Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tyler Cowen at TED

Tyler Cowen is an avid reader of many things, including fiction. He notes he dislikes games, such as Trivial Pursuit, in comparison to reading. Anyway, I found his talk at TEDxMidAtlantic rather fascinating, because he basically argues that fiction is, ultimately, fiction. He argues against trying to fit everything into a 'story'. That is, there is a small set of story lines: journey, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, facing mortality, etc. So, we have the story of Moses, and helps us understand George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, emancipating a people. Stories are the way most people make sense about everyday happenings. They are theory that we apply to events, the why that explains the what.

We instinctively try to fit everything into such narratives: the health care debate, our career trajectory, our lives. Tyler notes that this may be too much. Life isn't a story. Often it just keeps going, is messy, and has no point.

I found this a very refreshing point. My 10 year old son had to write a story, and his first draft was basically a narrative with stuff happening but no arc, no Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement: he went there, and Clay said X and so we did this and Connor said Y and yada yada yda. I tried to get him to appreciate the essence of a story, but it was suprisingly (for me!) not obvious to him, and his intuition was based on his experience with life, which is, there is no story.

I suppose that my view, that stories should have an arc, is more educated, and his 10-year old intuition is unstructured, incomplete. Yet his innocence betrays some naive wisdom, that life is in some sense 'one damned thing after another'. It's good to know the strengths and limitations of both views: without facts, everything is bullshit; without theory, everything is trivia.

It's comforting to believe there's a bigger purpose, yet we flatter ourselves that unlike the Coelacanth or starfish our finite lives have some transcendence, which in our secular age means some small yet permanent benefit to justice and equality (synonymous for many). Instead, I think today's giants are all like great harpists of the past. They may have been fortunate to play an instrument well, but no matter how good, their skill is now an anachronism, and not valued in itself. Over time, it will be totally unappreciated, as future generations prefer different melodies and instruments. To think every drama in our lives is part of a story, written by fate, is alluring, but fanciful.

I pass the baton to others--my kids, colleagues--and hope there's some benefit. I want to be better than my parents, my old bosses. I get satisfaction when I do things well in this regard. If it all disintegrates because I was a fool, or the sun blows up and disintegrates the Earth in 1 billion years, I don't care.

4 comments:

J said...

The mind detests disorganized data, we seek (and always find) a pattern.

Children should learn how to write a story. It is a craft necessary in life. If later he wants to sell mutual funds, he'll need to tell a story. When he'll look for a job, his curricula should tell a good story to make sense.

The Recovering Banker said...

It's a deep problem- stories are a powerful tool for understanding, but using the tool can distort the understanding. Nevertheless, I don't get seduced by the allure of a new car...

Brooklyn Sven said...

Authenticity is experiencing the present without projecting a pre-conceived narrative on it. Wisdom is the narrative you discern retrospectively.

Anonymous said...

You're starting to sound like your nemesis Nassim Taleb..