Book note: On the origin of stories

Why do we spend so much time with stories? Is it just an accident, or is this behavior with deep evolutionary roots? Brian Boyd argues in On The Origin of Stories that our love for stories has evolved and serves several different important purposes. He rejects the simplistic explanation that story telling is simply a way to preen and prance, and so such be seen as a classical mating signal (although it is tempting and somewhat funny to see the self-consuming artist as trying to signal that he or she is so fit that they can live a destructive life, and hence should be a perfect mate). Instead, he notes that stories allow us to explore the adjacent possible and to examine the future through different scenarios. This in itself is enough for stories to have paid their evolutionary dues, but Boyd goes on to also show how they can carry core cultural memes and behaviours that are important in our culture (like punishing cheaters or recognizing the death spiral of revenge).

Art, in Boyds telling, becomes patterned cognitive play – and he has a fascinating discussion about patterns that shows how clearly pattern recognition is at the very heart of human cognition – or at least constitutes a very important part of it (some would argue, and Boyd does not seem to directly disagree, that it is the capacity to recognize and project one pattern as another in analogy that really sets us apart in our cognition. The bird cannot see an unknown predator analogically). This play is crucial to us, it has deep value in itself, and one comment in the book really drives this home: primates taught to paint become uninterested in doing so if they do it for a reward – their real payoff is in the play itself, and if left without any pay out they truly become passionate (a crude argument for letting artists starve could be construed from this insight, but would be mistaken: play presupposes that our basic needs are covered).

Boyd’s points are extremely important, and the book outlines the surprisingly narrow frames narrative can move within. If narrative partly is there to convey evolutionary insights that are cultural in nature (such as the importance of punishing cheaters in social games), we cannot shift narratives easily unless we also operate in that narrow biological and evolutionary frame. This is something to think about for those professionally tasked with ”changing the narrative” — and suggests that the question is if the evolutionary tale you can tell is stronger than the one you are trying to change.

All in all, narrative emerges as a core pattern in all of society (supporting our earlier model of lobbyism as consisting of pattern, narrative and story) and Boyd then provides two interesting examples of what he calls ”evo-criticism” to support the hypothesis. He delivers plausible and interesting readings of Odysseus as well as Horton hears a Who in a way that highlights his points well.

One thing that in the book that I found fairly quickly dealt with was the role of narrative as an information bearer. Narration seems to me to be a supremely effective information compression algorithm — there is so much that can be compressed into a narrative, and once we know it we can use it as a ”script” to project into a wealth of scenarios. Narrative compresses and stores knowledge in a format that is easy to transmit and integrate in the human mind (we are hard-coded for narrative). This also limits narrative in the sense that if the projections or predictions we have been coded to do on a narrative need to be changed, it will take time and a lot of effort.

All in all a great read, and an important addition to the reading list for a philosphy of lobbyism.

Speech and democracy: discovery, deliberation and design

If we study the question of free speech closely, it is only natural to try to understand what the function or purpose of speech in society is. At first glance at least two such purposes can be discerned. One is discovery – the ability to discover new ideas and solutions to problems, new art and new expression. This purpose is well served by ”a marketplace of ideas” and has strong roots in US thinking (I am allowing myself a simplification). The second purpose is deliberation – the use of speech to find balance and a way forward in complex social issues. This is the role speech plays in the public sphere as it is portrayed in Habermas. This could be said to be more of a continental European perspective.

If we accept this view we find that there actually exists a tension within the right to free speech, a point at which Discovery and deliberation come into deep conflict. If we strengthen discovery to the point where, to speak with Dave Weinberger, we find that for every fact there is a supposed counterfact, then deliberation devolves into emotional debate.

Simone Weil saw this tension clearly. In her work The Need for roots she suggested that society needs an arena where anything can be said, but at the same time society needed to exact accountability if anything was really intended. She acknowledges the legal challenge in determining the distinction, but remained convinced this was the only way to build a robust public sphere.

Enter technology. Here is one theory of what technology has meant for the evolution of the institution of speech: what the information and communication technology revolution has done is that it has enhanced discovery by orders of magnitude while scarcely doing anything for deliberation. The result is that speech is collapsing into desinformation, fake news and echo chambers of different kinds.

The response so far has been predictable: regulate discovery! Prohibit misinformation and force diversity of views, hold all mechanisms of discovery responsible. There may be value in this, but it is at the same time surprising how little has been done to strengthen deliberation. How weak the response has been in really considering what we want speech to look like in the future. The only answer here has been an increased protection of already established institutions like newspapers, arguing that they host the quality journalism that can underpin deliberation. Yet, empirical evidence suggests that they have not been able to do this – in fact, they have been sidelined as ”main stream media” and rendered ineffectual.

Now, we may not agree with this sketched out theory, or find it much too simplified, but it probably describes at least a part of the challenge in a coarse-grained way. But there is an additional trend that is interesting here, and that is the increasing ability we have to design speech at scale. Whereas the production of individual speech, with, say, a bot is almost trivial, most propaganda still mostly relies on producing such individually designed speech at scale — running botnets that simulate popular opinion in different ways. With the increased amount of data available, and some ingenious application of machine learning, we could imagine an actor deciding instead to start from the top down and start designing states of the public sphere. What kinds of actors should say what for as certain state of the public sphere to be achieved? That is increasingly a solvable problem. So if we imagine a world of designed speech and a designed debate, we see that the regulation of discovery as at best meaningless and at worst harmful: it risks creating a situation where individual bots and misinformation is replaced by plausible lies and collective design of speech.

The real antidote to this is more likely to lie in the strengthening of deliberation mechanisms. It is far from clear how this can be achieved, however — and this is a large part of the challenge going forward. We have moved as a society from protecting speech to a position in which we have to protect deliberation. If we now imagine a right to deliberation, rather than a right to expression or speech, we end up with a new set of interesting problems.

Privacy and identity – a note

The philosophy of privacy is another project that has occupied my for quite some time. It is a complex are and at the same time a well-explored one. As we begin to look closer at this I need to set out some of the basic questions that I have been thinking about. Some of them are trivial, for sure, and others controversial, but we must start somewhere – and this note is a way to look at the subject from a 10 000 meters height, look at the landscape and try to seek contours of the discussion that will follow. Some of the ideas in here will be familiar to those I have discussed this with, so it also serves as a kind of stage setting for the discussions to come.

Wittgenstein speaks in several different places about the real duration of certain experiences. Pain, for example, has real duration in the sense that it has a beginning and an end, and it makes sense to ask about it if you are feeling it “now”. Other concepts lack these qualities and emerge as it were from a tapestry of actions and events — such as sorrow.

As we examine the modern concepts of technology policy to better understand them this distinction is interesting. When we look at a concept like privacy, we can ask if it is more like pain or more like sorrow — if there is really a feeling of privacy or if privacy is a concept that emerges from the tapestry of everyday life in some way.

The answer may seem trivial – it makes no sense to say that privacy starts and ends or that I have it “now”. It is more like sorrow than it is like pain, in the distinction Wittgenstein has in mind here.

Now, in itself this is not a huge insight. To argue that privacy is a concept that is threaded together of a series of smaller feelings with “echte dater” does highlight something important about the concept as such, however. It tells us that privacy is produced through a multitude of interactions and negotiations across a plurality of actors.

And it suggests that these negotiations are about something.

I want to suggest that they are about identity.

The relationship between identity and privacy is important to examine in order to better understand the overall language game we are engaging in when we speak of privacy issues. Here we can draw on another observation that Wittgenstein makes in, I believe, the work On certainty. Here is suggests that the idea that we can start from a position of doubt – the Cartesian position – is simply false. Doubt is only possible where there is belief, and without belief doubt as a concept makes no sense. Pretending to doubt everything simply means wilfully ignoring the basic make up of the language game of doubt and belief.

I would argue that privacy and identity has a similar relationship. Any discussion about privacy that has been disconnected from a discussion about identity is inherently meaningless. Privacy is the negotiation of identity across our plurality of actors through many small interactions. There are, then, in a very real sense conceptual boundaries of privacy – we cannot imagine total privacy anymore than we can imagine, say a private language, since someone who acknowledges no identity through that negotiation has no privacy, but simply lacks identity.

Lacking identity and having privacy is not the same thing.

As we examine the notion of a negotiation of identity as the core of the concept of privacy, we also must ask what those small interactions are that we are negotiating through. Here we could draw on the work of Ricoeur and argue that identity is made up of narratives, and so privacy is the negotiation of identity through a multitude of narratives. All privacy is narrative privacy, in a sense.

This highlights why privacy is so difficult an issue to deal with — since it ultimately is about the right to control narratives that produce identity. Privacy rights are ultimately rights that determine who gets to tell what story about you, in a sense. Those stories then have a very real impact on you, on your ability to act and your overall autonomy. As we are defined by narratives it would seem logical to argue that we should have complete control over our narratives, over the stories told about us.

But that ignores the nature of identity.

We should study, much more in detail, how identity is produced. In one reading of Heidegger identity is strewn in the eyes of the others, and we are constructed from their gazes — which means that as we form an identity we use the same narratives that we then try to manage to acquire the identity we need to be autonomous. Without the lack of privacy as our identity is formed, we would have no identity to negotiate around.

Identity is not inherent, not private in its origin. It starts out shared, and then we try to acquire control over that narrative through the practices of privacy.

I have suggested elsewhere that there are several different ways of controlling that narrative, and toyed around with the notion of Nietzschean privacy — building on the terse observation from Nietzsche that to speak much of oneself is also to hide oneself. The core idea in Nietzschean privacy is that we can control the narrative by either limiting or multiplying it. If the stories around me are so many as to make any simple parsing of them into identity impossible, I have a kind of privacy that seems very different from the privacy I can build by controlling a scarce space of narratives around my identity.

One is an emergent pattern from the tapestry of life – my privacy, my identity is the signal produced by the pattern. But I can also increasingly reduce that signal to noise and use that to disappear.
Increasingly, I noted, this will be the more efficient way of negotiating identity; dissolving it in noise.

Catastrophe, pandemic and social uncertainty

The newspaper coverage of the Chinese corona virus is heating up and the stock markets across Asia are shuddering. The threat of a global pandemic based on a SARS-like virus has become orders of magnitude more likely as we now seem to have confirmation of person to person transmission of the virus. There is no way to assess the possible consequences of such a pandemic today, but the sense of threat is palpable. It adds to the overall social uncertainty that we are living in.

Social uncertainty is an interesting concept and important to understand in exploring the philosophy of lobbyism. If we return to the conceptual model in the last post – one in which narratives are grouped in patterns and told in stories – social uncertainty can be constructed as an inability to make a pattern out of several conflicting narratives. There is no single majority set of narratives governing the overall understanding of the society we are in. The lack of a pattern, however, also gives rise to a pattern – and this is the Hobbesian pattern of life as nasty, brutish and short.

A society in a hobbesian pattern will be difficult to change — it simply does not have the memory nor the future to develop, but will oscillate the status quo in different ways. Our world today is increasingly that world – a world without memory, as the past is dissolved in a disregard for fact and deep relativism and a world without a future as the different possible paths into the future all seem equally impossible and possible at the same time. The future is consumed by the complexity of the present.

Catastrophe then becomes attractive because it is a focal point for the social imagination. It is a great simplifier, and one of the core impulses of a society in a hobbesian pattern is the will to simplicity. I have argued elsewhere that this is what is driving the development of the post-apocalyptic genre in our time: the apocalypse is a collapse, as defined by the thoughtful analysis of Joseph Tainter: a rapid simplification (See Tainter’s seminal The Collapse of Complex Societies). We no longer need to care about globalized economics and migration and technology and … we simply need to survive.

In a hobbesian pattern the catastrophe becomes attractive. And some of this can be sensed in the reporting about the Chinese corono-virus. There is an undercurrent of a will to apocalypse or catastrophe that is quite fascinating to follow.

A pandemic is not an absorption barrier, however, and is unlikely to lead to complete collapse — it will be a shock to the system, but not the end of the game. At least not a pandemic flowing from this particular corona virus. But in the set of narratives around the pandemic we find the narrative of The End, and it inspires a certain political style of thinking. One in which the world is slowly deteriorating into chaos, and where the only acceptable alternative is to reverse time and seek to get back to the safe ground of yesterday.

That opens vectors of change that are deeply conservative or xenophobic, focusing on eliminating all agents of change in the name of minimizing risk. A society caught in a hobbesian pattern will seek simplicity in the past, in throwing out migrants and in deep identity narratives around nationality, or worse, fictive concepts like ”race” and ”creed”.

The first task of a lobbyist is to try to identify the core thematic patterns of her time, and see how they are weighted against each-other. One of the most important patterns to study in our time is probably the hobbesian one. As we do so, it is important to keep a number of different distinctions in mind. One of them is that hobbesian does not equate to dystopian. A dystopia is a story about the worst of all worlds, but it is a story told under certainty. A hobbesian set of narratives imply that there is no certainty and what will follow is, instead, a war of everyone against everyone else. It is a story of an unravelling without an endpoint – whereas the dystopias all have a center of gravity in a certain pattern of oppression or destitution.

Neither is it about optimism or pessimism. It is not about a belief that things will turn out great or turn out badly for us, it is about a third category rooted in uncertainty, in not knowing how things will turn out and seeking to minimize exposure to catastrophe – to pandemics, to stock market crashed, to terrorism. Perhaps it is about fear.

There is a great difference between believing that the world is ending and that the world is unravelling. An unravelling world, paradoxically, offers great opportunity for political change – but the core element of the change that now opens up is simplicity. For actors that depend on the continued growth of social complexity and interaction, a hobbesian pattern is deeply challenging.

Patterns, narratives and stories

One of the philosophical projects that interests me is sketching out of the conceptual foundations for government affairs, or, what is more commonly known as ”lobbyism”. Lobbyism comes with a faint odor of the inappropriate, but as a discipline it is involved with some of the most fundamental and interesting questions about human nature, society and politics — and so certainly offers a very valuable area for philosophical study and inquiry.

Auditorium Hotel Lobby 
Architect: Adler & Sullivan (1881-1895)

Lobbyism – I will use that term interchangeably with government affairs – is a craft that seeks to effect political and social change in a society. As a craft it remains agnostic about what the basic building blocks of that society is, what kinds of mechanisms or institutions make up the society, and only concentrates on the question of change. Whereas most classical political philosophy has been focused on the conditions and nature of a perfect state or political order, lobbyism cares little for perfection and instead is interested in only how any given political order – however imperfect – can be changed. Lobbyism is also uninterested in the nature of that change – it does not seek to establish that one political order or state of affairs is better than another in itself, but is merely interested in the question of how one state of affairs can be changed into another.

Lobbyism is ethically as well as politically agnostic.

Rhetoric, or persuasion, is but one of the means of lobbyism. The closest to a traditional study of lobbyism or the conceptual foundations of lobbyism is the work we find on rhetoric, however, so we will return to that often in our investigations. As we study rhetoric we will have reason to make an observation that pertains to the above, however. Socrates, through Plato, derides the sophists as immoral because they did not care about what their pupils persuaded others of. Gorgias, in Plato’s telling, lacked moral standing and character. The same criticism has been levied against lobbyists over the years. They have been seen as morally ”empty” and perhaps even evil. This is a simple confusion: just because lobbyism is agnostic about the state of affairs and the moral impact of change, does not mean that the individual lobbyist needs to be.

It is not a contradictio in adjecto to be a moral lobbyist. Today, of course, most of the moral-minded lobbyists prefer to call themselves ”activists” or some such term, but the reality is that they are practitioners of the same art as any corporate government affairs specialist. And they are often more effective, because they are not held back by the organizational complexity that a corporation accrues over time. Nevertheless, it is important that this be said at the outset of this project, since the practice of lobbyism, government affairs and activism is likely to raise moral issues at the outset — and some of these issues are important (and we will return to them), but the main gist of this project is setting out the conceptual foundations for the field and thinking about how it can be developed more in depth.

One proposal that I want to explore more in depth is to use the concepts pattern, narrative and story to explore the conceptual foundations of lobbyism. I propose to say that patterns are basic social facts, social phenomena that we can generalize from different societies or social contexts. We will then continue and argue that narratives are specific, instantiated patterns and lastly that stories are narratives as they are told. The relationship between narrative and story is largely analogous with that we find with Saussure between langue and parole [See Wikipedia].

One example of this conceptual model could then be something like this.

We find in many societies a suspicion of large organizations – this pattern is recurrent through-out many societies and is the sum total of a number of narratives. When we study our society we see a fear of large companies, such as large pharmaceutical companies or technology companies – or banks – this narrative recurs historically. ”The banks have become too big too fail” is a story that we have seen in the press and that is frequently retold in everyday discourse.

There are many weaknesses in this model (as there are in all models), but we will continue to explore it. Even if it fails, I think it can fail in interesting ways. One reason to think so is that the idea of specific patterns, narratives and stories effectively outline the space of possible change in our conceptual foundations. If we believe that we are caught in a distinct pattern and consequently in a narrative, well, then that narrative determines the space of possible changes that we can accomplish. A narrative is not arbitrary and the change from one narrative to another is not arbitrary.

That last point is important. Look at today’s tech companies. They are moving through a chain of narratives: they started out in the honeymoon of the entrepreneur; everyone wanted to be seen with them, understand them and praise them for innovation and disruption. Then they quickly grew and became successful and entered what we can call the long dark night of antitrust; a time of trying legal battles and deteriorating public reputation. From this stage they can then evolve in several different ways, including evolving as a persistent innovator or entering the heat death of consultancy. But one thing they cannot do is to return to the honeymoon of the entrepreneur. All narrative and all patterns have entropy – they rarely shift into reverse.

One possible key insight that flows from this is that in many cases (not all) lobbyist should not try to battle a narrative as unfair or malicious, but either prolong it where it is useful or hasten it into the next narrative. Thinking about the next narrative is a key challenge for anyone engaged in lobbyism, as it is often very, very hard.

An interesting example of this sequence is given by Microsoft, who some have argued passed through all of these stages – then balanced on a knife’s edge between the heat death of consultancy and evolving into a persistent innovator and then shifted into a fourth stage: that of a responsible wise elder statesman bridging the worlds of technology and politics.

This highlights another key fact about patterns and narratives. A narrative exists within a larger pattern. In economics we would say that lobbyism is an n-person game, but as we look at the conceptual foundations of our craft it is more accurate to say that a narrative is limited by the macro pattern that it exists in. It is easier to be an elder statesman in an environment where there are young companies possible perceived to be more volatile and careless. The narratives in a macro-pattern reinforce and augment each-other in different ways.

This notion, the idea of a macro-pattern, raises an interesting question around the definition of a pattern. I increasingly have come to think that patterns are sets of narratives that are integrated in different ways – enabling and / or canceling each-other out. The study of patterns – the set of narratives operating on any issue we are interested in – may suggest that rather than changing a specific narrative we are worried about we may want to strengthen an alternative narrative that cancels the first one out.

MacDonalds has tried that in a campaign that they have run in what seems to be a fairly efficient way: they are aware of the fact that they are seen as a ”big US company” and they have decided, it seems, to lean into the narrative of bigness, by noting that they are ”big enough to make a difference” and so refocusing the public attention and discourse on their charitable initiatives. This is a pattern approach — looking at the sum total set of narratives and strengthen the positive ones rather than battling the negative ones.

Why, then, is it so bad to try to fight back against what one perceives to be an unfair narrative? Simply because of this very basic fact: you are not allowed to within the narrative – the narrative has set out a role for you as the crook or bad guy, and no matter what you do those actions will be interpreted through the narrative lens. Narratives exist to reduce complexity, and they excel at this important task. Fighting a narrative from within that narrative produces complexity that is quickly negated by the narrative itself.

Let’s digress into popular narrative to examine the point. Take Lord of The Rings. Sauron cannot convince us himself that he will be a benign ruler if he just gets that blasted ring. Or Star Wars. The emperors plan for the galaxy, told by the emperor, will always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Darth Vader can only be redeemed through the re-emphasizing of the pattern, the sum of narratives, in which the narrative around Darth Vader as Anakin Skywalker gains ground and the pattern as a whole is re-weighted to the point where we forgive, or accept, that he murdered a class room of young jedi children. Many companies and organizations in the role of Darth Vader are arguing vehemently that they are not evil, but there is no Anakin-narrative to back them up. And the reaction is predictably cynical and reminds us of princess Leia at the start of A New Hope.

So, let us recap. Patterns are sums of narratives told in stories. Lobbyism is – to a significant part – the craft of managing, changing, chaining and sequencing narratives through stories in patterns. That is a start — but there is much more to do here for us to sketch out the conceptual foundations this field so badly deserves.