One of the straplines I’ve been using for this site is: what’s your tech story? That implies a story about you. And that’s deliberate. But a piece of tech writing, something that teaches and illustrates, is also a story about the reader.
When we write about how to do something. We imagine a reader who needs to achieve it. We construct an imaginary monkey gym in which we, both writer and reader, can try out an idea.
Now, that might be a cute image. But this building of fantasy apparatus might also be one of the reasons humankind became a successful species in the first place.
Seventy thousand years ago something happened to humankind. Something changed. According to Yuval Noah Harari speaking on the radio show The TED Radio Hour, there was nothing in our biological makeup that could account for this. And yet we stumbled upon an advance that manifested in us the ability to work flexibly together and in large numbers. Asked how we acquired this superpower, he said:
The best solution that I can offer is our imagination and the ability not only to imagine things to yourself to share your fictions to invent and spread fictional stories. This is why we can co-operate in our billions whereas chimpanzees cannot. And why we reached the moon and split the atom and deciphered DNA and they just play with sticks and bananas.
If that is right, and I think it’s quite compelling, then the construction of worlds of the imagination is what catapulted us from the Savannah to the village, the city, the skies. It is our ability to imagine other people or our future selves, and to model the problems these made up beings might encounter that freed us. It also gets us into a huge amount of trouble — but that’s another story.
It’s not hard to play out how this worked — because we have a storytelling ability that lets us look backward as well as forward.
“If you plant seed here then food will grow.”
“If we settle by the river we will have water and we can trade too.”
“With these furs, we can live over there where it’s cold and escape our enemies.”
If. If. If.
All mammals play, it’s how they learn to communicate and to hunt. To escape predators. Only we humans are able to play in our imaginations.
And it is a kind of play, too, isn’t it? Remember when you were a child and you played My Little Pony or Star Wars? You might have said, “Let’s say the Death Star is about to explode.” You might have said, “You be Braeburn, and I’ll be Starlight Glimmer”. You got together with your friends and invented rules for imaginative collaboration.
As writers of tech books we do the same thing. We say, “Imagine you’re building a surfboard store.” Or “You’re a harassed team member with a tight deadline and a thousand documents to process.” We build a scenario and invite our readers to share it. Then we guide them through this imaginary world to a solution.
Everything we do is story — seventy thousand years ago, and soon in our books and articles.