Telling stories: the evolution of fiction

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2010

Why do we humans have such an obsession with making up, telling and listening to stories? A chap called Brian Boyd, writing at Axess Magazine, attempts to piece together the reasons that we have evolved – and maintained – this unique form of social behaviour [via BigThink]:

Fiction takes minds that first evolved to deal with the here and now away from the here and now. Ape minds grew in order to deal with complex social relations, and human minds developed still further as we became ultrasocial. Our minds are most finely tuned for understanding agents, that is, any creatures who can act: animal, human, and by extension, monsters, gods and spirits.

In ancient environments, the agents we evolved to track were other animals as well as people, and even in modern urban environments children have a compulsive desire to learn the names of animals and to play with or make up or listen to stories about animals. Our minds want to and easily can track and differentiate agents, since other agents, human or not, offer the most complex, volatile and high-stake information we regularly encounter. We carry that motivation and capacity into pretend play and story.

[…]

As psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley remarks, fiction works as a social simulator, allowing us to stretch our scope beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible. We need not be confined to the given, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or to see how they could have been or might be. By building on our sociality, pretend play and fiction extend our imaginations, taking us from the here and now along tracks we can easily follow even offline because they are the fresh tracks of agents.

So next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time reading a book, you know what to tell ’em. 😉

At the risk of playing the “OMG EssEff is Special!” card, might science fiction be considered a further evolution (or maybe just a fork) of that basic storytelling impulse – not so much a refinement, but a specific extension of its utility suited to the changing needs of human societies? Is that, perhaps, why it only really arrived on the scene at a point in our social history when the idea of tomorrow’s world differing to today’s in radical ways was starting to become commonplace*?

[ * For the purpose of this argument, I’m pegging the dawn of sf to coincide roughly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; many critics – not least the good Professor Adam Roberts, late of this parish and others – have argued that the attitudes and imaginative leaps that characterise sf can be found in earlier texts, but that’s a debate to be had when there’s time, beer and barstools to spare. And of course, we’ll need to thrash out a definition of sf that we can all agree on before we start… ]


Gestural interface: like a Wacom tablet, just without the plastic bits

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

Via SlashDot, here’s a project from Potsdam University in which the clever boffins have built a user interface that requires only hand gestures as input:

We present Imaginary Interfaces, screen-less devices that allow users to perform spatial interaction with empty hands and without visual feedback. Unlike projection-based solutions, such as Sixth Sense, all “feedback” takes place in the user’s imagination. Users define the origin of an imaginary space by forming an L-shaped coordinate cross with their non-dominant hand. Users then point and draw with their dominant hand in the resulting space. The interaction is tracked by a tiny camera device clipped to the user’s clothing and pointed at the user’s hands.

A bit rough and ready, sure, but it’s early days. Bolt this onto AR (they both need similar face-mounted hardware, so convergence is pretty inevitable), and stuff gets weird real quick. Cities full of people wandering around, seemingly talking to themselves and waving their hands in gnomic gestures… it’d look like a city of mad magicians.

Or, y’know, like Burning Man or Glastonbury at 5am on a Saturday. 🙂


Excavating Worlds

Tim Maly @ 27-11-2009

Can you keep a secret? Despite being a total nerd, I somehow managed to grow up without playing a single full D&D adventure. It wasn’t because I was too cool for it or anything, I just didn’t have the right friends. But I wanted to, let me tell you. Desperately.

So I bought sourcebooks. Continue reading “Excavating Worlds”


The Superstruct Game is go!

Paul Raven @ 09-10-2008

Hey, remember me mentioning a kind of Mundane SF/futurist social media roleplaying game back in July? Well, The Superstruct Game finally kicked off this week, and you can get involved on a number of levels – hundreds of participants (including a number of Futurismic staffers) are already helping to invent the future, so hop in and join them.

What are the requirements? That you can imagine what the world might be like in 2019… so ideal for science fiction fans, I’d have thought. Get involved!