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Stories As Models

All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives - that blood. I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we’ll all become stories

— Margaret Atwood

I’ll start today with an excerpt from a series of short stories I’ve been developing softly and slowly for the past six years called “The Stories We Tell”.

Crushed between this need to feel and yearning to be felt exists the true human that you are, who is ceaselessly beat into submission depending, quite truly, on which shoulder your devil should choose to perch.

The only thing that matters at the end of the day is the voice of this devil, for taken over a lifetime, this, becomes the story you tell.

And what is culture, what is civilization, if not a compounded and expanded set of stories? Yours. Mine. Ours.

This world is a chapter book. And our lives together — the stories we tell.

Stories have power. Narrative drives understanding. It drives alignment, purpose and, in a somewhat circular manner — reality itself.

One of the fundamentally interesting things about stories is that they are not required to have any grounding in reality or truth but can affect the world around us in ways the truth never could.

A great example is this motivational video that’s become almost cliche. In it, you’re posed the following thought experiment — Imagine you woke up from a coma today, this minute, with no memory of your past life. The person standing by your bedside, after the requisite crying and hugging, tells you that you that used to be a Navy SEAL and they want you back now that you’re awake. How would you see yourself? How would your life be different? Now imagine they told you that you used to be a teacher, how would your perception of yourself change? How would your actions, the way you carry yourself, your internal monologue all change?

Does it matter if you were not a teacher before? Or a Navy SEAL?

Aside from the fact that lying to a comatose patient is a fucked up thing to do, the parable illustrates the power of labels.

Labels are simply compressions of stories (which can vary wildly depending on the audience). And stories are compressions/models of reality (which need have no grounding in the truth).

I’ve been told I write in riddles so simplifying the above — a label is nothing more than a highly compressed story.

A one-word story if you will.

Your understanding of the “narrative” of a label stems directly from your lived experience. The label “police officer” means vastly different things to different people in different contexts.

Similarly, a “story” is simply a compression of reality.

Narrative cogency decreases the dimensionality of data, and dimensionality reduction is key to pattern recognition, information storage and information retrieval. In other words, by stringing symbols (the linguistic term for a word, which is the representation of a larger concept) together into sentences, we can pack more and more information into shorter and shorter lengths, allowing us to store vastly more information within our working and long term memory.

Just imagine if you had to describe a horse in detail every time you wanted to talk about one — the word “horse” compresses an absurdly large quantity of information into a neat 5 letter form. Through repeated observations of horses we cleave an individual horse from the larger platonic ideal of “horse-ness” and codify the term in our collective memories to be used to facilitate faster, easier communication at a future date.

And we will, most likely, continue with this story of a horse till we either observe an instance of a horse that violates “horse-ness” OR till we meet someone (perhaps from Mongolia) with a radically different symbol grounding to the term “horse”.

At which point we can update our definition of “horse” and expand the description of “horse-ness” or... we can crucify this person for understanding “horse” differently than us, preserving our neat 5 letter word and reality.

The fundamental point is — stories are not reality, they are models of reality.

But our individual stories tend to become our reality. Which we then confirm via repeated observations of our own behavior, the same way we confirm the definition of a “horse” by making sure no horse violates it’s own definition. And if that sounds circular— it’s because it is.

The same way we can radically change what a horse is by changing it’s definition (of course, we’d either need strong scientific evidence or massive North Korean level brainwashing), we can also change who we are by first and foremost changing our own story.

We can change culture and society by changing our collective narrative, or by introducing novel, cogent and viral ones into the mix (for another day). This is partly the reason we have heralded the creatives, the producers, artists, boundary-pushers.

They redefine the bounds of our labels and definitions, explore the weak points in our social narrative, and document the current state of affairs so that we can look back, say 120 years from now, and laugh at how silly we were to think THAT was a “horse”.

Here’s to stories.

Till next time,
Abhi