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The storytelling mind

19th September 2011 - Tobias Revell

Don't think it coincidence that genetics and computer science were such eager dancing partners throughout the latter half of the 21st century. Computers, once they became relatively commonplace, worked so seamlessly, so exactly-as-we-planned, performing, initially, our most simple requests with ever-increasing rapidity, becoming expert diorama builders of climates and economies; calculatedly dissecting the world around us and defining it so efficiently that it gradually came to impress itself upon the rest of scientific thought, enacting a largely undetected paradigm shift. For the computer was not simply a tool to abet science, to run its processes and sums; it became the very basis of how science is pursued.

The entire universe, through every conceivable discipline was treated to computational reductionism; the idea that existence itself can be defined as discrete units, or components, working in scalar networks and systems analogous to a computer. From particle physics, through ecosystems up to the lives of the stars: what we observe could be calculated, stratified, generalised, clustered, modelled and predicted.

The cracking of the genetic code was the embodiment of computational reductionism, the darling of the unspoken philosophy. In four simple chemicals we have the instruction manual for a human being, here we have the ability to - and I use the accepted biological vernacular - reprogram an individual.

Even with the almighty DNA at our fingertips, the human is not fully reduced, our dualistic nature gives us all the gift of the mind. The mind. Your mind. The ethereal presence you can sense now, suspended just over the rear of your crown peering over your actions, reflecting and judging, the quiet (or perhaps even noisy) centre of your universe. For that most untouchable, impalpable wonder they invented psychology. And psychology, at first with Freud and his disciples an almost spiritual, certainly philosophical pursuit, mutated. Previously vague terms such as ego and id gradually dropped out of the vocabulary (Freudian psychology and its schema may have dropped out of science but are still some of the world's most powerful marketing tools).

Much like the ether of pre-Victorian medicine, the vagaries of the psyche don't sit well with a model of the universe in which everything can be bounded and defined. So cognitive science, almost directly borrowing from information theories, paired itself with neurobiology and by the end of the 1970s had succeeded in reducing the human mind, the single most beautiful thing in the entirety of creation, to just another (albeit powerful) computer.

If the human mind is simply an exceptionally complex computer that one science is busy trying to reverse-engineer, then we should, through extrapolation, be able to eventually model human endeavour. Every novel, every piece of music and art could be computationally reduced through the lens of neuroscience into a series of electrical impulses, chemical interactions, the twitch of a muscle, the flick of a wrist - just so, so as to connect just the right pathways with just the right current, the proper stimulation, an undetectable shift in chemical makeup, just so.

The most common attempts at proving this principle is through narrative. Narrative is a dimensional construction. Unlike painting or music its units are laid out in words - something happened, then this, then that because of him or because of her. Surely, this is a natural progression for a device capable of predicting storms from teacups? But here, technology meets its first stumbling block. Numerous attempts have been made at perfecting the artificially constructed narrative, from the seven basic plots of Arthur Quiller-Couch, Vladimir Propp's formulae, the Oulipo's mathematical experiments and the dozens of attempts at getting computers to write their own stories today and thus far, all have failed. Despite a fundamental understanding of the units that construct a human, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The problem lies in the psychological role of narrative. Narrative isn't simply a set of events that on inspection don't quite square with life. First, the narrative is a way of directly realising the abstract thoughts of the author into the metaphors, visualisations and implicit feelings of the story. Second, your translation of these as a reader is unique to you and through this process you critique the narrative, assimilating beliefs, understandings and reflections on yourself and the world around you.

Reductionism will always be a powerful lens through which to view the universe. It can be used to explain so much as well as well as construct sophisticated systems and mechanisms, but so far it's failed to supply the world with a convincing yarn.


When not in our Charing Cross Road shop caring for the graphic novels, Tobias is a speculative designer, studying potential narratives as part of future technologies at the Royal College of Art.


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