The longevity of stories

We need stories. To communicate, to understand, to relate to each other, to explain. People have, throughout time and history, incorporated storytelling (and storymaking) into their lives, because it's how we make sense of the dynamic, often complex, situations we find ourselves in. Neil Gaiman, a master story teller, outlines the importance of a good story, and the ability stories have to shape culture and behaviour:

By Neil Gaiman

Stories aren’t books. Books are simply one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept and, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms. Stories change. The professions, the media that we use to store, record and transmit stories will change. Not long ago the people who stored and transmitted information were stonemasons. Now, not so much. Unless we want the information to last. 

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity. As individuals, we are naked, we do not even know which plants will kill us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble. With it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet. That's because we have stories, it's because we have information.

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In 1984 a man, whose name I don't know how to pronounce, I think it's Thomas Sebeok, wrote a report for the Department of Energy. He was asked to create a report because they had a problem - what to do with nuclear waste repositories. They needed to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at that site unless they're aware of the other consequences of their actions… and because the stuff that they would be putting in these nuclear waste repositories had a half-life of 10000 years, they needed to figure out ways to get information to last 10000 years. They started by looking at all you can write. The trouble with writing things is that it lasts a certain amount of time, but anyone here who’s actually tried to read Beowulf in the original knows that that only takes you so far. Language changes. Words change meaning. And if language is changing, what about pictographics? What if you put a big skull up? And Thomas pointed out that even a skull means different things in different cultures - some cultures might go “ahh, skull, symbol of warning,” some might go, “symbol of fantastic candy days. This is the place where the good stuff!”.

ISO Radiation Warning Sign

ISO Radiation Warning Sign

What he actually came up with, he said that the prime recommendation of the Human Interference Task Force of Department of Energy was that information be launched and artificially passed down into the short-term and long-term future, with these supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of artificially created and nurtured ritual and legend. The most positive aspect of such a procedure is it need not be geographically localised, or tied to any one language or culture. So, the initiated would be steered away from the hazardous site, for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications, essentially the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.

A ritual with the legend retold year by year, with presumably slight variation. The actual “truth” would be entrusted exclusively to, what we might call for dramatic emphasis, an ‘atomic priesthood’ - it is a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists and whatever additional expertise may be called for in the future. Folklore specialists that they’d consulted say they know of no precedent, nor could they think of a parallel situation, except the well-known but ineffectual curse is associated with the burial sites of some Egyptian Pharaohs, which didn't deter greedy grave robbers from digging for hidden treasure.

What we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren. Because that’s the purpose of stories. It’s what they’re for.
First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang

First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang

Terracotta Warrior

Terracotta Warrior

Which is true, up to a point. The first emperor of China died 2000 years ago, and the site of his tomb was lost. Very intentionally lost - he killed anybody who knew where it was. It was a magnificent act of tomb losing. And then one day, in a field in China, somebody unearthed a Terracotta Warrior. And then they found another one. They excavated warriors and archaeologists worked out very quickly where the actual mausoleum had to be. The stories that come down to us 2300 years after the emperor China at died, now became a warning. Remember those lakes of mercury? That stuff is really poisonous. It doesn't even have a half-life, it's just there. As Terry Pratchett once said, “Radiation is 10000 years, arsenic is forever,” and so they didn't immediately start digging, instead they checked, confirmed the presence of incredibly high quantities of mercury and have been figuring out what to do ever since. And when they figure out how to get in there without dying, they will start excavating.

The Long Now, and the clock of The Long Now is about planning for the long term, and thinking in the long term, in a world in which people appear to be thinking in the shorter and shorter term, not even necessarily at this point about things that will take them to the end of their lifetime, which at least at one point you would have thought, “well, you know, I'll be dead before that's a problem,” looking around now, the mess we’re making of things on his planet. You wanna go to people and say, “you know actually, you will be. You will still be around. We could run out of water, you'll be here, having to figure out what to do with no water. What to do when the oceans are screwed up. What to do when Twitter finally becomes sentient.

Tom Sebeok concluded that you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10000 years, you could only create a story that would last a 3 Generations - for ourselves, for our children, for their children. But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren. Because that's the purpose of stories. It's what they’re for. They make life worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive


Neil Gaiman has told stories in every medium—graphic novels (The Sandman), novels (The Ocean at the End of the LaneAmerican Gods), short stories (Trigger Warning), children’s books (The Graveyard Book), television (Dr Who), and the occasional song (I Google You)

This is an extract from a 2015 talk delivered by Neil Gaiman entitled "How Stories Last" delivered for the Long Now Foundation, published under a Creative Commons Attribution License