Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Narrative Fallacy, Data Compression, and Counting Characters

I’m very grateful to Tren Griffin and Pierre-Yves Saintoyant for independently suggesting that I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” Both must’ve realized how relevant his thinking is to my exploration of hard intangibles. At times it felt as if the book was written with me in mind.

One of the human failings that Taleb warns against – “rails against” might be more accurate – is the narrative fallacy. He argues that our inclination to narrate derives from the constraints on information retrieval (Chapter 6, “The Narrative Fallacy”, p. 68-9). He notes three problems: information is costly to obtain, costly to store, and costly to manipulate and retrieve. He notes, “With so many brain cells – one hundred billion (and counting) – the attic is quite large, so the difficulties probably do not arise from storage-capacity limitations, but may just be indexing problems. . .” He then goes on to argue that narrative is a useful form of information compression.

I’m not sure what Taleb means by “indexing”, but I suspect that the compression is required to extracting meaning, not the raw information. It’s true that stories provide a useful retrieval frame; since there’s only a limited number of them, we can perhaps first remember the base story, and then the variation. However, the long-term storage capacity of the brain seems to be essentially unbounded. What’s limited is our ability to manipulate variables in short-term; according to Halford et al, we can handle only about four concurrent items.

Joseph Cambell reportedly claimed that there were seven basic plots, an idea elaborated by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots; see here for a summary. The number is pretty arbitrary; Cecil Adams reports on a variety of plot counts, between one and sixty-nine. While the number of “basic plots” is arbitrary, the number of key relationships is probably more constant. I’m going to have to get hold of Booker’s book to check out this hypothesis, but in the meantime, a blog post by JL Lockett about 36 Basic Plots lists the main characters; there are typically three of them, or sometimes four. Now, there are many more characters in most plays and novels – but the number of them interacting at any given time is also around four.

I think one might even be able to separate out the data storage from the relationship storage limits: {stories} x {variations} allows one to remember many more narratives than simple {stories}, but I expect that the number of relationships in a given instance of {stories} x {variations} will be no greater that that in a given story.

More generally: if making meaning is a function of juggling relationships (cf. semiotics), a limit on the number of concurrent relationships our brains can handle represents a limit on our ability to find meaning in the world.

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