I’ve been enthralled by the density of information that is Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity is Near”. Therein, he would lay down a quote by Muriel Rukeyser that I found powerful. It was this:
The universe is made up of stories, not atoms
There is no doubt that Kurzweil himself saw his writing as the telling of the world as he saw it. But so strong was his narrative that they turned into near accurate predictions. It didn’t end there. One can see the potency of his narrative in Elon’s ventures.
You may have heard about Neuralink’s aim to help curb the worst possible case regarding the Singularity by hastening the timeline within which Human-AI symbiosis occurs. Kurzweil may himself have borrowed this solution from transhumanists like himself. But the depth of writing that spans hundreds of pages may have been what led Elon to the founding of Neuralink in the first place.
One can look at SpaceX and see quite obviously that there may not have been the character that is Elon Musk were it not for stories that allow us to dream beyond our present reality. He is a child of sci-fi through and through.
The global phenomenon that is Bitcoin is but a mere narrative.
When speaking about Bitcoin, one rarely speaks of the Elliptic Curve Cryptography that makes it possible. One speaks of Bitcoin as being able to overthrow existing institutions and create a world in which money truly belongs to the individual. As Dan Held puts it:
You can’t kill an idea.
Bitcoin extends beyond just code, it’s a mindset.
People who understand and buy into Bitcoin have already gone down the proverbial rabbit hole. They’ve had to challenge their assumptions of money, government, and social coordination.
Money represents the stored time and energy of an individual. The preservation of that is a human rights issue. While they may give up freedoms over flying (FAA), driving (DMV), and many other aspects of their lives (Alphabet agency soup), the last freedom they will give up is their wealth.
While this may be a strong founded assumption, it is a narrative regardless. We vastly underestimate the power of stories.
Given the tumultuous year this has been I succumbed to deep technological pessimism, one I still feel justified given the circumstances (Yes a vaccine is out there; No the virus wouldn’t cease instantaneously).
I asked myself this: Why didn’t we have even more people working on the tech advances that would have so easily dispatched the virus? “Could it be due to the lack of powerful narratives?”, I asked myself. A lot of really smart people are spending their time on the gamification of human instincts to make their apps more appealing. Others are spending that time doing nothing more than moving around cash. Maybe the lack of inspiration as one grows up and the desire for stability all fuel this. Better narratives could be a cure.
How stories work.
Most thinking isn’t really thought. In many ways, thinking is the flow of emotions guided in the direction of a specific problem. It is for this reason that the Institute of Advanced Studies at its infancy, a sort of paradise for some of history’s greatest minds would give birth to some of their most unproductive years. In the book, “John Von Neumann: The Scientific genius who pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, and Nuclear Deterrence, and much more”, we are told of Richard Feynman’s rejection regarding his joining of the institute:
When I was at Princeton in the 1940’s I can see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves. Okay? So they don’t get an idea for a while. They have every opportunity to do something and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.
Feynman knew that good ideas don’t come by themselves. One is provoked into the creation and strengthening of ideas. For him, this provocation came in the form of students, who asked him questions that pertained to areas close to meaningful problems. Ever so humble, he noted:
It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things
There is much wisdom to be found here, not merely for how true this was at the time. So you may ask, what could this have to do with stories and narratives? Well, what exactly are stories and narratives but the ever-living contemplations of some truly brilliant minds. These narratives provoke the emotions needed for what may be single but infinitely useful moments of brilliance. If all real thinking is emotive, good stories may be what is required to have us thinking deeply.
Upon further reflection of my pessimism/skepticism, I realize this: Yes skepticism may be right more so than naive optimism ever will be. But it isn’t pessimism that pushes the world forward. It is the belief that something is indeed possible. We need more people thinking of the possibilities that lie ahead of us. Of course, we should be mindful that our stories match their technical proficiency or they lose legitimacy.
That said, the progress of technology depends on compelling stories and we need more of them.
This blog is provided courtesy of Xergy Inc. – a global leader in integration of functional materials. To learn more about Xergy Inc. go to www.xergyinc.com.