Thursday, March 8, 2012

Storytelling Is the Most Important Human Activity, Ever

Since the dawn of the humanity that we now recognize, progress has been part of life. If you were a Mesopotamian farmer tucked away in the deep recesses of the BCE years, progress may have been so slow as to present you with an illusion of constancy. If you're my son or daughter, it will likely be so quick that it becomes background noise, like the motion of a plane on an intercontinental flight. We've tamed a good chunk of the elements, cured a load of diseases, and can reliably deliver either three pizzas or a month's worth of internet connection to many locations and for the same price.

We got there by telling stories. It may appear that we got here by doing science to things, refining our beliefs and moral codes, and creating political change, but those are all just flavors of storytelling. It's what humans do, and it's why we are so prolific. In fact, it's pretty much all humans do.

CC license, by Scholastic, Inc.

Politics is the easy example: Both wide-sweeping changes and small-scale elections depend upon narratives to function. The U.S. Declaration of Independence contains a number of narratives that shaped the Revolution, but it was in turn built upon the narratives of a number of colonists who felt they were getting a raw deal. (Those narratives, or a version thereof, are still taught in US History courses from K to 12.) Elections depend upon narratives, too, and this much should be obvious. Candidates tell stories about what they will do, what the city, county, state, or nation should do. And they get elected based on how well the narratives they tell, and the narratives told about them, thrive.

Science, however, is also all about the narrative. The scientific method requires experimentation, precisely because it wishes to produce useful narratives, which describe things that appear to be constant and accurate to a standardized human perception of the world. We've long idealized experimentation as the heart and soul of science, but it is the narrative constructed around the experiment—the story—that makes science available and useful to the whole of humanity. Newton did extensive experimentation on the effects of gravity, but it is the apocryphal narrative of his apple that sticks in the collective memory.

Religion, too, of course. If you're a skeptic, you believe that religion is a set of narratives created by man to explain the inexplicable. If you're a believer, it's that God delivered narratives to man in order to help us imagine the unimaginable. Either way, the story is foremost.

And so on. Mathematics consists of narratives about abstract concepts, presented in a symbolic language. Art often uses a literal narrative to communicate a figurative narrative, and identifying that figurative narrative is part of (if not most of) the joy of artistic endeavor.

Our economy, and therefore the quality of life we enjoy, depends almost entirely upon the narratives we tell: the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell the rest of the world, and the ones told and believed by every other human being on the planet. Belief, or conviction, the state of holding a narrative as truth, is the most important force in our world. Affecting beliefs is a huge human responsibility, as is adopting them.

In our modern world, ideas spread very quickly. Narratives shared through the Internet are often adopted and propagated very quickly, with the potential for drastic change to the human universe literally overnight.

It is very important that we exercise wisdom in sharing narratives of any sort, and rigorously examine the narratives we have chosen to accept.

1 comment:

  1. This one time, I ordered two pizzas because I was hungry. I ate them, but I should have ordered three.

    Don't tell me that's not a narrative worth sharing.