This week on an encore presentation of Innovation Hub, we examine the theory that stories not only describe humanity, but also define it. Plus, is mobile computing changing the way we live our lives — from hitting the snooze button to watching late night television?
The Storytelling Animal
Is Storytelling Just Child's Play?
From Beowolf to the Illiad to creation myths, the tradition of documenting and telling stories is as old as language itself. But what if humans didn’t just make stories — what if stories made us human? That’s the argument of Jonathan Gottschall’s book, “"The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human."
Gottschall counters those who say that storytelling and make-believe are just elements of childhood playtime, arguing that storytelling is central to our lives — even as adults.
“The moral of [children’s stories like] Peter Pan seems to be that in order to grow up, and to be a functioning, mature adult, you have to leave that world of fun and make-believe behind,” Gottschall says. “But Peter Pan doesn’t — and neither, I argue in the book, do we. We change how we do Neverland, but we never leave it behind.”
Instead of creating their own worlds, like children do when they are left to play on their own, adults enter into imaginary worlds created by others — through fiction and film, for example.
This Is Your Brain on Fiction
Why are we drawn to stories? What makes them so compelling? Gottschall says that even though we know stories are fake, we can’t help but experience them as reality. Psychologists and neuroscientists call it, “the brain on fiction.”
“[In a horror film,] you know everything is fake, you know that blood is ketchup, you know that there’s actually no humans on that screen,” Gottschall explains. “Your conscious mind knows it, but your unconscious brain does not.”
When we watch a movie, our mind mimics what we see on the screen — if the protagonist is angry, our brain will look as if we are experiencing anger ourselves. The direct emotions that stories create in their audience may not be coincidental, Gottschall argues, but rather biological.
“Fiction may serve as a virtual reality simulator, in the same way that a pilot straps himself or herself into a flight simulator,” Gottschall says. “We may go into these fictional simulations to train up on what it might be like to train up on these big problems of human life.”
The Mobile Wave
A Mobile Revolution
Mobile computing, whether from your smartphone or your tablet, is fundamentally changing our lives. But it may also be altering the future in ways that we can’t anticipate — revolutionizing everything from education, to health care, to commerce.
Michael Saylor, the CEO of Microstrategy and author of “The Mobile Wave,” says he knew that mobile computing had forever changed the world when he asked a niece visiting New York City what she thought about “the Big Apple,” and she answered him with an opinion on the newest iPad.
“That’s probably a question that would have elicited the same response for a hundred years,” Saylor says. “At that point it occurred to me that this was something much, much bigger than anyone had the courage to articulate.”
Out of the Office and into the Wild
Saylor calls this transition to mobile devices the fifth wave of computing — the first was the main frame, the second was the mini computer, the third was the PC, and the fourth was the Internet-linked computer. The first four waves, he argues, were the domain of office workers.
“What’s different about the fifth wave of computing,” Saylor says, “is it’s basically the opening of Pandora’s box — the explosion of software outside the white collar office environment. Now you’ve got three year olds using these devices, and you’ve got 90 year olds.”
Mobile computing allows the de-materialization of information — a tablet takes away the need for musical instruments, physical books and even a college classroom. For $500, any tablet owner has access to a plethora of free information. Saylor believes this boundless access to information, which can be processed as fast as a tablet owner can learn, will democratize learning. Thousands of people across the world now have access to all the information that you need for a degree from Harvard — without the brand name price.
“That’s the essence of progress for a civilization,” Saylor argues. “The point at which we don’t have 100 million people just digging ditches so that they can grow crops.”