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The Effectiveness of Narratives

Getting people engaged with something is a really hard challenge. There are so many ideas and projects out there, and many don’t seem to get a lot of attention, or are outright ignored or rejected. Some social movements succeed, while others lose traction and finally go nowhere. And then, there are many rather trivial and mundane matters that get a lot of attention, even though there are so many more deserving causes.

What makes the difference in the success of all these things? I think the crucial aspect is the quality and “compellingness” of their underlying narratives. Human beings like to think in terms of stories, especially when they are embedded in rich and grand narratives. And there are quite a few of them, actually:

  • The Gilgamesh Epos
  • Homer’s Odyssey
  • The Old Testament
  • The Communist Manifesto
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugs
  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels
  • My Little Pony
  • The Singularity

To an unsettling and uncanny degree, people flock around those grand narratives and do all kinds of crazy associated things. This definitely shows that narratives can be very effective in getting people to do something – or even a lot, as seen in my post

Whether it’s the thing that they should be doing, is debatable, nevertheless.

Now, what happens when an overarching narrative is missing? Well, I fear the result is utter and complete failure! Doing things without wrapping them into an enveloping narrative does not seem to be the way people operate naturally or effectively.

And I think this is a major and important insight: The effectiveness of our efforts stands and falls with our ability to light a fire in other humans. And our ability to do that depends on the quality and fitness of the narratives we use to unite them under a larger theme.

The most influential people are actually the best storytellers. So, the art of telling engaging stories is of crucial importance to all those who want to effectively create a better future:

So, who are the storytellers who shape the world? There are

  • Philosophers
  • Politicians
  • Novelists
  • Journalists and bloggers
  • Movie directors and artists
  • Computer game designers
  • Product designers and marketers

All of them tell stories to reach people emotionally and move them so much that they start doing something. Of course, different people have various levels of success and failure applying this approach, but it’s the only general approach that really seems to work. Those who are skilled at telling captivating stories will get a lot of attention, and those who lack that skill will be ignored. I think this a skill that can be trained. Practice, as always, plays a most important role here.

And it’s a skill that many thinkers, doers, activists, futurists, and transhumanists are not very good at! Otherwise they would get a lot more attention. Having said that, I must admit that my skills in that regard seem to be quite mediocre, too. But after some hard thinking I have come to the conclusion that it’s a serious priority for me to work on that skill, because it really seems to be the most determining factor for the impact one person can have on the world.

So, the conclusion for me is twofold:

  1. We need to become better at being effective storytellers and weavers of compelling narratives.
  2. We actually need to create an overarching narrative that gives our community clear cultural cohesion. So far, this has been the narrative of the fractal society. But I think there is something greater and more encompassing than that: It’s the vision of neternity, a new era for humanity that changes life to the better for everyone on almost every level. Neternity comes with great freedom, great abundance, great technology, and a great society which has a place for everyone.

The vision of neternity is in some sense the successor of the narrative of the Singularity, but in contrast to the Technological Singularity, neternity is more concrete, and closer in time, in other words:

Neternity is nearer

And we actually have to bring forth neternity with our own actions and projects. In that sense, the promise of neternity is a practical and political project, as opposed to a teleological and deterministic outcome of societal and technological forces. This is of course a simplification, because I believe that the evolution towards neternity is a natural one, but it stands in contrast to many of our contemporary values, systems, and structures. Working towards neternity may be less convenient than simply waiting for the Singularity to happen, but it’s a more epic quest to actually envision and create the future with your own efforts.

That’s why I will focus my efforts on working on the vision of neternity, whether it’s the details of its underlying systems, its general philosophy, or the fictional narratives that are connected to it, like Netec and Fractal Cosmos.

Of course, this will mean that I will spend less time on learning to code, so my plans to implement my reputation economy system Quantified Prestige as web application will be postponed. Now I believe that it is more important to create the cultural conditions in which a reputation economy can thrive. Its actual technological implementation can and will come later. A technological solution that is used by nobody would be of very little value, after all.

So, I invite you to work on and with the grand narrative of neternity. How will life be better in that coming age that we will create together? Please share your visions, even if they are unfinished and rough. The world needs them! You need them! Our Fractal Future needs them!


Thinking about the effectiveness of narratives, I always come back to the effectiveness of religion. I’m aware that most transhumanists are not religious in the common sense of the word and may even have a hostile attitude towards religion in general or at least (which is understandable) against religious fundamentalists denying the insights of science and well-established theories about how the universe works, evolution and so on.

But from a more neutral point of view, not engaged in debates about whether religion is good or bad in itself, but rather looking at the function that religion performs in society, one can’t deny that it is powerful force. Religion provides strong social bondings and feelings of sacredness. Both is not restricted to classical religions per se, but can also be to some varying extent found in the fandoms you’ve mentioned.

Being a spiritual naturalist myself, I’m always torn between opposing religions or trying to hijack them. Religions come with narratives that are so open to interpretation, you can literally invent a transhumanist version of every single one.

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I’m pretty much a simulationist right now. And I think the mind of our simulators are quite weird. This resonates quite well with the Christian saying “God works in mysterious ways”. I think there is a higher purpose (or more) to this simulation, but I can only begin guessing what it might be. Anyway, it would take centuries to try hijacking pre-existing religions with these kinds of ideas.

Yes, but the obvious problem is that most people will reject the transhumanist reinterpretations of religious narratives. Perhaps it might be most easily done be referring to mystic / gnostic traditions, which were pretty transhumanist for their time.

Anyway, I’m agnostic about all of this. Religions will survive, and if they do, they will probably do so transhumanist reinterpretations of their narratives, but I’m not sure I want to contribute to that process.

We need more compelling (quasi)secular narratives. That way, we can slowly drive people away from (religious) extremism.

That’s why I would call myself a deist, too. It is just very probable to be like that, the simulation argument has fully convinced me. I’m pretty sure that it is recursive, too, and our creators probably have creators themselves. This resonates quite well with some “occult” traditions as well as with gnostic/mystic ones, so maybe our ancestors were up to something.[quote=“Radivis, post:3, topic:688”]

We need more compelling (quasi)secular narratives. That way, we can slowly drive people away from (religious) extremism.

I’m not sure if this will work on a larger scale. Reading/Listening to “The Righteous Mind” has opened my eyes about people’s morality more than any other book I’ve read. In evalutating everyday life, many people categorize morally not only along lines of harm being done or pleasure caused, but also along lines of appropriateness and sanctity within their moral framework. I’m not sure if a comparable intensity of moral feelings, which are after all the guidelines for judging right from wrong (secularists tend to overestimate the cold rationality involved even in their own judgements), can be delivered by secular narratives. After all, transhumanist themes always involve transcendence, which (at least for me) almost automatically triggers religious imagery. I often find myself thinking about how transhumanism implies immanentizing the eschaton for pretty much all religious traditions, however “eschaton” may be defined (nirvana etc.).

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I see how that has utility as computational shortcut for avoiding the heavy lifting involved in consequentialist reasoning. The problem arises from people not seeing it as moral shortcut, but as ultimate wisdom. In a world that is changing ever more rapidly, this conservative moral mindset will create an increasing amount of problems. In fact, this mindset will probably the main limiting factor for progress. When social reality if formed by those for whom every innovation is a violation of sanctity, true progress can only happen outside of the mainstream of society.

I don’t think that creating narratives with the same moral power as religious narratives is a problem. The real problem is that rational morality requires regulating moral instincts and emotional reactions. Drunken moral outrage will always be louder and wilder than reflected ethical condemnation.

Depends of the kind of transhumanist themes. There’s a lot of rather mundane stuff in transhumanism, too.

This makes me want to have a t-shirt stating “Immanentize the fucking eschaton already - become transhuman!” :wink:


Frankly, I don’t know if transhumanism would have much appeal to me if it develop into some sort of quasi-religious movement.

I’d certainly prefer to stick up with our secular narrative

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Ha, that’s resonates well with what was written in a different thread, about gamification of the movement (not quite stated like that, but with the same end result). Religion, philosophy, politics, movies - they all try to engage us in a story, RPG… everything is a game, even if it pretends to be as serious as religion :smile: Is secular, straight scientific worldview a narrative too? History of science suggests even hard science is not immune to telling its story in slightly skewed way…



It’s interesting that you equate narratives with games. They both seem to be attractive and compelling, at least when executed well. Yet, I think that narratives and games are two different things. A narrative doesn’t have to be interactive. A game doesn’t have to tell a story.

It may be worth making a new thread about “the effectiveness of games”, though. :smile:

Not on its own. It can be the basis for many secular, straight, scientific narratives, though.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the scientific method and the theories that result from the application of the scientific method. The latter is “scientific knowledge” and may well be proven wrong by later scientific insights.

Anyway, @sandu probably knows more about the topic of religious and scientific narratives than I do. What’s your point of view? Do we need more narratives? Better narratives? Weirder narratives?

And sandu’s name was written there and it popped up in the notification. Sandu realized, this must be something interesting or important and got curious. Curiosity, my fellow people, is the beginning of the inquiry which brings oh so many fruits but also dark moments of truth. And so the journey of sandu, writing in this topic, began, it was a brave journey and there were many things to come yet. Many friends to meet and many words to find. Also, many truths and falsehoods to be distinguised. And many narratives to be told.

Anyways, thanks for the compliment, so it seems i have to answer :smiley: But I’m not sure I understand the topic well. Firstly, what is meant by narratives? Are they myths? Just any kind of story? Why focus on narratives? In contrast to what?

Secondly, when you ask if we need more or better or weirder ones of those. I would agree. But also I’ve no particular clue for what aim exactly. For letting people be more productive? In which way? Any way?For changing the world to the better?

Of course, narratives can inspire people. They could maybe also harm, if people tend to believe in the false ones just too much. What about religion and science?

From my point of view, I need some goals in my life: big goals, which might be blurry, and mid- and tiny goals, which can be more specific. And I need the feeling of working at these goals wich success every day. So you might say that’s a narrative: I remember where I started or where I was yesterday or a year ago, so I get motivated to reach what i vision for tomorror, next year or the farther future. This kind of motivation is really important to me. But it’s really not all about a narrative, I think. Of course, it’s important to see the progress. But even if there would be no clear progress, maybe I would have motivation still. Then it would be just a vision or even less definit: just a feeling, or rather an urge, to follow some path, regardless of what.

Well, I think I use “narratives” as a slightly more encompassing term for “story”. Narratives may also be the stories that we don’t consciously perceive as stories. Perhaps also sets of believes, and hopes. Cultural flavours, even.

What can narratives be contrasted with? Perhaps games? Purely factual transformation of information? Normal conversations? Boredom?

For being more effective at convincing other people, and at making them do something you want to do. Of course for the greater mission of changing the world to the better, what else? Selling more iPhones? :wink: :laughing:

Yes, I totally can relate with that. The good thing is that I start feeling that I kinda make actual progress with some things. Not having that feeling made me mad far too often – and for good reason.

[quote=“sandu, post:9, topic:688”]
Then it would be just a vision or even less definit: just a feeling, or rather an urge, to follow some path, regardless of what.[/quote]
I think when everything else fails, the one thing that makes me go on in the hope for a better future. I can’t just let the world stay the same as it is today. It’s just that I see what could be better and that makes me mad at the suboptimality around me. It’s like a thorn that would drive me to change the world, no matter what the circumstances of my life were.

Also, I tell myself that I need to become better and stronger in order to fulfil my mission of changing the world to the better. It’s a kind of personal narrative.

I see. That way, a narrative also includes a perspective on life. Depends on which perspective you have (if any), you are more or less motivated to follow your dreams - or to follow the sheeps. Although I said it could be motivating just to follow your feeling without any idea on how it will turn out at all, this might require a deep feeling and some kind of magic wisdom. So most of the time a perspective is needed, one which motivates people. Also, of course, the feeling of progress in the recent past to be sure your way is really the right one. Also the idea of a way at all, which might, to suffice, be just a feeling though.

Anyways, people are bound to different kinds of nihilism and pessimism, so they lack any perspective on the future and often they don’t even feel something like a vision, no matter how “unrealistic” it might seem: they seem to lack any imagination for it or the motivation to imagine and dream, because their “narrative” goes like: this world is flawed, but we have to live with it, arrange with it, not to think too much about a better world, because that only makes me feel worse, for I can’t change it anyways. Or maybe even: this world is flawed, but it’s okay, really. smiles excessively

So how to reach people there? Differs on how far they are gone in the abyss of nihilism. But a narrative would be a start. Some mind shifting one. Some touching one. Which activates a part inside of them, that always was suppressed: some longing which is set free, some story which tells the people: yes, I know how you feel, you’re not alone, others feel it too. And there is a way to let your feeling live, there is hope! We might be able to do that! Let’s do that! :sob: :smiley:

So how do you inspire people? I would say by letting your own visions and fantasy go wild. Really wild and letting it kick all the "but"s (pun intended) apart and just show the world and yourself, what authenticity looks and feels like…

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