretation of the facts that surround us in order to give relevance to the data, to provide us with meaning.

We can’t choose the reality that we live in, but we can choose our emotional response to that reality. We must learn to choose wisely, because our emotions tell us the story of whether we should be hopeful because everything in our lives has changed and we’ve lost everything, and that’s an opportunity, or whether because we’ve lost everything and everything has changed, we should despair.

The challenges of life under COVID-19 have brought the wisdom of Victor Frankl to mind. Every day we struggle to find the emotional story about what’s happening around us, realizing that, although we can’t know what’s going to happen next, we need to stay on our feet. Victor Frankl taught that despair is suffering minus meaning. We are going to have suffering in life. It’s inevitable. If we can find meaning within that suffering, we can chart a path forward that doesn’t lead us to despair.

There isn’t any app that can do this work for us. No delivery bot will arrive with a package of purpose pre-prepared for our consumption. There is no algorithm capable of deriving meaning from our pain.

The story of the moment is a tale of the reawakening of human experience. In a world that seems to be falling apart, we are the ones who will have to do the work of putting it back together again.




Using thick consultation & qualitative research to pursue a human vision of commerce, emotional motivation, symbolic analysis & ritual design

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Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook

Using thick consultation & qualitative research to pursue a human vision of commerce, emotional motivation, symbolic analysis & ritual design

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