18 October 2019
Humans are storytelling animals. We tell stories to make sense of the world and our place in it. Stories connect us to the past, to great causes beyond ourselves, and they offer glimpses of the future. “They have mobilized individuals and groups into action across the span of human history and contributed to reshaping the world”, explains Martin Puchner, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and author of ‘The Written World, the power of stories to shape people, history, civilization’.
“While reading Professor Puchner’s book about how the power of stories has changed the course of history in the past, I realised that we are lacking new stories at the exact moment when we need them most,'' recalls Gloria Benedikt, Science and Art Project leader at IIASA.
Today, our world is faced with new challenges, from global warming to the fourth industrial revolution, that require action on a global scale. Many of the universe’s mysteries, which have been communicated through stories for most of history, have been unraveled by science. Now there is need for new kinds of science-based stories, combining the two powerful tools we possess: storytelling and knowledge.
“So we started to think about what kind of stories could help us through the current evolutionary bottleneck and propel us into a sustainable future”, explains Benedikt.
This question was investigated during a pilot project at IIASA this spring, when two playwrights took scientific papers as a starting point to create theater plays. One tackled the interconnection of resource depletion and demographic development, the other biodiversity loss. “Through this process we established guidelines for writers who are interested in creating science based stories. To scale up the creation of more stories, providing a framework is important”, explains Benedikt.
The goal is not to impose a single story, but to be an incubator of diverse kinds of storytelling. “The result of the internet revolution,” says Puchner, “is that barriers of access have dropped; today, everyone can become an author.”
The initiative hopes to encourage, aggregate, and channel that democratic storytelling energy. In its first phase, the Stories for the Future initiative will thus provide a platform to collect and publish new stories.
The power of stories to shape history is part of the greatest of all stories: the evolution of life on earth. Life records and processes information through DNA, which relies on random gene mutations observed over millions of years. But the emergence of language has allowed one species, homo sapiens, to develop an additional way of recording and processing information: cultural transmission. Cultural transmission does not rely on random gene mutations, but on the deliberate transmission of knowledge encoded in stories from one generation to the next. Culturally transmitted information has been so powerful that in a few hundred thousand years – an evolutionary blink of an eye – it allowed homo sapiens to take dominion over the earth.
Last edited: 03 September 2020
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