I can't count how many times a casual social conversation has led to someone looking at me incredulously, blurting "You haven't seen [Movie X]? How could you not have seen [Movie X]? You have to see [Movie X]. I'll loan you my DVD. In fact, come to my house next week and we'll watch it." I have a stack of DVDs of "essential" loaned films that I have yet to watch. Not to mention "essential" TV programs and "essential" books. I'd like to take this opportunity and tell the world: No. I don't consider it essential at this point in my life to watch or read any particular narrative. I'm sick of narrative. The vast majority of "essential" narratives stink. Most of them are lies. A few are entertaining lies, fewer are entertaining and useful lies, a very small number - very small - are interesting, shocking, and true. Well, I've read or watched those, all three of them. The chances that Hollywood's offerings in the last 20 years constitute anything important for a contemporary mind are vanishingly small. Same for fiction, indeed, almost anything made to be looked at in the last generation of creativity. Largely a waste of time. So - please stop giving me this worthless homework.
Leaving the theater, I began to ruminate on Story. Stories are everywhere. We're addicted to them. Yet while everyone complains about addiction to games and TV, nobody complains about addiction to stories. What a huge proportion of waking life consists of stories! As opposed to doing things. Almost every word out of our mouths is part of a story. How much of psychology and sociology involves figuring out who is lying, and how much, with their stories? What's a Facebook page? A lying story. An interview? Dancing lies. No - let me not be so cynical. It's not lies and only lies. Rather, we tell lies that, when unpacked by a suitably sophisticated listener, reveal truths in the light we prefer. When the housewives go out for lunch, they're lying and lying and lying, yet spilling little truths as well, all of which can be reconstructed by an able discerner. It's an interesting ballet, the exchange of words. And yet - enough already!
When I got to a party, what do we do? We sit around, most of us drinking, telling stories. On the phone? Stories. Teaching? Stories. I once heard a film producer talk about the goal of his art. He said that his main goal was to draw emotion out of people. Stories are good for that - so everyone pumps the well and pumps the well and pumps the well, trying to get us to cry. Is there no other way to interact? Stories, stories, stories. Basta!
There are alternatives, you know. Instead of talking about stuff, instead of watching somebody's story, instead of performing an infinite regress of symbolic story intepretation, we could do things. We could engage together in operating a system - play a game! We could move our bodies together - sports and singing and dancing! We could conduct rituals - liturgy!
Maybe this rant stems from the simple fact that I stink at judging people on the basis of their stories. Sit me down in an interview with a job candidate, for example, and I come away with only the foggiest idea of who she is and whether she would make a good professor. Chat with me at a cocktail party, and I haven't a clue really about you and your personality. I watch a Michael Moore movie and come away moved yet simultaneously convinced that the guy is the biggest con artist of our generation.
What happens if I play a game with these people? It's very different, for me at least. When I game with people, I feel as though I get to know them quite well. What if our sociality involved gaming together instead of sharing tall tales? If you're a job candidate, why not build me a little simulation of your theory that I can play with, so I can see whether the things you claim actually might happen in the real world. A the party, what if we played a game of risk and adventure together, so I can see how confident you are under uncertainty and how you handle the possibility of rejection. Michael Moore - can you build a model that recreates your theories so I can calibrate it against the world as I know it? Of course you can't - you're crazy. Crazy people can tell crazy stories that ring true. But they can't build models that work. Functioning models are a lot harder to build than stories that make little children cry. So, sure - we get lots of stories. I just don't believe them any more. If you want me to believe something, give me a system, and walk me through it.
A couple of weeks ago we had a surprise job candidate in the game area. I was asked whether I wanted to meet with him. I thought about it and said, No, I don't want to meet with him. I want to game with him. I'll learn nothing from a 30-minute exchange of stories, and everything from 120 minutes of doing stuff. This request was met with consternation. "You need two hours to talk to the guy?" No - I need two hours to dance with his brain in a reasonably good simulation of something meaningful, like the War on Terror. I can't get anything out of chatting. But I can get a lot out of moves on the board.
Yeah, lots of people think stories are life changing and essential. Humbug. Consider the work of Jonathan Haidt and others, who argue that in moral discussions we tend merely to confirm our biases. Those stories that move you so - did they change you? No. They confirmed you. I imagine stories are so darn popular because they are not only lazy and cheap, but also the quickest way to find external confirmation of stuff we really want to be true. Systems don't do this. Crazy ideas can be supported with plausible stories, but not with plausible systems. If an idea is nutty, no system can be built to produce it.
There is an alternative to all these movies and dialogues and stories. If I want to test my ideas and yours, we should put our assumptions into a system and see how they operate. Put them to the test. Experiment rather than speculate. I'd like to *do* something with you rather than just chat. So, enough with the movies. Let's play a game.