Why Tech Matters for the Epic Stories of Life

After we’ve sheltered ourselves from the elements and replenished our bodies’ demands for food and drink, out come the stories.  It has been ever thus – whether the story was about the bison hunt, the troubadour’s tale, or the outrageous thing you saw on Facebook before dinner.

Or so the hierarchy of needs is usually imagined. But I’d suggest that story telling is every bit as important to humans as shelter, food and drink, and what and how we tell our stories can be deeply nourishing or destructive.

Yuval Harari, himself a master storyteller popular among technologists per the blurbs on his books, agrees.  Harari argues In Homo Deus, his big picture look backwards and forward at the human experience from a purely materialist perspective, that what differentiates humans from other animals is our ability “to cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.”  (at 133).  “As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behavior of strangers and to organize mass-cooperation networks.” (at 144)  Harari contends that shared stories provide the very meaning of life and that empires and religions (or myths as materialist Harari calls them) have risen and fallen as the shared stories changed. (at 146)

The stories we hear from each other are essential to our ongoing effort to understand how life works and what it means.  Shared stories help us transcend the limits of our geographically, temporally and socially boundaried lives, to imagine and work out our understanding of the world beyond our immediate senses.

If anything, it’s the epic stories we still most favor.  Think recently of the huge audiences for the Hunger Games or Game of Thrones. Our mind’s eye for making such stories our own has never been better assisted than today with the advent of high quality computer-generated imagery (CGI).

I saw this vividly in the lives of my children in the 1990’s and 00’s.  Their mother, my late first wife whose own mother was a RADA-trained Shakespearean actress, had a gift for voices. As soon as our two kids were old enough to understand, she began to read them the greats – first C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and then Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Through her voice and later their own reading facility, they developed their own mind’s eye. Then one day In the fall of 1998, as she was driving past the neighborhood bookstore, she heard on NPR of a new projected children’s series set in Britain.  She picked up one of the three copies just arrived and we gave it to our daughter for Christmas – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Thus began a cycle of buying the books and eagerly awaiting the movie adaptions not only for Harry Potter, but also Peter Jackson’s LOTR, and the Walden Media high quality films of the first three Narnia books.  This continued for more than a decade as they moved from childhood to adolescence.  Along with the epic stories of the Bible that got in early at church, these were the stories in print and film that indelibly shaped my kids’ imaginations.

But equally important as the stories we share are the stories we tell ourselves.  Story telling is not just something that happens between us – it also happens within us.

A clever and imaginative contrasting of how our interior narrative might compare to a robot’s can be found in Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book, Klara and the Sun.  Here the interior narrative belongs to Klara, an advanced robot who is the “artificial friend” of an adolescent girl, set a few years in the future.  Ishiguru deftly leads us through Klara’s artificially intelligent mindset which learns through careful observation, pattern recognition and high powered but sometimes doubtful logic.  Sharing Klara’s point of view, before we know it, we along with the other characters in the book have crossed over into an emotional  relationship with “her”.  We care more about what will happen to Klara than “she” seems to herself.  And as we imagine we understand the world better than Klara, we get our comeuppance and come to question our own cognition.

Our self-narration, like Klara’s (so long as her solar cells are exposed to the sun), is always on – whether as a kind of antiphonal drone to our everyday living, or a more conscious examination of our thoughts.  It is how we integrate our understanding of who we are and how we fit into the world around us. This kind of story telling is more the stuff of psychologists than of English majors.

Faith beliefs are a special form of transcendence and grow out of both kinds of stories – epic stories in faith texts that explain the entire history of sentient man, often ranging from Creation to Apocalypse to Eternal Life, to stories that reach deep inside who we are as body, soul, and spirit. For believers in many traditions, prayer is a key part of this interior life, a vital inner dialogue with a divine but invisible Being.  Whether a self-narrative or an outwardly directed prayer, how satisfactorily and meaningfully we live in the world manifests the quality and substance of our ongoing interior narrative and its spiritual ordering.

This issue of our AI&F Newsletter is themed on the subject of AI and Stories to begin to explore the question of how AI can both enhance and disrupt the important stories of our lives – those we tell ourselves, our Maker, or others.  This theme matters for everyone – not only secular teachers, producers, and cultural influencers but also faith leaders and adherents.

A solid argument can be made that, thanks to the rise of AI, we are (or could be with better application and curation) in a golden age for both internal and shared story telling.  Never before in history has so much interest and technology existed around the stories we tell each other and ourselves.  For example:

  • How we understand and narrate our interior dialogue is being scientifically studied more intensively than ever before. There is huge academic and commercial interest in replicating in algorithms our natural biological capabilities to envision, analyze, and voice our thoughts.  Reader Come Home by neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, who is interviewed in this issue along with English literature professor Karen Swallow Prior, offers a fascinating explanation of the current scientific understanding of how our brains translate written symbols into internal visual images and thoughts, and which reading technologies – hard copy print or digital screens – best suit different mental work.

 

  • Thanks to digitization and the Internet Revolution, we can share our stories more broadly and cheaply than ever before, though the competition to be heard is harder than ever. The campfire is global and the story tellers around it number in the billions.

 

  • Storytelling was once exclusively oral, and that medium has proved surprisingly resilient. Electronic storytelling dates back 150 years to the invention of the telephone, which has moved from party lines and switchboard operators to personal assistant bots like Siri and Alexa.  Our smart phones connect us through AI-powered natural language software that gives voice to these personal assistant bots to whom some people now tell their stories in the absence of a human.  As we move about, we listen to audio books and podcasts, and almost any digital print message can be read back to us orally by a bot.  While bots can even make up their own stories for us, always-on technology has honed our story telling skills – think TED and The Moth Radio Hour – by necessity since it is also shortening our attention spans.

 

  • Photography and moving pictures are the visual analogues to the telephone. Now that we are carrying on our smart phones high resolution cameras capable of recording every interaction we see and hear and the means to instantly distribute them globally through YouTube and TikTok, everyone can do what used to be the prerogative of professional moviemakers and journalists.  The results range from achieving justice – think Darnella Frazier who had the courage and presence of mind to film the police killing of George Floyd – to the ability to shame people and destroy their reputations at breathtaking speed and reach.

 

  • The professional image makers still matter though – more than ever in fact. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is the backbone of moviemaking (judging by those interminably scrolling credits following the actors and old school movie professionals while you wait for the cameo at the end). Video gaming has exploded as a constant invention of new worlds in which millions of people live immersively and globally. Gaming can be a powerful medium for inculcating values – whether for good or evil – as gaming CEO Chris Skaggs argues in this Newsletter.   Gamers can literally create and inhabit a “Second Life”, as religion professor Robert Geraci discusses in his interview.  Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies promise to take this much, much further.  And our interview with the co-founders of BibleProject shows how a relatively small number of people can thoughtfully deploy computer software, artistry, and sophisticated theology to teach the epic stories and themes of the Bible in ways that appeal to millions of people around the world.

 

  • Social Media Platforms have remarkably enabled this story telling power. Every day, devotees have access to the stories of thousands of their friends, if that’s how they choose (or become habituated) to spend their time.  Meanwhile those stories are harvested by the platforms and transformed by data analysis into prompts for feeding back to the viewers specific types of other stories that manipulate their buying, voting, preferences and other types of behaviors.

In sum, we are telling and hearing more stories through more media to and from larger numbers of people than ever before.  The scary question is: what is it doing to us?  Our interior narrative is at the mercy of this flood of external stories more than ever before as algorithms perceive and invade our internal thoughts and transform them for others’ purposes and gain.  This manifests externally in the rage and division that has deeply polarized our politics and social interactions, perhaps most impactfully just now  in our inability to exercise the loving self-discipline needed to end the current global pandemic.  The stories we hear become the stories we tell ourselves – faster, deeper, and more open to manipulation by benign and malevolent actors alike than ever before.  That is why it is essential that we think long and hard about how technology affects the stories of our lives.

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