A couple of days ago I came across an explanation by John Biewen on the origin of racism. His talk shows how powerful storytelling can be, in the negative sense.
On my other website I published a fairly long piece of writing (in Dutch). The starting point for writing that piece was a screenshot of a facebook post that was included in an academic paper which analysed all posts on HPV vaccination within a certain time frame. This particular post got a special mention since it was by far the most shared and commented on. The whole lay-out and wording used in that post sent out warning signals for being untrue. I got curious. What are the actual facts and arguments behind this message?
I thought I would write a blog post about it. Then I started documenting my findings during my search and quickly the whole exercise to follow my curiousity resulted in a three week long research into the use of false arguments, misinterpretations of statistics and scientific research results. I came to the conclusion that the group of authors I came across during my research try to win a political debate by using tragic illnesses and deaths of young people as a starting point to discredit a company and the government.
Through my research I learned some lessons about how false arguments and interpretations spread between websites, what kind of tricks organisations use to look more credible than they really are and what types of signals to look for when checking for credibility of messages. By sharing these lessons I hope to vaccinate the reader against the next fake news story that plays your emotion.
So instead of a blog post, I published a blog research article of about 7500 words. If you’re fluent in Dutch, go to Storymines and check it out. Get yourself lost in a world of thoughts that might not be yours. I really enjoyed writing it and I hope you will be immunized afterwards.
I came across a very interesting passage in The Storytelling Animal: how stories make us human. It explains the Lake Wobegone Effect, the effect that we think of ourselves as above average when it comes to positive qualities. Like being a good driver (which for a matter of fact I am). In the book the author makes a link to depression.
Depressed people have lost their positive illusions; they rate their personal qualities much more plausibly than average. They are able to see, with terrible clarity, that they are not all that special.Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: how stories make us human (p.174)
He then refers to psychologist Shelley Taylor, who said that “a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy.”
This is a perspective I hadn’t taken on depression before, but it makes a whole lot of sense. As someone who is on the realistic side of self-assessment I can tell you that it is indeed an unhealthy state to be always doubting your self. It would have really helped me sail through life if I had more self-esteem and a less realistic view on the world.
Because, as the philosopher William Hirstein puts it, positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair:Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: how stories make us human (p.174)
“The truth is depressing. We are going to die, most likely after illness; all our friends will likewise die; we are tiny insignificant dots on a tiny planet. Perhaps with the advent of broad intelligence and foresight comes the need for…self-deception to keep depression and its consequent lethargy at bay. There needs to be a basic denial of our finitude and insignificance in the larger scene. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah just to get out of bed in the morning.”
Gottschall goes on to describe the role of a psychotherapist as someone who helps you to rewrite your life story. To give you a story you can live with.
A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonist again – suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: how stories make us human (p.175)
Excellent read by the way.
Earlier this week this article written by Lazar Dzamic crossed my path. A very interesting read. What grabbed my attention was that Dzamic puts archetypal/narrative literacy on number one.
It’s one of the most widely studied arts and crafts in the world, but in the utterly utilitarian way: how to tell strong stories to become famous, make money, or be very good at selling stuff. But we don’t learn how to defend ourselves from strong stories like populism, conspiracies and various sorts of propaganda, whether political or commercial. This literacy is the antidote for almost any of the manipulations unleashed upon us by the digital space, in all its guises. This whole dark theatre of problems has but one common approach: the use of strong emotional, archetypal, narratives.
Yesterday, Daughter started drawing a dragon. The dense pink (yes, it’s pink, don’t you dare call it red) stripes in the middle of the paper were the starting point for the dragon’s body. She then expanded the body to the right, slightly upwards, and then to the left, slightly downwards. She gave the dragon eyes. Two dots on the left side of the body above each other. Teeth followed, the horizontal stripes on the left. Then the dragon needed legs. Lots of them. The vertical stripes below the dragon’s body are legs. Somehow the dragon got infected with chicken-pox, hence all the dots above and below the dragon. I impersonated the dragon and told daughter the chicken-pox were itchy. Daugher scratched the dragon’s chicken-pox using her pink marker, covering a lot of dots. She then concluded she missed a few spots, grabbed the yellow marker and continued scratching. Once finished she noticed the effect of the yellow in between all the pink. It became the dragon’s fire.
Until recently Daughter drew random lines on paper. Now she starts to add lines in a purposeful manner. At the same time she incorporates accidental lines and dots into her story. I’m glad I was able to witness how the story developed. The end-result could clearly be mistaken for a bunch of random lines.
Lots to learn here as an adult.
LifeNaut.com is a web based research project that allows anyone to create a digital back-up of their mind and genetic code. The ultimate goal of our research project is to explore the transfer of human consciousness to computers/robots and beyond.https://www.lifenaut.com
It is an interesting idea: create a back-up of your self, so you can live beyond life in a robotic form. As a proof of concept the foundation running this project, created a social robot called Bina48. During Duncan’s presentation the audience got the chance to interact with the robot. It was funny, creepy and disappointing at the same time. Funny, because the answers were of the philosophical kind. Creepy, because it was a robotic head, sort of thinking for itself. Disappointing, because it was clearly not a true conversation in the social convention of human kind.
The LifeNaut project is interesting, but I would never take part in it. Sharing my most private details, such as my DNA and inner thoughts, with a tiny privately owned foundation is not my idea of taking care of my own data. However, there was one idea Duncan talked about that got me excited. It was the idea to be able to talk to people living now, like you and me, three hundred years in the future.
I immediately thought of family stories. I grew up in a family with very little stories of previous generations passed on to me. Whenever I talk to people who grew up in story sharing families, I’m amazed how much they know about their family history and know how to characterize family members without ever having met them.
Telling stories that travel through generations is how we shared knowledge before the invention of the printing press and it still is an important skill humans rely on. The downside of telling stories through generations is that they will be transformed with every retelling. So wouldn’t it be cool to have a family story box, that records stories for eternity? That a relative ten generations down the line could listen to my stories without the interference of the nine generations before them?
I would have loved to listen to stories of my grandmothers, who both died before I was born. I would have loved to hear them tell what they loved to do, on a daily basis. Hear my grandmother tell how she was sowing a skirt for my mother. Or what my other grandmother felt like when she sent my seventeen year old father off to university. And hear them talk about life’s lesson’s. What mattered to them? What inspired them? What made them angry? What made them sad? What made them happy?
Talking to a robot carrying my grandmother’s face in silicone would not fill in the gap. I would be too aware of interacting with ‘not-the-grandma’. What I would love instead is to see how my grandmothers would move around their house, interact with their kids (amongst them my parents), hear them talk to their husbands. Most of all, I would prefer to listen to them. If only they’d recorded something of the lessons they learned coping with life, before they died.
So ditch the idea of robots and AI to create a mind file. Instead, I think we can be way more attentive to capturing stories that we want to pass on to next generations. And there is no technical barrier to start right now. We are the first generation that have a magic story tool within arm’s reach all the time.
One life event that I experienced was the Enschede fireworks disaster, 13 May 2000. I never captured my experiences. When I think of it, how cool would it be if Daughter’s grandchildren (if they happen to exist) can ask a box to play back my story of my experience being in Enschede when the disaster struck. It would be way more compelling than my Daughter’s retelling of my story, and way more interesting than reading the news archives. And how cool would it be that they cannot only hear me tell my version, but the Man tell his version of the experience as well.
I started writing letters to Daughter ever since she was born. There’s already more than 130 of them. They range from my struggles dealing with her crying during the first few months to capturing short dialogues. These letters are a start for a collection that I intend to pass on to future generations. After yesterday I realize I need to add voice and moving image to those letters as well. Not only from me, but from more members of my family.
The only technical challenge we face is storing them in a way that ten generations from now, the stories can still be heard, seen and read. But that’s something AI will have taken care of by then.