Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Language and Fear

I very much enjoyed reading the comment that America Jones posted in response to "Innovation and Regulation." For some reason I found myself free-associating on the title of the collected nonfiction by Joan Didion that was published in 2006, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live; and from there I free-associated to a reading that Roy Blount Jr. had given from his book Be Sweet at the Stanford University Bookstore, which included the sentence, "When I was a child, one definition of 'telling a story' was lying." Is this how we live then, telling each other (and ourselves) stories, whether in the high council of the World Economic Forum, on our video screens, or at the bedside of our children before they go to sleep; and, if it is how we live, why do we live that way? Accepting the truth of the proposition, the explanation may lie in that "culture of fear" that emerged towards the end of the "Innovation and Regulation" post: We tell ourselves stories to keep fear at bay. This is blatantly evident in the news reports we are currently watching, filled with "experts making up stories" about our dire economic straits; but we also saw it in the reports leading up to the convening of the World Economic Forum. When we talk about innovation, we are doing little more than making up a story, just like those experts making up stories for those to whom, as America Jones put it, "the stock market represents a comfortable retirement rather than a fancy roulette wheel."

Blount was, of course, milking the humor out of a single interpretation of the phrase, "telling a story;" but then that's his job. Perhaps a more accurate (if long-winded) way of putting it is that we tell ourselves stories to convince ourselves of propositions without bothering over whether or not they are true. Consider, for example, this Associated Press report on the address Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, gave in Davos in light of those "stories" about "collaborative initiatives," which were supposed to be a key theme:

AT&T Inc. is still evaluating whether to examine traffic on its Internet lines to stop illegal sharing of copyright material, its chief executive said Wednesday.

CEO Randall Stephenson told a conference at the World Economic Forum that the company is looking at monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, one of the largest drivers of online traffic but also a common way to illegally exchange copyright files.

"It's like being in a store and watching someone steal a DVD. Do you act?" Stephenson asked.

AT&T has talked about such plans since last summer. They represent a break with the current practice of U.S. Internet service providers, who are shielded by law from liability if their subscribers trade copyright files like movies.

If ever there were a need for a "collaborative initiative," it would be to address the problem that the Internet has rendered the traditional concept of copyright obsolete; yet here is a key "player" in the global economy telling his fellow conferees that he is gathering the wagons in a circle and getting out the rifles. He wants to believe that the aforementioned "traditional concept of copyright" is still alive and well and that the Internet is nothing more than an attack on salt-of-the-earth pioneers straight out of a John Wayne movie; and, dammit, there he is telling a story to convince himself (and everyone else).

This is what CEOs do. They do it on an annual basis at shareholders' meetings. They do it when analysts come to prepare their reports that brokers will then pay good money to read (so that they can then tell those of us with retirement portfolios stories based on what they have read). Some of them even do it when testifying before Congressional committees.

This takes us back to the fear factor. As I have suggested, the stories we tell are desired truths, regardless of whether or not they are actual truths; and we have to tell them when we are afraid to face those actual truths. We tell stories about terrorists because the thought that our own culture may be giving offense to others is too horrible to contemplate. We tell stories about expected value because we are afraid to formulate a worst-case scenario around what happens when our best-laid investment plans go south. We even tell stories about risk to convince ourselves that preparing worst-case scenarios is a waste of time; and, on top of that, we tell stories about government safety nets, just in case the stories about risk go south.

My favorite line from William Shakespeare's The Tempest is delivered by Caliban:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!

Caliban almost got it right. By learning language, we know how to tell stories. Through telling stories we need neither to cringe from our fears nor to curse them. We simply cover them over with those desired truths, at least for as long as others are willing to listen to and accept our stories; but, every now and then, that dreaded "sense of reality" intrudes on the day-to-day stories we hear and tell. Then our bubbles burst and we are reduced to a blather of cringing and cursing over a mess that surrounds us, when we should be collecting our thoughts (whatever may be left of them) to start deliberating on how to get out of that mess!

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