I finished the last post by asking for readers' help figuring out how to complete the journey that began here. Many thanks for all the feedback, I really appreciate how thoughtful and considered it has been. Now to the subject at hand.
This post has been the most challenging, inspirational and (I hope) valuable part of the series.
Putting this together has caused me break the pace of daily dispatches; it was just challenging to synthesize everything but I think it's been worth it; I've had insights that have eluded me until I reached this topic. I'm amazed it took me until the 16th dispatch to realize my that my central theme is that in visualizing the future we keep telling and retelling stories about the Past to understand the Present and imagine the Future.
Stories are the language we understand; they are the organizing principles of our lives and we care about how they end. It is through stories that we place ourselves within the timeline of history, connect with others, makes sense of life and derive meaning. Stories are Universal.
Let's begin the exploration with a look at definitions. This is not intended to be pendantic but thought-provoking (it's actually the way I always start me thinking process on these posts).
Wikipedia handles "story" in a way that surprised me. Their entry for "Story" points directly to the page for Time and a sub-section called "Sequence of Events". (narrative is what makes a story, everything is just perspective, narrator and sequence of plot). Odd, no? What about what we think of as stories. You know, things like "Once upon a time". Oops. OK, what about something like "In the beginning. . " Oops, time again. Oh well, what about this one. . . "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away".
If you want to get to a more familiar definition, Wikipedia's for Storytelling is what you'd expect - ""conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view."
Stories define us whether we're reading to our children, curled up with a book or bathed in the magical glow of a cinema screen. More profoundly, we create our own stories actively each second of our lives through our acts, the interpretation of them, memories (often faded and distorted). In my own life, nothing comes close to being as important to me as stories.
In making a go at this post, I've decided to give a tip of the hat to the subject matter and begin with a story of my own. From there, I'll take quick look at why I think they're so important to us all.
I grew up being read to at night by my father. He had purchased a red, cloth bound 1st edition of the Lord of the Rings which in 1976 he began reading to me every night before bed. Being 5 at the time, much of it deeper meaning eluded me but the basic magic of the story swept me away. Each night, it was our tradition, he would lie in my bed and read another 2 or 3 pages. It took us 1.5 years to cover all 1000 odd pages but it was glorious. I was hooked, a story geek till my grave.
OK, enough about me. Back to the idea of why we are defined by our need to tell stories. We are born with a few questions that matter. Who am? Where am I ? How did I get here? Where am I supposed to go? Who can help me? What mysteries are there about me - secrets nobody has told me. These are all familiar aspects of identity to anyone reading and also the dramatic story elements within every great work of fiction.
Many stories follow this form; the journey to discover one's own identity. Perhaps the most stunning film about this is Memento; a film about a man who has lost his short term memory. The film is told from his perspective, in both black and white (before) and color (after). The hero has lost is judgement and doesn't know who to believe, and he continually leaves himself notes and tatoos important messages on him not to forget. (You can also try to piece the mystery together yourself on this odd site www.otnemem.com
At this point, I have a great excuse for the absence of a smooth segue. His name is Scott McCloud and in writing comic books about comics book, particularly "Understanding Comics" he's forgotten more about stories than most English departments pretend to know. My favorite quote from his is "media provide us a window back into our world". Enjoy!
A logical next question is, when did we first start telling stories? I think the answer is that telling stories is coincident with our emegence as the genus Homo, roughly 2 million years ago. What a storyt meant was much more primitive (and I don't know enough to have a good opinion). But clearly, even prior to cave painting, families sat around a campfire, recounting the day's hunt and retelling legends about the gods, the stars and mythical creatures.
The metaphors we use to tell stories are also wonderful. Most typical is a timeline, the convention we all revert to. Often, one finds time described as a "river" or represented as a spiral. Increasingly, we are being pulled together into streams of thoughts, streams associated with people and tagged by others, all feeding into a single, river of stories.
Below I've included a variety of graphics that I've dug up that elegantly (and sometimes not so elegantly,) attempt to compress very long complicated stories into a single view.
Let's start with something fairly elegant. History of the World was a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum, involving schools, museums and audiences across the UK. At the heart of the project was the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects (check out a compression here of 2 million years into 5 minutes on Youtube). The graphic below gives a sesnse of the basic interface, curation and conventions used to represent the History of the World by compressing it in 1000 objects. But the most stunning aspect of the project is the interactive timeline which you should just click and dive into.
This one's a little tougher
And this one's really tough ( I'll blame it on my lack of German)
So where does this leave us. I'd make a few key points and call it a night. First amongst them is that we need our Greatest Stories to Create Enduring Meaning
Secondly, I'd argue that the tools we develop along this timeline, especially communications tool with deeply impact they stories we tell, how we tell them and to whom. What used to be a lonely pursuit confined to the wealthy, moody and literate, has been radically democractized and as that trend continues, 7 billion voices, that's 49 billion thumbs typing away little interconnected stories on little keyboards. Watch out.
I'll end with an infographic, much like all my infographics, they prove that a picture is worth about 10 words. Still, I hope you enjoy, I was using it as I worked out the topic, which has proven large enough to cover the next several posts. (it will)
Charts like the one I just created, open the door to queasy- making semiotics and ontological problems like the mind-body problem. For those of you who think these are a treat (and be forewarned I am one of you, in a big way,) the this article from Scientific American explains beautifully the connections we physically make with language, which according to them implies that words and stories change our physical reality and vice versa. It's not just stories about your life or tha language you use to describe it - the words, the story literally is your life.
Connecting stories, the essensing of "sharing" in the social age, has begun to bind us together in an accelerated shared storyline. And together, constantly, we looking back to the past and forward to what might be.
So I've jumped around a lot, from the personal, to the fictional to the scientific, with a little social anthropology thrown in for good measure. Gearing up for the piece, which is decidedly easier and cannot take nearly as long, I leave you with Monty Python singing about the biggest question we all have: "What is The Meaning of Life?" Enjoy.