In nerdy circles, on some podcasts and in discussions among people who look at the world in complex ways, you may hear people refer to human institutions as technologies. The idea is that human institutions are designed and created to help further specific goals, just as the things we typically think of as technologies are, such as cell phones and automatic coffee makers. Forms of governance, religions, and social organizations can all be thought of as technologies – they are tools we create to help us live as social creatures in complex societies. Through this lens, we can also view fictional stories as a technology.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari looks at fictions as a type of technology and explains how the evolution of the human brain and an increased capacity for language unlocked this technology. He writes:
“Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, careful! A Lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, the lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe. This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens’ language.”
Fictions allow us to imagine things that don’t exist. It allows us to transmit ideas that are hard to put into concrete, real world terms and examples. Memes often exist in fictional form, transmitting through people once a critical mass has been reached. Myths, the show Friends, and concepts like the American Dream help us think about how we should live and behave. As Harari writes, “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”
Fiction as a technology functions as a type of social bond. We spend our time constantly creating fictions, imaging what is taking place inside another person’s head, what our future will look like if we do one thing rather than another, and what the world would look like if some of us had special powers. What is incredible about the human brain is that these fictions don’t just exist in isolation within individual brains. They are often shared, shaped, and constructed socially. We share fictions and can find meaning, belonging, and structures for living our lives through our shared fictions. The power of the mind to create fictional stories and to then live within collective fictions is immense, sometimes for the betterment of human life, and sometimes for the detriment.