What will most likely determine whether you’ll read or like this post ? Not its content factualness, but rather how good is the story it tells. I can only hope for the best :)

“Fiction, which like all great stories, is rooted in truth.” — Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) in “Westworld”

“Hitler was one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century.” — S. Zizek vs J. Peterson

“The hungry mouth that tells no story gets no food” — Filantropica, 2002

In 1976, R. Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a “self-replicating units of culture that have a life of their own” [1] — the most concise and essential forms of stories, which include the familiar visual memes we see today on the Internet. In analogy to the evolutionary theory and genetics, memes are “selfish” in much the same way DNA genes are: once released into human cultures, they seek to maximize their own spreading. Just as DNA genes, which do not spread according to their usefulness for the organism, memes and stories do not spread according to their truth, accuracy or information content, but solely to their “virality”. Stories are thus essentially selfish.

We are right now living in a world in which almost everything is about stories and storytelling. If you look around, everyone and everything wants to tell you a story — especially if they want to sell you something. Stories are building blocks of both real and fake news, marketing, advertising and even science. Success of failure in business and politics crucially depends on how well you can “sell a story” around a product, service, person or party: for example, as Zizek observed in a recent debate, Hitler raised to power because he was great at making a certain story viral [4]. The climate change debate — and for that matter most public debates — is not one of scientific arguments, it’s a battle of two competing stories.

One could be tempted to think that this is a recent development due to internet and social media. Indeed, the advent of Internet and social media played a significant role in “making storytelling great again”, to paraphrase a famous meme. Social media gave birth to the most condensed form of stories we can conceive of: visual memes. Originating in advertising, the penetrating power of a meme is rooted in its short, powerful and often misleading message.

But, in fact (pun intended, since what I write here is a story), storytelling and cultural memes are as old as humanity itself. The first viral memes we know of are myths and religions: some of them so powerful they last until today, some others long forgotten. Religious belief is always a collection of memes and stories around a transcedental, unverifiable truth: its power comes from the uncritical acceptance which is typical for viral memes. For a Christian, historical facts or evidence about the ressurection of Jesus Christ are secondary at best. What actually matters is the story itself, which is much more powerful than historical evidence or lack thereof: religious stories are among the most selfish we have.

Stories are thus arguably one of the most powerful thing in the world — precisely due to their selfishness. Civilizations would have probably not arisen without selfish stories that sticked with a sufficient amount of people and made them work towards a common, larger goal. Religions have made people do an enormous amount of both great and horrible things, all in the name of a common story. It is not by chance that stories are almost uniquely a human feature, with even very developed mammals having only rudimentary storytelling capabilities [3]. I would thus argue that the ability to create and share stories is the tipping point of the unmatched development of humanity, something David Deutsch calls “the beginning of infinity” [2]

To see how selfish stories are literally everywhere, one can take a look at a domain that has been claimed to be the realm of rationality, facts and critical thinking: science. Quantum Mechanics, the mathematical theory describing the subatomic world, is famous for having several competing interpretations — essentially stories we can construc to explain what the theory describes. The dominating interperation is the so-called Copenhagen interpretation established by the fathers of quantum physics lead by Niels Bohr. In spite of having numerous logical issues that have been questioned over and over again by many physicists proposing alterative interpretations, the story of Copenhagen has prevailed to this day — essentially because it is selfishand selfish stories only care about themselves. Moreover, physicists that have dared to question the Copenhagen interpretation have been marginalized and their carreers have suffered [5] — a striking resemblance to religious discrimination !

It is because stories are selfish that their spreading is only loosely “rooted the truth” at best and completely misleading at worst — a double-edged sword. We are witnessing this every day in form of “fake news”: either by omission or plain lies, selfish stories can virally spread toxic, hateful and damaging content. The proliferation of fake news is often attributed to the lack of critical spirit of the public. However, this is questionable, since the same effect can be observed in highly educated and otherwise critically thinking people as well. Rather, I would argue that the explanation is more complex.

First, while the speed of story spreading has massively increased with online and social media, fact-checking opportunities have not scaled proportionally — at least not yet. Attention span shortage might play a role, although this is far from clear [7], but the main role is likely played by the intentional lack of details provided in many viral stories. In many cases, it’s plain impossible to assert the facts in a viral story simply because details are missing, leaving the virality of the story at the mercy of our rich set of cognitive biases, such as the confirmation bias [6]: for lack of details, the reader will decide to uncritically share a story simply because it seems to match her beliefs.

It looks like our modern world is more dominated by selfish stories than ever, unfortunately often in a very damaging manner: anti-vaccine campaigns, elections, climate change debates are just a few examples. A realistic solution for controlling the selfishness of stories, at least to a certain degree, seems to inavoidably require some form of Artificial Intelligencedue to the sheer information processing power required in order to establish the correlation between a story and checkable facts. However, it is likely that technology alone will — and perhaps should ! — only play an assistive role: it will still be upon our human critical thinking, assisted by AI tools, to choose which selfish stories we believe — so we can live our own in a meaningful way.

To be continued.

[1] Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Meme” http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,22988-1,00.html

[2] D. Deutsch, “The Beginning of Infinity”

[3] “Do animals tell stories ?” https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/01/do-animals-tell-stories.html

[4] S. Zizek vs. J. Petereson debate https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/debate-between-zizek-and-peterson

[5] Adam Becker “What is real ?” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35604796-what-is-real

[6] List of Cognitive Biases. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

[7] Busting the attention span myth, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium