Preface: It’s tough for me to explain how important this is. There are ideas that get my heart pumping and fingers shaking, because they’re so fundamental that they touch everything. You’ve maybe seen me step away from the piano, shaking slightly — same thing. Everything is the same. I don’t have any idea what to do with this, but to chase it.
If you could reason perfectly and infinitely (the logic goes), and if you had perfect knowledge of every particle in existence, you could sort out what Dick Cheney had with his eggs last Sunday.
Because physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and a perfect machine could trace everything back. (I assume quantum-something-something has disproven Newton’s laws, or will, but let’s roll with this for the time being.)
You and I are not perfect machines, in that sense — but, we are very very good at pattern-matching. You don’t need perfect knowledge of the universe and a legal pad to hash out why your roommate is crying, because you can see the TV, and can thereby conclude that Moana’s grandmother is the spirit guide your roommate didn’t know he needed, until tonight.
I wrote a while back about pattern recognition, and how the ability to derive patterns from the world is probably our truest strength. Nothing about that idea has changed, but I need to refocus it again, because most of my thinking there has been on passive applications (reactivity, observation, sensing-when-something-is-wrong-or-right), and explicitly not on active ones.
I’ve said forever that programming feels the same as photography and music. I’ve known forever that this has something to do with finding balance in what you create, weighing the pieces and the whole and poking at it and rewiring and redefining it until it feels finished, where “finished” here means “complete enough that you can forget it’s a fabrication and can lose yourself inside of it, because its internal consistency is such that your subconscious can take over navigation”.
This holds for any creative work, I think, but let’s work with storytelling as a specific example, because everyone knows and tells stories.
When you tell a story, you’re using a plot and characters and whatnot, delivering to your listeners bits and pieces of a universe that you hold in your mind, with the intent of moving an entire universe from your mind to theirs. This is a nontrivial exercise, in three parts:
- With every word, your listeners are ingesting and recombining everything you say and have said, tuning their mental model of the world you propose.
- This model is mostly subconscious (go back and read that pattern recognition writeup), but data about how well that model is holding up does make it to the conscious level. In practical terms, this means your listeners can tell when your world is inconsistent, when it’s not plausible.
- You’re taking an imaginary world, an internally consistent universe in your mind, and are pulling from it a storyline it contains, choosing and delivering evidence from what you imagine to be an internally consistent universe, despite you not knowing that universe in full. (Pointedly, because your brain is made of meat, not silicon. You can hold patterns in your mind, not an uncountable set of details.)
So here’s the trick, then: you, who think in patterns because you are human, are trying to move an entire world from your head to someone else’s, using only bits of information that your listeners can use to set up imaginary world-patterns of their own, because they don’t think in pure physics any more than you do. And the hope is that they arrive at a world that they can explore for themselves, because it’s consistent enough — real enough — that their subconscious can write the map ahead based only on the patterns you’ve created in their minds.
This is craaaaaaaazy. And we can do this in all kinds of media: music, stage, paint, literally anything that can be sensed.
But to bring it home, I’m not talking about storytelling for recreation, because you know how that works already — I’m talking about the much more mundane acts of creation, the ones that we usually think of as purely functional. Programming, for example. Financial planning. Interior design. Every act of creation is, at some level, suggesting a universe into existence. (Here’s the test: have you set up a system such that you’d know if something added to it was either out of place or in harmony with its surroundings? Yes? You builder-of-worlds you.)
And if you think about it this way, you can see how story plays into this. When someone uses a program that I write, they’re taking in all the cues that I give them and constructing in their minds the system I’ve imagined, that I’ve tried to make real as a program. The system is complete and internally consistent in my head; my job is to lay down the mechanics in code, effectively telling the story to the computer, and then to ensure that its plot and its characters are communicated to the user so well that the system they thereby imagine is the same that I imagined when I first sat down at the keyboard.
This holds everywhere. You know that everything we take in, every tiny detail, is subject to pattern-matching. Your brain is constantly sorting and reconciling the evidence. The idea I’m trying to create in your mind is the inverse of this — what does it look like to take a pattern in your mind and make it real as a detail in the world, to be shared, to be picked up by other minds again?
Or maybe not — maybe nobody need pick up that detail again, and maybe the question is, simply, have you added something to the world that is consistent with the true nature of the world, allowing things to flow and life to move? Or have you injected chaos, an anti-pattern, a plot hole, a chair out of place? The audience for your stories may be your fellow human, but what if you decided your audience was the world itself?
(Bonus questions: as an artifact of nature, could you act but in consistent accord with it? Would you want to?)