If you want a well paid stable career today you do one of two things. You learn to work with computers. Or you learn to tell stories.
On the day I graduated university in 2001, with an allegedly useless degree in Media and Arts, I had precisely zero pounds in the bank. Luckier than today’s generation graduating with minus £50k or more, but it had taken every penny to buy myself a three month break from work to write my dissertation. Now I was skint. And so I did what anyone who knows how to tell a good story does…I got a job in sales.
“story is, to coin a phrase, the operating system of human consciousness”
Any good sales person knows that sales is storytelling. The stories are vaguely related to products, but what people are really paying for are the emotions those products evoke. An Apple laptop makes its owner feel like a member of today’s creative elite, just as those double glazed windows make pensioners feel safe from the noisy world outside. Products evoke these emotions through stories, and it’s the sales person’s job to tailor the story to the customer.
I’ve made a lot of money telling stories over the years, which is how I learned one of life’s great rules…those who can tell a good tale rarely go hungry. Advertising executives. Corporate CEOs. Sales persons. Priests and other spiritual gurus. Politicians. Cosmologists. It’s amazing how many jobs are really about telling a good story. And that’s before we even get to the people who admit that what they do is tell tall tales, those people commonly called “writers”.
Storyteller? Or Liesmith?
In the 60s the hippy radicals of Greenwich Village called all that storytelling “making the lie”. The writer is at least being honest about telling lies. Everyone else is trying to pass off their stories as truth. All these competing narratives get mighty confusing. As I write we’re heading into the final furlong of a United States presidential campaign where both sides agree on only one thing…that the other side is “spinning the narrative”. And it’s true. Elections are the premiere form of storytelling in democratic societies, as billions of dollars are spent on persuading the audience that your candidate’s story is the true story.
He (or she) who controls the narrative, and can conscript the most human minds to believe in their story, controls society. Kings, tyrants and dictators have always known this, that’s why they stamp their authority, literally, on every coin. The word itself, AUTHORITY, means the person who authors the story. The world is a damn big book, with a lot of determined egos fighting to get their name on the cover.
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall is a book about how we came to underestimate story. The thing poets have always known, that story rules the world, is a fact the rest of our culture is only now waking up to. Gottschall brings an edge of empirical credibility, and some of the best evidence from neuroscience, to the task of showing us that story is, to coin a phrase, the operating system of human consciousness. Because just as OSX turns melted sand into a data processor, story turns meat and bone into this creature typing these words.
Artificial Intelligence is stumbling, Frankenstein like, into the world. It’s not going to be better tech that unlocks the full potential of AI, but better story. As we start to understand the role of story in human consciousness, AI researchers are experimenting with how story can make machines conscious. Is it ironic, or simply beautiful, that emergent AIs are being trained to “watch” movies by showing them Blade Runner? If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes. Machines won’t see as we see, but perhaps the true test of AI won’t be if it can hold a conversation, but if it can tell a story.
Storytellers are hackers. The system we’re breaking into is human consciousness, and the programmes we use to do it are films, tv shows, novels, or any other platform that can communicate the rhetoric of story. We can use these techniques to tell fairytales, or craft idle entertainments. But as any good sales person, or politician, or corporate executive knows, stories are at their most powerful when people don’t quite realise that’s what they’re dealing with.
Unpicking the Gordian Knot.
We’ve evolved to believe stories. They cut past our rational senses and splice straight into the emotion centres of our brain. That served us well when the story of the tribe helped bind a few dozen families together. But as our population screams towards 8, 10, 12 billion, our tribal consciousness is barely able to make sense of this strange new world, let alone pick apart the infinity of stories that comprise the Gordian knot of modern society.
If we’re going to liberate ourselves, we need to start recognising story when we see it. We need to have the self awareness to see that the brand values we attribute to our Apple laptops and iPhones are just the product of a fairytale, set in a pristine white room, spun in the comforting vocal tones of Johnny Ive. We need to start admitting to ourselves that it’s not just the other side spinning the narrative, that Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton both are characters in their own dramas, desperate to recruit us to their audience.
But to see, we have to understand. That story isn’t a miracle. Like David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, stories are all smoke and mirrors. Even the greatest stories rely on the same few rhetorical techniques to persuade us of their reality. Learn those techniques and stories lose their power of persuasion. You see the pulleys and levers that make the Wizard of Oz talk. All the spin in the world won’t make a false narrative stick in your mind.
Or of course, learn the rhetoric of story, and you’ll know how to spin your own yarns, tell any tale however tall, and smith the most amazing lies ever seen.