Ammar Mian

An Essay on How We Tell Stories

As part of an ongoing series of explorations into how things survive.

“Stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”

- Kurt Vonnegut

During the 17th century, Italian polymath Galileo found himself in trouble with the Catholic Church for supporting heliocentrism. Building on the works of Copernicus, Galileo held that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around.

This argument challenged the geocentric view endorsed by the Church. The Roman Inquisitor put Galileo on trial for heresy, and the eccentric scientist spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest.

At least that’s how the story was told in school. Galileo and his telescope became a stale footnote for a history lesson on the separation of Church and State. Or perhaps a tidy introduction to astronomy in science class.

Many years later, I learned that the feud wasn’t even entirely about heliocentrism. That idea had been around for almost a century (an earlier Pope had even used it to reform the calendar). There was enough healthy debate about the scientific validity of heliocentrism that the idea was relatively harmless.

But it was Galileo’s letter to his friend Benedetto Castelli that made the Church livid. A Grand Duchess (apparently out of pure curiosity) asked Castelli if he could gather some more clarification from Galileo on the heliocentric model.

In his reply to Castelli, Galileo not only didn’t back down from heliocentrism, but rather took it a step further: heliocentrism is compatible with Catholicism; perhaps its patrons were wrong in their interpretation of God’s Word given the physical evidence of a heliocentric world. For a Christian to abide by God’s Word, his belief system must align with the divine, immutable laws that God subjects physical reality to.

“For the Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word [...] It was appropriate for the Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth, in appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words.

On the other hand, nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her.”

Somehow, the letter ended up getting widely circulated (you could say it went “viral”). This did not go over well with the politically insecure Pope, who put Galileo on trial for heresy and attempted to censor the publishing and dissemination of his works.

Galileo produced a powerful narrative. He altered the way members of his society saw the world, expanding their imagination beyond the religious possible to the empirical possible. And he used science, logic, and prose to do it. It wasn’t that heliocentrism was so radical -- this idea had already been subject to debate in the scientific community. Rather, it was Galileo’s framing of its implications that was revolutionary.

The Power of Rich Storytelling

“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.”

- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Stories are how we make sense of the life of things. However inadvertently, a story angles to convince you of some reality. Along the way it might just divulge some flavor of truth.

Stories are how we understand isolated phenomena and how we connect these phenomena to the systems from which they emerge. We can only experience an infinitely small subset of the perceivable world at any given moment, and so where we place our attention from moment to moment is what forms our understanding of things. A strong narrative helps us place ourselves in this infinity.

Stories are how we compress our experiences, make sense of them, and then share them with others to see if we missed anything.

Scientific thought is very important in this regard. Through hypothesis testing, measurement, and reproducibility, we gain more confidence in what we see and observe. It is for this reason I think scientists make great storytellers. I haven’t read anything written by Richard Feynman or Geoffrey West that hasn’t been riveting.

Yet scientific thinking is just another form of storytelling, with its own methods and principles. It can grow arrogant in its ability to describe the essence of everything. Some of the deepest truths about our world have been uncovered by storytellers from other paradigms of thoughts: the trumpeter baring his soul in a smoky room, the Sufi caught in a whirling dervish, the sushi chef monotonously beating a stack of seaweed sheets.

Better Storytelling in the Age of Technology

As Peter Thiel has written, the story of technological innovation has been one of new monopolies replacing old ones, and they reach this monopoly status by i) creating value and ii) capturing it. The best businesses are cautious of having their rate of capture exceed their rate of creation.

The prototypical business spends its early hatchling days chaotically creating value and then much of its maturity capturing it more and more efficiently, becoming a cashflow machine. Which might be why many monopolies end up dying as they become more mechanized. In an act of creative destruction, a new hatchling’s chaotic discoveries supplant the Newtonian efficiency of the incumbent.

What are technology businesses anyways other than stories told via techno-economic logic? Google brought to life the story that information need not be siloed by institutions. Facebook brought to life the story that people need not be siloed by physical location. At the time of their arrival, these stories were radical and deemed physically impossible by the old, classical economic order.

As their stories begin to show their inadequacies, new monopolies will arise and supplant these fraying stories with better, more interesting ones. They will probably employ a storytelling logic quite different from those of Google and Facebook. Just as Galileo’s narrative employed science in an era of religion, the stories of the future will employ a paradigm quite at odds with the technocentric ideas of today. Maybe these stories will seem backwards, illogical, unprovable, immeasurable.

And when these wild stories emerge, will we be prepared to listen?

January 2018