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The Semiotician’s Oath

and three invisible machines

Part I

Fresh from the farm, broke, and unspeakably earnest, I walked into my first university lecture on semiotics and expected to hear something about the history of film or the structure of narrative. Instead, I got a warning and was asked to take a vow.

The professor explained:

“I am about to teach you tactics to alter the minds of others. DON’T YOU DARE use this power to turn a quick buck, bring evil into the world, or exploit the ignorance of others. You are about to gain significant power; swear to me that you will use it cautiously, with humility, and in the service of good. If not, then get out now.”

Nothing captures your attention as a student than being told you are about to gain significant power that you must swear to use cautiously. I felt like Peter Parker about to be transformed by the bite of a radioactive spider, or Adam about to be touched by the hand of God. We all pledged.

In the two decades since I took this informal Semiotician’s Oath, I’ve tried to live up to the requirement of humility in the service of good, but honestly, I’ve only been partially successful. Other graduates of that same small program created TV shows like True Detective and wrote books like The Marriage Trap. Was I doing as much as I could with the secret powers given to me once I took the oath?

I started making films for DreamWorks. When I was knee-deep in absurd story problems on Shrek 2, my allegiance to the oath kicked in and I worked to insert scenes that subtly quoted surrealistic films while I wrote jokes and designed costumes and learned how to say no to bad ideas. A close review of the camera work on Antz will reveal inside jokes on Plato’s cave and Marxism. But these were just surface gestures—more cheeky jokes than positive change in the world. Was I really doing all I could with the power of signs and symbols? Also,why was I taking aim at cartoons? People love Shrek, and the story is mostly harmless. Why not fry bigger fish?

I quit the cartoon business and became an artist. I attempted to stretch the boundaries of digital public art and develop a new type of social figuration. I designed costumes and sets for the ballet. I wrote an art-project as a book. While the work was satisfying, I also wanted to find a way to reach more people.

The only way to reach more people was to work through a distributed network. I went to work at Twitter to help create a product I saw as an instant infrastructure for even the weakest signals around the world and to help tell the stories of ordinary people who achieved something extraordinary by means of the platform. Everyone loves an underdog.

At each step, I’ve tried to do good in the world while also trying to make art worth experiencing. Have I lived up to the oath? And what has been the consistent idea? For me, all the way through, it has always been about story.

What did I learn?

You can use story as a skeleton key to unlock your career, your product, your art, your personal happiness, or solutions to the needs of the others.

Stories work as functions inside the brain. Something goes in, a process occurs, something comes out. The types of functions vary. The best ones draw a direct line between an object and an idea, a cause and effect.

Positive stories give us hope (both in the moment, and as a guide for future problems). Clever stories give us new ways to attack tricky problems. Sad stories give us a strong desire to protect and cherish those we love.

Part II

The Science of Story

Story is invisible; looking for it won’t help. When you are on a hunt for invisible forces—unknown, but present—you have to look for the trace of the force, not the force itself. You have to listen for the hum of the invisible machine.

Three Machines

Number One

In 1847, an unsolved mystery haunted the mind of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian Obstetrician who was trying to work out why the infant mortality rate at his particular hospital was so high. One clue: The rate was worse when doctors delivered babies immediately after returning from the morgue.

He reasoned that there must be some invisible matter transferred on the doctors’ hands, but instead of a mystical or spiritual menace, he reasoned it was a tiny creature, so small it couldn’t be seen. He insisted that his fellow doctors wash their hands before delivering babies and instantly reduced the mortality rate from 18 percent to 2.2 percent.

Even with the dramatic decrease, his findings were initially rejected, as the presence of invisible creatures seemed too hard for rational science to believe.

These creatures represented, of course, the discovery of “germs.”

Number Two

In the 1960s, Tikvah Alper and John Stanley Griffith were faced with another invisible menace, something smaller than a virus, possibly a kind of protein, but one that caused terrible damage.

Strangely, you couldn’t kill it. Even when cooked or “killed” by heat, the menace still destroyed everything it touched. It took another twenty years and the rise of Mad Cow disease for another scientist, Stanley Prusiner, to solve the mystery.

The answer was bizarre: The reason it couldn’t be killed was that it was already dead—it was inert. It was a shape. The shape of the mis-folded protein triggered a cascade of contorting proteins refolding into the disease-causing shape.

The scientists who figured this out had done something outrageous: They assumed that prions existed, even though they hadn’t found them yet, because something had to be there for the disease to transmit.

Number Three

I’d like to suggest an equally weird idea, that there is a third invisible machine, and like germs and prions, we can’t normally see it.

This machine isn’t a disease—it is something marvelous.

This machine operates like a skeleton key to stitch together seemingly disconnected ideas to instantly process fundamental human states: happiness, delight, sorrow, satisfaction, desire, curiosity, misery, regret and love.

Like a germ or a prion, this skeleton key is also a shape and, like a prion, also causes a cascade of action, sometimes positive, sometimes tragic.

The third tiny machine is story.

Story.

Story is structure left behind when all of our memory pathways are reduced to their most common overlaps. Story is the method we use to process who did what to whom and where and why and how and when.

Story is also the way we are able to attempt to connect the dots even when we have only the most minimal information. We sometimes get it wrong, but we are still able to guess.

The Structure of Memory

Even our best scientists only have an initial idea of what “memory” is, but in short, every thought, every experience, every stimulus that you experience changes the chemistry of your brain and your understanding of the world.

“Nerve cells communicate by sending electrical signals, which trigger the release of chemicals across tiny gaps called synapses. As one cell speaks to another, chemical changes of the synapse make it easier for the signals to pass. If only a few signals are sent, this transfer of signals is temporary, forming a short-term memory. But if the signals keep coming, changes in the most active synapses become permanent, forming a long-term memory.”
—How memory works, NOVA

In other words, our brains are chemically reshaped by our experiences, and this reshaping forms our understanding of the world.

Stuck in a rut

Have you heard of the phrase “stuck in a rut?”

That can also happen to our brains: Well-trodden chemical pathways emerge when we experience the same thing over and over. We start to form a type of network of footpaths through the garden of our life.

When new information passes through, our brains sift the experiences to see how they match up to our existing pathways. This makes sense. We see the world through the filter of our past experiences.

This structure is superbly helpful in making instant decisions with only minimal data, but it is hurtful when it leads to stereotyping, prejudice, or profiling. The more we know about how our brains work, the better we can use its mechanisms to effect positive change.

We can instantly form opinions (even if they aren’t fair) because we are not doing a logical analysis, but a near-analog match against an existing shape. Some scientists believe that even decisions that appear to be pure logic are actually asymptotically near-perfect shape matches. The decision-experience feels like reason but might actually be well-worn stimuli lining up as analog shape-matching.

Common Memories

The common structures that we use to process information near-instantly through chemical/analog matching become excellent benchmarks for mapping human experience. What do you get when you look at the common pathways we all share? You gain predictive powers.

This is why we know how a movie will end before it does. This is why we can predict our friends’ responses to a surprise or a conversation without A/B testing it in advance.

Our brains are basically a series of sets that are constantly overlapping and shifting to simulate deduction through near-absolute association.

Guessing comes from story. We’ve seen something similar to the current situation before, and we map the current situation against the most immediate narrative pathway.

Talk to your friends after watching a difficult or ambiguous movie; all of them might agree with a single interpretation of what happened, but more likely, each person will describe a different narrative solution to the factual irresolution of the film.

What you witness in the differences are the variations of each of your friends’ mapping of the story back to their own experiential pathways.

Also fascinating is to discover what each of you found in common, especially if you found something that wasn’t explicitly stated in the film. In other words you found a shared assumption that shows a similar way of making sense of the world, even in the absence of actual rules: You invented the rules together. These rules are story.

The Gift of Knowledge

Story gives humans a chance at survival.

Because of story and our willingness to guess, we achieve what most animals cannot: We pass along knowledge.

Naked and fragile, humans thrive in spite of a lack of armor or fangs because of story. All other animals must discover the world anew every generation. We iterate on each others’ knowledge.

Skip the Promethean fire; the real weapon hidden inside the fennel stalk remains the story retold.

We don’t remember every story we’re told. Some make a deeper impression than others. Although it’s nearly impossible to argue that a story could make zero impression (minimal impression, yes, but zero?), every story leaves a mark.