On Narrative, and the Threading Thereof

Many years ago I read Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George. It was a decent techno-thriller, most notable for being written in part by Neal Stephenson. In it was a brief passage explaining how the substrate of American politics had evolved over the years:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam…We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond.

A few years after reading the book I had the good fortune to attend a signing event for Stephenson’s book Anathem. At that signing I attempted to ask him about this quote, and what he felt would be the next Age after Scrutiny. Of course I was struck dumb by fanboy nerves and couldn’t get the question out, so I never got my answer.

But, in the process of exploration and research and simply living my life here in modern America, I think I am sneaking up on an answer.

We are now in the Age of Narrative. Scrutiny became fractured fractal panopticon empowered by the extreme density of global information systems. The signal has become so ubiquitous and strong that the structure of stories breaks down under the weight of ten million self-referential and cross-connected media sources. Within this undifferentiated mass swim the billion threads of narratives, no one of any intrinsically greater value than any other. We are no longer bound to the stories into which we are born. We can choose to align ourselves to any narrative, or invent new narratives out of the pseudo-random bits of information in which we are immersed in every waking moment of our lives.

We are in the age of narrative because there is no objective overriding story by which we are compelled to live our lives. Both prediction and reminiscence have become democratized and made subjective, and if one story line proves inadequate we can easily align ourselves with another.

But thanks to the proliferation of both signal and noise, we are already nearing the end of the Age of Narrative and are seeing the first glimpses of a new tribalism, where the non-physical borders and boundaries of the last five thousand years become increasingly tenuous, and all allegiances will be by consent instead of by tradition.

And won’t that be an interesting time to be alive?


On Narrative, and the Threading Thereof