Bees And Flowers: An Essay By Extropia DaSilva


Anthropologists have long saught to classify humans, coming up with terms like ‘the thinking animal’ or ‘Man the toolmaker’. But, perhaps the most apt description would be ‘the storytelling animal’. Creating imaginary places and people is a truly universal human skill. From the oral-storytellers of hunter-gatherer tribes, to the folktales written in ancient Sanskrit, Sumerian or Latin, and up to modern times with millions of books, TV shows and movies, storytelling is evident across all culture and throughout all human history.

One consequence of this tendency to weave fictional tales is a blurring of reality and fantasy in everyday life. We do not just live in the objective world of physical objects; we also share each other’s imaginary landscapes. Consider the following list of names. Ayn Rand, Bart Simpson, Charles Dogson, Dagny Taggart, Ella Fitzgerald, George Elliot, Hauldon Caullfield, Indiana Jones, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, Lewis Carrol, Mickey Mouse, Napolean Bonaparte, Oliver Twist, Plato, Ronald McDonald, Socrates, Tom Bombadil, Ulysses, Walt Disney. There is a good chance that you recognise quite a few of the names in that list, but can you say which are names of actual people, and which are only imaginary? I will tell you the answer later on, but for now we need to explain this most curious habit of weaving fictional tales.

It may not seem odd, but it is if you think about it. Why would evolution not select against minds that wasted time creating imaginary situations, rather than dealing exclusively with the real world? A branch of study known as ‘Literary Darwinism’ seeks to answer that question by comparing the themes of the tales themselves. Far from being specific to each culture, similar themes and character types appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Anyone who has spent some time ‘people watching’ in SL will have discovered that women there tend to be slim, young and beautiful. It is tempting to blame this stereotype on the fashion industry or Hollywood — endless images of impossibly beautiful people fill our streets and homes via billboard posters, magazine covers and TV shows. But, precisely the same gender description is encountered wherever you move across the landscape of folktales. No matter what continent, or what century, and regardless of whether it is a hunter-gatherer or an industrial society, women are much less likely to be the main characters and more likely to have emphasis placed on their beauty. Meanwhile, male characters are typically portrayed as more active and physically courageous. What these gender stereotypes reflect, it is suggested, are classic signs of reproductive health: youth and beauty for females (signifying the ability to bear children), and the ability to provide for a family (signalled by power and success) in males.

As for the themes, Patrick Hogan (a professor of English and Comparative Literature) has found that as many as two-thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions appear to be based on three narrative prototypes. ‘Romantic’ and ‘Heroric’ scenarios make up the two more common prototypes, with the former focusing on the trials and travails of love and the latter focusing on power struggles. Professor Hogan dubbed the third prototype ‘Sacrificial’. These kind of tales focus on agrarian plenty versus famine, as well as on societal redemption. These basic prototypes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

The latter need is almost certainly the reason why we have stories in the first place. In order to follow a story, you need an ability to read another entity’s motivations and intentions. Understanding a story, in other words, is a skill that is equivilent to understanding the human mind. Gwyneth Llewelyn habitually counters accusations of escapism by referring to forms of escapism that exist outside of computer-mediated VRs. Crying at a film, laughing out loud while reading a book, and things like that. Her point is, just about everyone indulges in some form of escapism. Psychologists have a name for the kind of immersionism typified by a weepy movie. They call it ‘Narrative Transport’. Whenever your emotions become inextricably tied to a story’s characters, you are displaying the ability to attribute mental states, such as awareness and intent, to another entity. This ability is known as ‘Theory of Mind’ and it is crucial to social interaction and communal living.

Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. It requires interacting with others and learning the rules and customs of society. Storytelling persists because there is no better way to promote social cohesion among groups, or for passing on knowledge to future generations. Stories’ roles in establishing the rules of society are demonstrated in a web-based survey of more than five hundred readers. The respondants answered questions about the motivations and personalities of one hundred and forty-four principle characters from a wide selection of Victorian novels. One thing this survey revealed is an evolved psychological tendency to envision human social relations as morally polarized between “us” and “them”. Another, was a tendency to view antagonists as a malign force motivated by social dominance as an end in itself, something that threatens the very principle of community. We see the former tendency in action in SL. For instance, an individual could use either voice or text to communicate, not exclusively preferring one or the other but rather adopting whichever best suits the current situation. But what debates tend to focus on is ‘voice’ versus ‘text’, as if residents in SL can be divided neatly into two groups that always oppose each other.

Theory of Mind is vital to social living, and it develops in children around age four or five. Once we possess it, we tend to make stories out of everything. This tendency was demonstrated in a 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. They created an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Although the shapes had no minds, people nevertheless described the scene as if the triangles and circle had intentions and motivations. They would make comments like ‘the triangles are chasing the circle’. We have a predilection for making characters and stories out of whatever we see in the world around us.

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About Extropia DaSilva

Taking today’s technological proof-of-principles and theoretically expanding their potentials to imagine Sl-meets-The-Matrix is my bag, baby!

  • Whew. Lots to think about 🙂 I should say, right from the start, that your use of my own poor little self as some kind of “personality” to make a point is a bit skewed. As I keep repeating, about only 200 human beings read my blog every day (the rest are ‘bots gathering statistics). My blog rank on Technorati keeps falling. The number of regular readers has declined over the years, continuously so. And so on… but alas, it’s your essay 🙂

    I have to admit that this is one of the most interesting essays you ever wrote, for lots and lots of reasons. One is clearing out the idea of human beings as “narrative beings”, a concept I only had from Terry Pratchett’s books, and which I did mostly disregard as “fiction”, even if on his partnership with Ian Stewart and Jack S. Cohenon on Science of Discworld II: The Globe, this thought is echoed over and over again. It’s interesting to see someone tie this concept — that we humans are, mostly, storytellers — with the notion (or “illusion”, as some oriental philosophies would say) of the self as an invented narrative, which, of course, fits quite well in the overall concept that reality is a perception of our senses — in a way, we tell to ourselves the story of the perception of reality (and of others). I definitely favour that argument, too 🙂 In fact, it has strong and powerful consequences, and, ironically, it is a “theory of the universe” (and not only of the mind!) in the sense that “the universe is a collection of stories about what we perceive”. Science is a story, too.

    Even more intriguing were the quotes from scientists explaining the notion of self as “fragments of stories” that we assemble to, well, become “ourselves” — but that those same fragments can quite easily be assembled to create imaginary characters in fiction. Or, well, on virtual worlds. Eons ago, I wrote something not unlike that: the notion that our self is a dynamic thing that is assembled from several personality traits and that it can get “reshuffled” pretty easily when you’re younger, less so after your teens — except, of course, if you’re under the influence about some kind of drug, narcotic, stimulant, or, well, through brain damage and/or surgery. In fact, although I didn’t realise that at the time, it’s exactly because of this ability of the “ever-changing self” that drugs are able to deal with mental disorders like bipolarity or the more common depression — we can artificially “shut down” some areas of the brain, and become “different” in that way.

    Granted, if you start reading oriental philosophy or anything the classical Greeks have written 2500 years ago or more, this won’t be news. They always said that the notion of “self” was purely delusional — just a story that we tell and share with others.

    Starting from this assumption, it naturally follows that if someone can tell your story well enough, they become you. This is, in fact, one of the most worrying aspects of electronic identity theft: creeps being able to impersonate your self as good as you, and, well, use that for illegitimate (or criminal!) purposes. This is a serious crime. One that is hard to prevent. So, if the authorities already worry about identities being stolen, and incorporate that in the body of law that protects our societies, it’s obvious that “identities can be copied” (or, well, roleplayed, since that word is quite well loaded). I missed some typical examples on your essay: e.g. things like Sherlock Holmes or even Charlie Chaplin’s Charlot that became stereotypes, but whose “stories” will be immediately recognised by anyone — and we can, of course, use many more examples. Are vampires real? No. So why can anybody (in the Western world at least) define what a vampire is with excruciating detail to the point that everybody in the audience will immediately know what they’re talking about?

    So, I’m obviously not “surprised” by your essay — just surprised, in fact, about the many ties you found between (apparently) different research areas, all of them pretty much saying bits and pieces, but you managed to bring them all together under a consistent idea. Gosh, I just realise that this is exactly what you said that an essay actually is — bits and pieces, floating around, gathering into the same “story”. Nothing is new, just recycled — “newness” comes only from the insight of saying which pieces should be assembled together, and which should stay out of it. Uncanny. Very nice work, Extie 🙂

    Lastly, I always find your ideas about “immortality through avatars” amusing. Oh yes, they’re not so “obvious” — the transhumanists and extropians are usually more worried about the “mind uploaded to computers” issue. You, on the other hand, minimise the importance of the technology by itself, and point to a far easier route for “immortality”: having other people roleplaying your self (and, after all, what better “machine” to upload your mind to — a human being, which are the best known examples of “mind-running” computers that we know about? And hooray, they already exist, work fine, and we have 6.3 billion of them around!).

    The issue you always arise is the “why would someone like to roleplay me?”, and, of course, this is where we get religious — or perhaps mystical would be a less loaded word. You seem to imply that only “famous” people would likely be roleplayed by others — thus preserving their immortality. In real life, this is, to an extent, true. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is probably the archetypal detective that has been mostly roleplayed ever, just because, well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous and his stories became even more famous. A minor detective on an even minor book of an unknown author might never be picked up ever again. Similarly, Plato has roleplayed what Socrates might have said, because, well, Socrates, even if he hasn’t ever written a single word (that we know about), was “famous” — more famous than Plato at least. Examples abound.

    On the other hand, of course, you make a good argument that “unknown” people (in the sense of “less famous”) might be “easier” to roleplay because there is little known about them, and fewer friends to “fool” (in the good sense). That argument is definitely true; the question, of course, arises:

    If you have unlimited abilities to create your own self — either in real life or, well, in virtual worlds — why should you be compelled to roleplay someone’s self? That’s something I still don’t get 🙂 I might imagine one scenario: claiming to be “Charlot” in 2009 might be far better for a performer to get an audience, than, well, claiming to be himself. Elvis impersonators are more “famous” than the real persons that impersonate them — just, well, because they impersonate “Elvis”. So there is some good argument to say that famous people (whatever “famous” might mean in this context…) will be good candidates for roleplaying. After all, mentally deranged people are keen to say they’re reincarnations of Cleopatra or Napoleon, but never of John Doe, anonymous goat keeper of a rural dwelling on the highlands 🙂

    And finally, of course, I might add some things of my own 🙂 If I’m personally not that keen about releasing so many information about my real self — and God knows I give enough hints — does that mean a) I have something to hide; b) I’m aiming for immortality, as you suggest, by forfeiting the link with my real self, so that someone else might pick up the mind-patterns of “Gwyneth Llewelyn” in the future; c) I’m just having fun roleplaying someone; d) none of the above.

    Ha! I wish it were an easy answer 🙂 And, of course, the answer is different depending on the year you ask me 🙂 It might make a whole essay one day, but suffice it to say that by disconnecting my virtual self from my real self, I’m just making a simple statement: human beings are worth by what they say and do (you might say: “the story they tell”), not because of who they are, where they’re born, how old they are, what they’re studied, what cool friends they’ve got. If there is a simple lesson I’ve learned is that I, as a person (and that is true of every human being on Earth, even if most will disagree with me 🙂 ), am worth very little. It’s just my ego that makes me think otherwise. Everybody else is way more important than me. However, we tend to “tag” people relatively to our social status, wealth, friendship, knowledge, studies, and, well, colour of skin, age, gender, religion, whatnot. I dislike “tags”. I’m just another one of the 6.3 billion human beings in existence — nothing else, and nothing more. My virtual projection into Second Life, the cute-ish red-headed avatar that walks around with a smile, a glint in her eyes, and a flower in her head (has nobody ever wondered why?), is just tabula rasa — take me for what stories I spin about myself, not for my, uh, “credentials” or “authority” that comes from immaterial and transitory things that I might have accumulated elsewhere in real life. These are completely irrelevant to what makes me a human being. And by voluntarily discarding all those “real life tags” I allow everybody in SL (and elsewhere) to tag me from scratch based on what they experience.

    Granted, this might have been my reasoning, but it has a major flaw: as time passes by in SL, I accumulate new tags 🙂 That runs, of course, against my original intentions (just an hour ago, I logged in to OS Grid, and the first guy I met there just asked: “Hey, are you the same Gwyn that blogs a lot?” *sigh* There goes my theory!). I’m sure that there is a lesson to be learned there, too. The good news, of course, is that as SL grows and grows, I become less and less relevant, and that is a Good Thing.

    And of course, there would be an easy way out, e.g. getting different avatars, different names, all the time, so that I could avoid the tagging. Alas, that doesn’t work at all. Imagine a tourist visiting a nice, peaceful, fishermen’s village at the coast. She won’t make an impression if she stays just a few days around and talks to people. She will be quickly forgotten once she leaves. But if she remains in the village for years or decades, she will be accepted by the community, and, even if they remember that she might once have lived elsewhere, she’ll be “part of it” now, and will be treated according to the way she presents herself. In a sense, that’s my idea of Second Life, strongly influenced by Philip’s own idea of “SL as a country”. I’m an immigrant here in SL, but after so much time has passed, I feel that I’m accepted now, and can contribute back to the community as well. Starting afresh every day — juggling among alts — defeats that purpose.