From early man painting on the walls of caves, to the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, to J. K. Rowling writing books that are read in every corner of the globe, humanity has always been a species of storytellers. We are so deeply embedded in our own stories that we often lose sight of this, thinking of ourselves as the rational animal, or the moral animal. But these are parts of larger stories about ourselves; the one thing that is fundamentally human is not rationality or morality. It is our propensity to tell stories.
Characters in an Ongoing Story
Human memories are not stored like computer memory; they are recreated every time we attempt to call upon them. Moreover, they are recreated from the context of our present challenges and perspective. This makes a certain sense from an evolutionary standpoint–the only reason for an animal to have memory at all is to help it solve the problems it faces now and will face in the future.
In practice this means that our vision of our life up until now is always influenced by the story we believe about ourselves at this moment. For all of us think about ourselves as characters in an ongoing story; our life is not just a series of unrelated events but a cohesive plot with threads that run throughout. These threads have implications which influence the choices that we make.
Most of us also see ourselves as part of a much larger story; the story of our family, the story of our community or culture or nation, the story of mankind–and for many, the story of God. I am not a believer in that sense, but it has been my limited experience that feeling as though you are a part of a story much larger than yourself is both humbling and one of the few true paths to satisfaction. Of course, there are also those who devote themselves to larger causes and leave nothing for themselves–my story of the good life requires avoiding too much myopia and at the same time making sure not to give away too much of yourself.
Coherence is not Correctness
If called upon to explain something, especially our own actions, we will come up with a story that makes sense to us even if it quantifiably has nothing to do with reality. The fact that a story appeals to us does not make it accurate, even if it is internally consistent.
The past year–never mind the rest of the current economic downturn–has seen an enormous amount of imaginative storytelling in the economics community. In January, Tyler Cowen came out with The Great Stagnation, in which he described the current state of our economy as in a slowdown after a period of tremendous innovation and before another such period. Though Cowen is a libertarian himself, much of the criticism has come from libertarians who feel that The Great Stagnation contradicts their Schumpeterian story of markets feverishly generating innovation.
More recently, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee came out with Race Against the Machine, in which they argue that innovation has actually been accelerating and the problem is that machines are replacing people in many low-skill occupations and entrepreneurs have yet to figure out what new tasks those people can be productively put back to work doing. Arnold Kling tells a similar story, calling it variously the Recalculation Model and Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade.
This debate between Brynjolfsson and Cowen is an excellent example of the difficulty in making a case for one story over another. Both individuals are very smart and extremely well versed in the literature and the data on the subject under discussion. Both employ statistics from official and academic sources. But statistics in and of themselves mean nothing–unemployment, for instance, is simply a number that the Bureau of Labor Statistics arrives at by conducting a survey of a subset of the population and then plugging the results into their statistical models. For the number to have any meaning, we have to have a story about the process that generated it–a story based on assumptions about meaningful sample sizes and what exactly unemployment is–not to mention why we should care.
Cowen has a story that involves, among other things, median income. Brynjolfsson came prepared with a story about why median income did not make the point that Cowen believed it did. Cowen came prepared with a story about why Brynjolfsson’s productivity statistics did not mean what he argued that they did. Seen as a struggle between contradicting narratives, the whole thing is really fascinating.
I find Brynjolfsson’s story much more appealing than Cowen’s, but both are perfectly coherent. Neither their appeal nor their coherence is really any help in figuring out if either of them are true.
Science is Storytelling
Science is a body of theories, and a theory is just a story about some specific aspect of the world we live in.
I think people tend to bristle when I say this because they think the implication is that science is as subjective as aesthetic taste, but that is not what I am saying. There is such a thing as a true story, or at least stories that are more or less accurate than one another. The fact that something is a story does not automatically relegate it to the same status as Little Red Riding Hood and general make believe.
What sets science apart from other bodies of stories is the powerful processes it has for filtering the more accurate and testable theories from those that are inferior in either or both regards.
Of course there are those who argue that science really is no different from fictional storytelling; but I find it hard to take this point of view seriously. Call my crazy, but I don’t think airplanes or the computer I’m typing this on came from nowhere.
Social Media is Storytelling
As people increasingly cluster into shared digital spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit, we are getting increasingly exposed to other people’s stories. This includes literally the ongoing stories of people’s lives–as they get married, graduate, or simply have breakfast–but also the stories that other people have invested in. From political ideologies to religious beliefs to celebrities’ lives, we are both connecting with others on the basis of which stories we have in common and getting exposed to the stories of people we’ve already connected with.
The idea that the internet would result in “daily me” or “filter bubble” silos where we’re only ever exposed to what we want to be exposed to is the complete opposite of what is actually happening. The reality is that it is getting harder to avoid being exposed to a family member’s politics, or a friend’s interest in subject matter we find boring or offensive, or any subject that we want to avoid, without avoiding the internet entirely.
Just look at what happens when one story blows up and overshadows another that some people care about. People get angry and frustrated because the fact that others do not share their priorities means that the story they care about gets a lot less attention.
Adapting to life after the great digital migration will require more of a tolerance for being exposed to stories we may have no interest in or have a reflexive hostility towards.
Confession of a Story Hoarder
Storytelling is as close as I come to having something like religion. I love people’s stories; the stories of their lives and the stories they tell to make sense of this crazy and confusing world that we live in. Though I do not believe in the divine, a part of me enjoys the idea of one great storyteller who is writing all of this as we go along. I have a terrible memory for just about everything, but I will always remember your story if you choose to share it with me.
Without being pushy about it, I don’t think anyone should be afraid to share their stories. That’s what human life is all about! It’s how we connect with one another, it’s how we find meaning.
That’s all I have for this particular story. Hope you found it worth the time it took to read it.