“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s a pattern Joseph Campbell noticed this pattern flowing through many historic myth, legend and story. The most popular example of this is Star Wars — George Lucas based the plot on Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero story. Once you start to think about it, most popular films follow this pattern, from Harry Potter to the Matrix.
A lot of popular movies, books and plays have eerily similar plot devices. We all know that the poor unpopular kid is destined for something great and the unstoppable bad guy eventually gets beaten. The callous character develops empathy and the nice guy eventually gets the girl. Maybe you’ve stumbled on the “everything is a remix” video and find out that Led Zeppelin were the Justin Bieber of their time or that Steve Jobs founded Apple on Xerox’s ideas. This can’t be laziness so is there more to it?
Christopher Booker claimed there were only really seven plots in existence. He ties these plots back to fundamental human psychology. Bryan Boyd talks about storytelling being one of our fundamental evolutionary survival traits. The ability to pass down information about our environment helped us survive on a practical level. The ability to embellish and exaggerate that story to make it heroic is what helped us build the motivation to survive against the odds.
If the ability to tell stories is an evolutionary trait, it’s baked into the way our pre-historic brains operated. The first Star Wars may have featured a dog, shaman and mammoth rather than a wookie, jedi and AT-AT walker. The original Drake probably sang around a campfire about his pre-historic booty calls. The first Steve Jobs might have called the Pyramids “insanely great” before proclaiming “this changes everything”.
If storytelling is linked to the way our brain operates, it stands to reason that some forms of story will be more interesting to our brains than others. In fact the majority of potential stories just won’t be relevant to us at all. Watching grass grow might be dramatic to the grass, or the universe, but not to us. Therefore there has to be a finite number of relevant stories possible. If there is a limit to the types of stories we can tell, then there really is nothing really new under the sun. That means far from being a unique snowflake, your creation can be boiled down to mathematical formula.
So why is this important? That act of boiling life down into math is the key to technological progress. You might think your local barista is special, but the majority of their customers now find them on Yelp or Google maps. If Google / Yelp didn’t know that store was in the ‘coffee shops’ category, and didn’t have a standardized address to compare with your (also standardized) geolocation, and didn’t rate how ‘special’ they were out of 5 stars, those apps wouldn’t function. The same concept applies to any human problem — it might be difficult, but if it can be categorized, standardized and scored, it can be automated.
With Netflix conquering Hollywood, Google automating driving, x.ai replacing personal assistants and IBM’s Watson beating Jeopardy, the domain of problems labelled “only solve-able by humans” is shrinking. You might object that it’s not possible to codify nature. In reality our brain is a supercomputer with synapses for circuits, life is just DNA instructions replicating and even planets follow the laws of physics — the formula is already there we just need to reverse engineer it.
As emotion and art get turned into 1s and 0s, we need to stop pretending our creations are unique and that all human effort is useful. This process is inevitable; rather than fighting progress because we’re afraid, we’d be better off embracing it. Only then can we help steer it towards solving meaningful problems, whilst limiting the collateral damage.