Monday, 1 February 2010

738 - Storying and Trait Signaling

A longish quote, to start, from Spent, by Geoffrey Miller (2009):
Innovations in asymmetric warfare are always initially considered to be treachery and terrorism by the side that believes it is stronger according to traditional criteria. In retrospect, such tactics are inevitably reframed as natural historical progress in the efficient conduct of warfare.

Likewise, every signalling innovation in human culture is at first considered unfair and disreputable, at least by those who excelled at the previous signaling game. Medieval lords were no doubt driven nuts by the minstrels and troubadours who used musical innovations (isorhythmic motets, polyphony, even madrigals!) to seduce their wives and daughters, rather than winning them by the traditional methods (physical force, economic oppression, religious indoctrination). Elvis wasn't playing fair by wiggling his hips and sneering, and Miles Davis wasn't playing fair by being so damned cool, handsome and talented. From the viewpoint of social competitors and sexual rivals who "play fair" by getting formal educations, working full-time jobs, and paying full retail prices, any of these alternative ways of displaying one's personal traits seem like cheating. However, from the viewpoint of rational individuals seeking maximum social and sexual status at minimal cost, all these tactics were wonderfully liberating. Indeed, such signaling innovations seem to drive most of the progress in the technologies, ideas, and institutions that we call civilization.

I do think that with storying I've hit on just such an innovation. What one does is deliberately sequestrate one's identity, in the context of a given circumstance - time period, location, role, virtual reality - and proceed proactively to customise it, internally first, then, if one wishes, externally too. Role-play games allow this - perhaps most, if not all, arts do - but key is the internal action. The means by which such shaping occurs are those of traditional storytelling, turned by the teller in upon him or herself.

It certainly would not appear fair to those with traditional takes on identity that one might, by playing the role of a troll, and allowing one's seductee into one's storyspace in a character of their choosing, win their attentions, but the end result, in evolutionary terms, would be social and reproductive success. Fairness, as Geoffrey Miller suggests, need not come into it. Ideas about the multiplicity of a person's identity/ies, as explored by Rita Carter in her book of the same name, might have more to offer such a progressive artform than traditional concepts of an ultimately uniform personality.

To establish whether storying has a genuine appeal, it might be useful to investigate how effective it is at displaying personality traits that might otherwise not be signaled. The artform would be truly revolutionary if one were able to demonstrate, through an understanding of neuroplasticity, perhaps, that one was not able simply to display, but over a short or longer period, alter one's traits. In so far as, say, Christianity is about replicating in oneself the psychological and emotional traits of Jesus Christ, this is a realm already well trodden by religion, and supported by society.

I've had an inkling, and written before, how storying might give rise to issues around the civil rights one possesses over one's identity. Interestingly, perhaps, following his comments on the asymmetrical trait-signaling arms race, Geoffrey Miller explores whether it would be desirable for society to establish the psychological traits of its citizens through the gathering of data from, for example, one's relatives and neighbours; one's private email and social networking footprint; one's brain imaging or DNA testing. He concludes that, although this will become increasingly viable, its value would be suspect, because our most efficient personality detectors are those already hardwired in our brains. If storying ever did take off, however, one might expect a backlash, from traditionalists keen to protect their social and reproductive hegemony, against those enhancing themselves with a more flexible approach to personal identity. In such circumstances, the monitoring, and monochroming, of personality traits might become politically appealing.

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