"Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead.”
- Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
I loved this line for all its satisfying logic of "survival of the fittest". It seems so deserving. So just.
But for us, so clangingly WRONG.
Especially now. When alas, even the most magnificently-honed badass can be trumped by a lameass, armed with a more powerful story. Wait, I'm leaping ahead.
Some setup: among living things we are the only obligate tool-using species. We HAVE TO extend and augment our capabilities with technology - or we don't get to live very long. It's not a choice.
Technology (the knowledge and development of tools and their processes) is so often framed as a threat to our "natural" wellbeing. A newfangled, but necessary burden of modernity.
Thing is, tech is not a sector. A boy's club. The myriad-shiny-haloed-robots-swirling-in-circuitry-numbers-speeding-down-infinite-pipe somethingsomething if you run an image search. Tech is not even a career choice.
For us humans, technology is why we haven't gone extinct. Despite our embarrassingly vulnerable default state.
It is us. Like our resident microbiome, the bacteria with whom we couldn't live long. Nothing is more human than enhancing ourselves by isolating useful features we spot elsewhere, and commandeering its powers for ourselves. What we can't copy, we co-opt like the swashbuckling pirates of the planet that we are.
Other species may have their own speed; armour; poison; wings; camouflage; claws, or massive might to win or outrun a fight. For us, even a beefily-built fellow, tool-less, would be part of the food chain in the twitch of a lion's tail. (Without sensory augmentation (⌐⊙_⊙) honestly, I wouldn't even see it coming).
Instead, we learned to bend the properties of the world to our benefit. And shared the how-to stories widely with each other so we could leave home (even our home-planet), to venture and vanquish. Whenever we feel the squeeze of constraint hemming our ambitions, tools and processes are developed and applied to meet the challenge.
Sometimes all it takes is a costume-change to survive otherwise lethal environments.
We get to pick up, step into, or put on and take off our extra senses or shielding at will. Able to adapt and exploit almost any place. Being perfectly attuned for one kind of ecosystem, means you're stuck in one exquisitely-specialised form. The kind that takes generations to move through the genetic shifts to change function or form. Unlike the tiny, invincible tardigrade, aren't hardy at all. We have a very narrow band where conditions work for us. But augmented by our knowledge, processes and tools (aka tech) nothing scares us off: crushing depths of the ocean, deserts, polar winters, the vacuum of space - bring it, baby! We're up for the adventure.
Our ability to scout and use the properties of other things to substitute for our vulnerabilities - this is our jam.
It's a prehistoric gift. From the deft hewing of stone tools, and controlling fire by our hominid ancestors in the Olduvai Gorge - to the hand-sized power-tool you might be holding right now, that can contain the sum of all human knowledge. An unbreakable mutualism to tool-use is our evolutionary inheritance. We've ingeniously supplemented our capabilities for MILLIONS of years
(A History of the World in 100 Objects was one of the first podcast series I binged, crikey, a decade ago! Each episode devoted to a storied thing that helped shape our world. Listen: grab 15 mins to unfold the 1.2 million year old story of the hand axe, here. Worth it.)
Okay okay, hopefully you're with me that the powers that our ancestors once ascribed to the gods, are available to any schmo now. As long as they have access to a set of tools you could buy cheap almost anywhere on the planet today. No badassery required.
Because the better our tech gets; the more "pains" it can solve for us, the less adept we need to be. We don't even need to know HOW the technology works to use it. Our evolutionary fitness now less survival, more status. Where the former demands social closeness and co-operation. The latter, individual glory and competition.
Which leaves us wide open to our single most exploitable vulnerability. The cognitive weakness that arses us all. No matter how smart we are ...
We're suckers for stories.
"Those who tell the stories rule society"
- Plato *
Yet, we almost never treat stories and the craft thereof within the full-measure of its power. Or realise that we need to teach our young to defend against them. Instead we freak out about tools. Especially new ones. Throughout history. Same trope of blaming a new technology for social woes - bicycles, books, hand-washing, shipping containers, mirrors - all new inclusions must first pass through the projected horror stories.
Maybe as we collectively get to understand the eons-worth of impact of the doubt-seeding stories crafted by fossil fuel lobbyists. Or manufactured conspiracies to aid political theatre. Policy almost always tilts on evidence wrapped in a more convenient story.
Storycraft is not just entertainment or advertisement, or a career choice for arty kids.
Most recently and dramatically, we've watched weaponised narratives scupper the once-assured advantages of the best technology, best technical skills, and deepest pockets of the world's richest economy. Confounding and casting aside the most competent individuals and entrenched institutions who didn't understand that the deep-seated power of a compelling narrative sits above physical or technical competence in its power to shape the destiny of civilisations. Always has.
Enlightenment ideals of rationality, scientific clarity, diagrams and the facts only, ma'am defences don't stand a chance against a story people are emotionally ripe to hear. A big enough story, that enough people believe in, doesn't need to be the BEST story. Horror stories - very popular genre.
It doesn't have to be true. It doesn't have to have a happy ending. But it does need be relatable. Remixable. Fun. And most importantly, open to participation by fans who will develop in-group language, images, stuff to trade around the bonfire and power this new universe. Ditching the edified structure of the Hero's Journey out window of the party bus.
And like our mutualism with technology; this kind of storytelling is ancient and who we are.
(Man, I'm a deep fan of anthropologist, Prof Michael Wesch. Go find and listen to "Professor's Night Out" for a glimpse into the kind of courageous teaching we all deserve).
Progress is not inevitable. As a futurist, I've seen this chorus on repeat through the historical timeline, across civilisations. It's never about running out of talent, or ingenuity. Miracles or massacres always seem to hang on the stories agreed upon.
In our precarious moment, if we stop here or slide back, our home planet will not be a fun place to live for all but the hardiest of creatures for a lonnnng while. Yet, we have more than enough talent and the tech to comfortably steer ourselves, and our fellow non-human earthlings out of harm's way.
What we don't have, is a shared story of grand adventure to do that, yet.
* correction: attributed to Plato. I couldn't find a citation in his texts.
But it reminded me that this is a fun, tiny storytelling tool worth noting: the Credibility Hack. If only to defend against it, so you don't get called out for not doing your homework. Classic examples.
PRO-TIPS: TRY IT FOR YOURSELF
Long to be funnier? For those who have the natural comedic zing of a post office queue. Because there are those among us in whose mouth, even the sparkliest joke falls flat.
Remedy: attribute your witty words to someone you know your audience finds genuinely funny.
Ditto if you need to artificially give weight to a piece of wisdom. Pop the name of some sapient figure (pref dead to avoid the um ... actually fact-check) behind your pithy words ... and boom, you have just baked an easily-digestible social currency that can be passed around for years to come. Plonk it on an atmospheric photo, and you should have at least a few social media likes in the bag. PS. the English language fan favourite for this form of fakery or use-when-in-doubt: Einstein).