“Stories,” Gaiman said, “teach us how the world is put together and the rules of living in the world, and they come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want to help them propagate.” Northwest coast native Americans have a tale about a beautiful woman and young man whose forbidden love was punished by the earth shaking, and black ash on snow, and finally fire coming from a mountain, killing many people. It stopped only when the beautiful woman was thrown into the burning mountain.
That is important information– solid-seeming mountains can suddenly erupt, and early warnings of that are earthquakes and ash. As pure information it won’t last beyond three generations. But add in beauty and forbidden love and tragic death, and the story will be told as long as people live in the mountains.
Neil Gaiman did the latest Seminar About Longterm Thinking, audio available to all, video available to Long Now members. 2 years in the making, this is a story about stories, and how we have stories that date back 5000 years.
I think my favorite moment was his explanation that stories are lies. When you say “Once upon a time”, it’s code for “I’m going to lie to you now”. And when you say “this happened to a friend of mine”, it’s code for “I’m going to lie to you now, but I think there is a chance this might be true”. But in those lies we layer elements of truth that endure, even as the stories adapt to the modern age.
As with all Long Now talks, this comes in over an hour and a half of content, but well worth your time.