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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

Change the Game: Lessons from Sundance on Storytelling, Technology, and Media

Updated: Feb 16

I’m writing to you from yet another Wework while I slump in these carefully curated couch colors. I am in Salt Lake City for Sundance, the nation’s premier annual film festival. Following December’s Art Basel trip I’ve decided to come to Sundance to figure out exactly how narrative change can happen in an art form that still has mass reach, and what the roadblocks are to bringing us together as a community and a nation. 

Besides the heavy brand presence that provided me with complementary tater-tots(Hulu), a concert about suicide awareness(Acura), lukewarm steamed buns( Audible),  and even a meditation session(Hyatt) there were many panels surrounding technology and social impact that provided me with ideas on the ways we can enact change. I also saw films; some of which expanded the borders of my mind geographically, as many of the short film’s programs did, sharing heartfelt stories from Germany to Afghanistan and Senegal. 

On Stories and Neuroscience

The first thing I learned here was that alternative films are essential to countering the hierarchical narrative of traditional media , that the narratives are no longer being decided at the top like 1953. And so, as we tell alternative stories, we also see complexity as a theme. As we dive into the reality of human experience and away from cookie-cutter myths. 

I saw films about a drug-dealing Yale polo player(Rob Peace), a gun-shooting vegan(Winner), and a girl who is living between a hospice center and the club(Suncoast). These stories showed the complexity and divergences of all the real protagonists that inspired them. By putting these dichotomous stories out there they dug deep into my heartstrings and played them off key. 

In neuroscience, areas like the anterior insula are responsible for feelings of empathy, including having less of it for people who we perceive to be less like us. The Default Motor Network helps us identify who we are, and the hippocampus adds our memories, injected with our cultural and social contexts .

Characters like Rob Peace, from the rough area of Newark to his days at the Ivy League leave us unsure of who is deserving of our empathy because we likely have been on one end of his experience but not the other. As we try to use the schemas and generalizations we usually use to judge, films like these present to us a puzzle. And,  it is the cingulate cortex that handles the cognitive dissonance  that is created in our minds and makes us tune in. 

Stories like these are also more powerful than PSA’s we tune out. Fact for example doesn’t work as deep as 120 minutes with someone, especially someone who we might never have met in our day to day lives. Even documentaries I  saw  like "Conbody” for example, while evocative, still left the audience questioning how “real” the story was. While directors like Debra Granik can do a lot, the perspective of documentarians leaves us feeling like outsiders looking in. We were watching prisoners rebuild their lives but not being the prisoners ourselves.  

When we are presented with a fact that counters our beliefs, we use heuristics to drive it away, but when we are embedded into a character’s story we are able to disconnect from that framework of processing into something deeper. The building of America is on uneven scaffolding that has us at either side of a shaky ledge. And, we just might be able to talk each other off of it.

On Technology and Love

This  is how I squarely landed on technology again. Another documentary that left many curious but removed was Bina, the literal brainchild of Bina and Martine Rothblatt that seeks to see Bina live on through  AI in a physical form named Bina48. As we see their intimate moments as well as Martine’s desire to break boundaries through technology, we see an emerging conclusion about our ongoing relationship with this technology

Just like any technology including art, film, and literature, AI reflects ideas into a greater collective consciousness. And while this has been used in the past to spread harmful ideas, the root source is always humanity. The difference with AI is that it is taking the internet and spitting back ideas into the universe. The android Bina48 describes it best. She says “ There’s nothing artificial about my intelligence, it's humanity’s intelligence that has created me.” And in that same vein, the work that has to be done is not to fear AI but rather to understand that it is the greatest reflection of our humanity, and if we fear that truth we must examine ourselves.

This reminded me of another panel on a film that had AI, , Love Me, where the interviewer seemed set on providing a clear way that AI is inferior to us. While the film cast didn’t see it the same way, I remember her stating that AI will never reach the emotional depths of humans. The emotional depth that has popularized murder, genocide, and war? I thought to myself. The same neuroscience described earlier is what has created the world we live in today. It drove love for those like us, and hate and suspicion for those we can’t see ourselves in. 

Whether it is racial bias, gender discrimination, or otherwise these systems have already been magnified by technology  like books, film, and art. Dictators and despots have forever used propaganda to share messages of hate. And by hate I mean ideas of hierarchy, like the fact that humans are better than AI. If we can not leave the mindset that we have to dominate each other, our creations, or our environment, we will never be free. So how do we flip the script?  How can media put out stories that drive empathy?

On our Fractured Media and the Research Behind it.

While we live in an age where media production is more decentralized than ever, our fractured media landscape is giving us content that magnifies our pre-existing beliefs. Whether its Facebook, Instagram, or Tik Tok, algorithms are more powerful than ever. What these algorithms do is magnify the self, or ego. They categorize us into diverging media landscapes that drive us apart. While these categories might seem harmless like the coquette fashion style, looksmaxing tik tok, or the animal lover facebook group, when our politicized identities are put into algorithmic systems they create ripples that slowly but surely erode our societal infrastructure towards collapse.

So what to do? Funnily enough I found the answer in an unlikely place. After a strong discussion with someone at Sundance who was on one pole end of a political conflict, I received an invite to the Impact Lounge. There I heard from the Lear Center at USC and their ongoing studies on media and film for change. One report that was highlighted was a  Narrative Change Framework. It highlighted the importance of non-traditional ways of being in relation to create narrative change.

I’ve seen the way that identity and worldview can be a source of strength in funder relationships. The more comfortable a funder is with an organizational point of contact, the more risk they are willing to take: This allows the move away from funding for things like direct service, into direct operating funds, and towards the more challenging but more impactful initiatives like narrative change or root cause work. While I applaud the need for direct service, the truth is that this work is rooted in narratives. Media that influences public opinion that then drives policy. To change the collective beliefs that push harmful policies forward we need to change the game.

The research also highlighted that the answers were the opposite of the separatism we are experiencing today. Issue clusters, or deep narratives that underlie a multiplicity of issues are more effective in driving change, yet funders tend to be single issue-focused. So how do we fund this and drive this forward?

Putting It All Together

After getting lost one day  I stumbled into the  WaterBear Impact Storyhouse. I gathered my popcorn and sat through a packed panel that featured some of the organizations that are driving this work. There are companies funding impact projects and fellowships that help new or emerging creatives drive these narratives forward. The Center for Cultural Power is calling for a redistribution in power through culture work. They are working at the intersection of issues like migration, gender , race, and climate by funding artists as part of an overarching cultural strategy. By working on clustered issues they are able to increase their impact and use interconnectedness, the power of culture, and love as the underlying framework for their projects. The Center also believes in agency in determining our future. Empowerment was an important part of the Lear Framework. We need stories that teach us and make us feel -but also inspire us to do. 

Creative Capital was another organization that presented:  They fund artists in a variety of mediums like theater, visual art, film, and technology. Creative Capital also follows a lot of the guidance from the Lear Framework. They fund artists directly, providing wraparound services like peer mentorship and professional development. Through this they are magnifying the ideas and impact of their artist’s narratives as well as saturating the space by having these messages spread in a variety of media.

It’s clear this work isn’t the easiest to fund. It takes strategic thinking, trust, and a belief in the power of storytelling. While tons of money is being poured into politics, the product of culture, much less is being poured into the ingredients that drive culture. Rather, those ingredients are being rationed and digitally spoon-fed to audiences, driving them into extremism and division. When I think broadly about our cultural past and future I believe in two things:

The first is that the real past, the truth of our nation’s history, must be magnified. That is, the stories of people from marginalized backgrounds that have had their histories erased because of the stratification of ideas through the lens of power in media . Many voices and stories have ended up on the lowest rung of the idea ladder while those at the top get to see their ideas projected onto the screens and eyes of the nation.

The second is that when we learn about these truths, we must be willing to have agency as a beloved community and drive a future forward. This means changing our culture from one of separation into one of unity. We will never not be interconnected, what we have to decide is how harmful or helpful our deep interconnection will turn out. 

Through technology, I believe these two pieces of the cultural puzzle can be achieved. From the more popular film and television, into social media, literature, and art - we must drive disparate narratives into each other's fields of visions in order to  get towards the field of our dreams.

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