The Frame-Changing Triad

Part 2 of 3 in the series Changing The Frame

We started with the concept of the mental frame, a comparatively rigid & invisible construct which structures and guides nearly all our behaviors. Today, let’s take up the triad of powerful forces that we can use to change frames: community, narrative, and experience.

As ever with me, though considering change in the geek trades is a pleasure, it is not the main story. I remind you that we need change-in-the-world at least as much as we do change-in-the-code or change-in-the-trade. Please join me in thinking and acting outside the monitor.

Black Lives Matter.

As facilitators of change, we engage in a wide variety of activities, all of which are intended to promulgate some change. What is important for us to consider is where any one of those activities sits on the three dimensions community, narrative, and experience.

Every activity sits somewhere along each dimension, but the most powerful frame-changing activities are the ones that have the highest marks in all three at the same time.


How does this new behavior feel when we’re actually doing it?

With this dimension, we’re measuring the extent to which an activity delivers the actual experience of using some new behavior.

One of the flaws in the "rider directs elephant" mythos is its heavy reliance on the transmission of information. Since the rider is supposedly in charge, and the rider is a conscious mind, we suppose we can get to a change by a thorough, orderly, precise, and detailed explanation to that mind.

This idea is largely blind to the simple reality that humans are not brains, they’re bodies, and that we are not abstract study machines, we are animals.

One can study bicycles from many different angles, including their history, their economics, their mechanical ingenuity, their physics, their ecology, their risks, their statistics, really, from almost any angle.

And we can write a detailed "instructions for bike-riding" manual, laying out the mechanics, the decision-points, the algorithms and heuristics, all the steps needed to ride a bicycle.

But in terms of an individual deciding whether or not bike-riding is a good thing to do, that manual won’t even touch the power of actually riding a bicycle down the road.

Experience is the extent to which an activity is closer to riding a bicycle or closer to studying a bicycle.


How does this activity shape what has happened into what will happen?

E.M. Forster wrote that there was a huge difference between "plot" and "story". (He says story where I say narrative.):

"The king died, and then the queen died." That is plot, a simple recitation of events.

"The king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart." That is narrative, an expression of the meaning of those events.

Narratives seem to be about the past, about what has happened, but the meanings they create actually shape the future.

Frames do a great deal of their work by providing pre-built narratives, meanings, and reactions in us. If we want to change a frame, we have to change the narratives that live within it.

In his Sapiens, Yuval Noval Harari lays out a powerful case around a central feature of humans as a species. We live simultaneously in a world of demonstrable physical events & effects and a world of intangible mental events & effects, and to a far greater extent than any other species, both worlds are real to us.

In that latter world, narrative is king. And if the king dies, then the change we seek will most likely also die, of a broken meaning.


How does this activity connect its participants to one another in ways that outlast the activity itself?

Humans rely massively on the humans nearest to them, including in that word "nearest" both physical and psychic distances.

To begin with, we base a substantial portion of our own from on the frames of our nearest. Their words, their concepts, their actions, all of these are models for our own.

But it goes even further than that: we also rely on the people nearby for support, for criticism, for laughter, for interpretation (narrative), rubber-ducking, for managing our sorrow and our jubilation, and for sharing their own.

Humans are profoundly social, and notwithstanding the variations in how much, what kind, and what time we can handle interaction, it’s not a preference, it’s a biological imperative. We are built this way, from the ground up.

Community-building in the technical trades seems especially powerful. Because the existing frame de-values humans and their relationships so heavily, the communities tend to be either weak or sotto voce.

In these settings, even very modest improvements in the strength and health of our community can yield dramatic results.

Did your Mom ever remark, on hearing you say "but everyone else is …", "Well, if everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?"

If you were a wiseass, you might have replied, "I’d be a fool to do any different." If so, you prolly deserved that smack upside the head, but the truth is that you were hitting on a very important point: the power of community in shaping a frame.


Community, narrative, and experience, these are the three great dimensions by which we create, attempt, and assess activities designed to midwife change.

The most powerful activities, like mobbing, for instance, are ones that simultaneously contribute in all three dimensions at once. Of course, we can mix and match various activities to make sure that, in toto, we’re touching all the bases.

As we wind down, let me offer another teaser for the next muse:

Why are we talking about changing frames instead of destroying them?

Seeya next time!

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