Don’t believe the stories – if you want able to be able to understand reality

Yuval Noah Harari is one of the great thinkers of our time. He combines his sharp and clear observations, in new and meaningful ways and by doing that, often times, comes to enlightening conclusions. How did he get there? How did he learn to see things, not the way people around him see them, so he is able to come to new and better conclusions? He talks about this in the above video-clip. Being gay and growing up in a society that thought gay = wrong gave him a strong incentive to develop an alternative view. He knew better, because he had more and better information on being gay than most people. Because he is gay himself.

Teaching Korsakow I meet a lot of people with a strong talent to see things differently.  Years ago, when I was teaching at German Literature Institute in Leipzig, I became aware that many of the people, with the strongest talent to formulate alternative views, were in fact different from the majority, in a way that was not really accepted by the majority and a high percentage of these skilled people were gay. Being different in the right environment and with the right thinking-tools at hand, can be helpful to unlock potential to become an independent thinker.

And I especially like what Yuval Noah Harari says in the beginning:
You have to learn to not believe the story!

HOW TO CREATE REALITY

You can only understand sex if you have sex – right?

Opening talk at Docmedia at Film University Babelsberg, June 21, 2018

People often think that the best way to understand a situation is to be in the situation. This is in fact false. When being in a situation, the personal angle on the situation becomes so convincing that it suppresses other, very often more meaningful perspectives.

When I grew up, I was told that there are things, that are true. People might not be able to see them, but they the are true nevertheless. And I was told, that there is a truth to everything. This meant, that you can either be right or you can be wrong. A politician can either be right, or wrong. Every opinion can either be right or wrong, you just have to drill deep down and then you can recognise the truth.

This was in fact all false.

Truth is, that truth does not exist.

So let’s better get rid of the word truth altogether and reframe the sentence: The reality is, that truth does not exist. This new sentence might sound similar. But it is not the same. Reality is not truth. Reality is, what we agree on – for the moment.

Think of a table. We can agree on a table. This is the reality that we now share between our monkey brains. But one million years ago, if this table would have existed, there was no-one there, that would have understood it, as a table. And in one million years from now, if this table still exists, it is very, very unlikely that it will still be thought of as a table.

It is very handy to live in a reality that is shared with others. And it is actually very painful, when this shared reality slips away. If you ever broke up with a person you loved – you know.

Not only with people, you are close with, shared reality comes in handy. If you are hungry, it is great, if you live in a shared reality, where you can exchange a 2 Euro coin for a sandwich.

So reality is not something that is already there, and we just have to find it, it is rather something, that we have to agree on. So how do we agree on reality? How does that work? How is reality built?

We agree on reality by sharing stories between each other.

We build reality by telling stories. Story-telling might not be the only tool to build reality, but it is the most powerful. It is the tool, that human apes developed the furthest.

It is not that you tell a story and then it is. For Reality to be, it needs to be shared between our monkey brains.

If I tell the story, that I own billion Euro, that would not change my financial status. But if I manage to convince everyone relevant around me, that I own one billion, then I would live the life of a very wealthy human ape.

This is a trick that some master very well. They use the trick to create reality the way they want it to be. And if the image of President Donald Trump comes into your mind now – yes this is an excellent example.

President Donald Trump is a magician that is able to create reality out of thin air. As long as enough people let him. As long as enough people chime in, to his reality.

So here we are, and I could now talk about the responsibility of media producers. So many of you – my friends – are media producers, storytellers, reality creators.

But I would like to talk about another angle of storytelling.

Exploring reality.

Storytelling is not only a tool to shape reality, it is also a tool to explore reality. And we do that all the time. Because we do not just tell stories, we also listen to stories. And you, as a producer of a narration, you do that. Before making a film or an i-Doc, or an article, you read books, articles, you listen to people. You take in other stories to get a better understanding of reality, before you express your vision of reality, yourself.

This is, what I am most interested in, in my work: To get a better understanding, how the world works, what reality is. To observe and to explore the world. And that means to explore the way we tell stories.

The edges of reality.

I am especially interested in the edges of reality. The borders of reality. So something is within the borders of reality and something is outside of those borders. Of course – the things that are outside of reality, we can’t see them, they are invisible, unthinkable.

But what is interesting, is that these borders of reality are not fixed. They change over time. There are things, that were not part of the shared reality in the past. But they became part of it. Things unthinkable in the past suddenly pop into existence. We live in a time, where it happens all the time, that, not too long ago unthinkable things, just pop into reality. 1000 years ago this was very rare.

Bacteria. Totally outside of the shared reality of human apes for the very most of their existence. Then suddenly, they became thinkable, measurable, and we could even make them visible.

As soon as something becomes thinkable, it is more likely to become visible, hear-able, touch-able, smell-able, feel-able.

Reality is a cloud.

The territory of reality changes its shape over time. New things become part of reality and others drop out.

Things that have dropped out, were part of reality in the past, but they are not any more. These things that are not part of reality any more, are difficult to see, because they are now invisible, only indirectly we can notice them. From evidence we find, we are able to tell, that they must have been part of the shared reality, in the past. When we find temples of ancient gods for example we know that these gods must have been part of the shared reality of the people in the past.

Tools

A microscope is a tool, and when it was invented and pointed at an edge of reality, a new reality became visible and reality expanded. This new reality, quickly became part of the shared reality. The findings of the people, that were the first to look through microscopes, are now taught in school.

You can also use a camera and point it at the edge of reality, learn new things and thereby expand reality.

Storytelling is a tool.

Like a camera is a tool. Like a microscope os a tool. Tools that allow to do two things:

  1. Explore reality and thereby expanding it – making reality wider
  2. communicate reality and thereby solidifying it

Expanding reality.

What is the best practice, if you want to expand your understanding – the premise to expand reality? You want to observe something from a perspective as neutral as possible. So what does that mean – neural?

You need to have a perspective like someone – who is not in the situation.

Let me give you an example. When I have a tense discussion, a fight with someone, often I get angry or emotional. That is not a good receipt to get a good understanding for the situation. Later, after my mind has calmed down, I usually get a better understanding of the situation. I know what I could have said, and usually I also understand the other person. Unimaginable for me, when I was in the situation.

This is a practise, an exercise.

In the beginning, when I got together with my later wife, we had intense fights. Fights so intense, like I had never experienced in previous relationships. But with every fight, we learned something about each other. Every fight became a learning experience. This is something I had also not experienced in other relationships. It was, because my wife taught me a trick: to get yourself out of the situation, while you are in the situation, so that you can look at the situation from a different perspective. And from this different perspective, I could see two people in a situation with each other, two people that I loved and I suddenly was able to understand them both.

Observer outside.

Storytelling can be a tool for better understanding reality, but only, if you are an observer that is outside the situation. If you are inside the situation, you are an actor. You have to deal with all your confusing feelings, but you do not get a better understanding for the situation itself.

You might get a better understanding for yourself. Yourself being in this particular situation, which makes it convincing, and you might think that you have a better understanding for the situation, but in fact, you are furthest away from understanding the situation itself.

This is how stories are told today: exciting, emotional, they try to create empathy.

CSF

The way we tell stories now – the current CONTEMPORARY STORY FORMAT is a result of the hyperlinear way of storytelling, that was only possible, after the invention of film.

Expanding vs. solidifying.

In the the beginning, when film was invented, people using cameras, were explorers of reality. And by exploring reality, they expanded it. But then, they started to edit what came out of their cameras. And by editing it into a fixed narration, that never changes, even if you looked at it a 1000 times, they explained reality and thereby solidified it.

This became more and more the focus of media makers: To explain reality. And by explaining reality you solidify it.

The computer changes the way we tell stories.

We have now new ways of narration, that became possible, with the computer. With the help of the computer, we can now create rich media narrations, that are not fixed. That expand reality, not solidify it. With the help of computers and the internet, we can collaborate with other brains. And that way, we can use the help of these other brains, to explore the edges of reality better.

TV.

I happen to work at a TV news broadcaster. This is how TV was done in the past and is still done, today: There are – actually just a few – people, who go out into the world and explore reality (mainly using cameras). Then they return to the TV-station, edit their material and explain to the audience, how the world works. The TV-station is an institution, that does a very tiny bit of exploration and a lot of explanation. A tiny bit of expanding and a lot of solidifying reality. That practice is rooted in old TV technology. Before the internet it was not possible to do it in another way.

Future media institutions.

Now things can be done differently and we can already see new institutions appear. And these new institutions might replace the old ones. Institutions, that focus on exploring and understanding reality. The media-institution of the future is less of a broadcaster, and more of a university.

People working at these new institutions go out, explore reality, and they take back what they found. Up to this point it is not much different from how it is done traditionally. But then they discuss their findings with others – with the audience – and they ask the others – the audience – for advise. They document the whole process and make it available. This way of working, is far less focussed on the end-product, but much more on the process.

The mindset of media-makers today is: think about the audience, think about what they want.

The mindset of media-makers in the future will be: think about the audience, think about what they can do for you – for getting a better understanding of reality.

The Ezra Klein / Sam Harris – Dispute – believer vs non believer

People, who talk to me regularly, might be aware  that I am an eager listener of podcasts by Sam Harris[1]. He recently found himself in the midst of a intellectual fight of words with Ezra Klein[2], who is editor-at-large of Vox. I respect them both. 

The fight started a year ago with a podcast of Sam Harris. Ezra Klein published an article[3] at VOX (written by Eric Turkheimer and Kathryn Harden and Richard Nisbett) that attacked Harris and blamed him of featuring  irresponsible racism.

I heard the original podcast, read a lot of the conversation and got regular updates on the story when Sam Harris mentioned it on his podcast.

This is a long story with a long email conversation[4], and for people interested in the work of Sam Harris it is not a good starting point. Over and over Sam Harris explains his standpoint, Ezra Klein explains his point, they even get into personal attacks. And in the end (the end at the moment) they both do a podcast, where the whole pattern repeats one more time.

Two great thinkers and analytics trapped in a vicious circle of arguments – what is going on?

Well, I listen to all podcasts of Sam Harris, so I also listened to the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein one (while cleaning the kitchen). But this time I was more than once tempted to give up and turn it off.

But then I saw the pattern. 

Let me do a huge jump from the discussion of two well known American intellectuals to a private conversation, I had at work, with a colleague about doing exercise.

I had just read an article and shared my new knowledge with her: “Sports is not equally good for all people. Scientists found, that there are even people, that do not react to exercise at all. And you can do a gene test, that predicts how your body reacts.”

“Oh”, my colleague replied, “You just say that, because you are too lazy to do sports.”

I found her comment fascinating and I did dive deeper into the conversation in the course of which she said these sentences: “I like sports and I do exercise every day. I don’t even want to believe what you are saying.[5] 

My college thought, that I said, what I said, to achieve something. She thought I said ‘scientists found, that some people do not react to exercise’ because I do not want to do exercise, myself. Which I find a reverse logic. It might well be, that I do this sometimes, so I wanted to learn more. 

Interestingly she seemed to be aware that she is practicing this technique when she said: ‘I don’t want to believe this’ because ‘I like sports’. 

In my world view you can not change or pick the facts you like, to support whatever idea you prefer, as my college seemed to do, and obviously thought, that I would do that, too[6].

This is the same pattern, as in the Harris/Klein discussion. Just on a very small scale.

The patient reader, might know small observations, seemingly unimportant, that one can’t let go. This conversation with my colleague stuck with me, and I remember it every now and then.

Two years ago I wrote in an article[7] that there are two kinds of people, the group that believes in the concept of truth and the group that is aware of the multitudes of realities. In this thought the urge to believe is a talent just like the urge to doubt. The talent might be rooted in the genes, the culture boosts one or the other.

I am certainly a person that enjoys the multitude of angles on reality and I doubt the truth, just like Sam Harris and a lot of other people. But I understand, the majority of people are talented in believing the truth. Like my colleague at work or Ezra Klein. 

The believe in truth leads to a fascinating logic: If you have found a truth, like sports is good (in the case of my colleague) or racism is a problem (in the case of Ezra Klein) all facts related to the truth need to support the truth and if they don’t, the facts have to be false. This logic in itself makes perfect sense.

Because if something is true, then all facts become arguments and the validity of which can be tested. If an arguments supports the truth it must itself be true and if an argument does not support the truth it therefor must be wrong.

This is not my logic, it is the logic of a believer.[8]

When you are aware of the multitude of arguments you get to certainties, which are in daily life almost indistinguishable from believes, the building blocks of reality for people who believe in truth. 

Just like my colleague, I agree in thinking that exercise is good. And just like Ezra Klein, Sam Harris undoubtedly also thinks that racism is a problem. 

But the difference is, that for people, that see the multitude of realities, not every piece of information has to support the certainty. In this logic it is not even rare, that facts contradict the certainty without changing it. Like when you observe a swirl in a river. It is obviously normal, that water can flow against the current, without endangering the general flow of the water. 

And I agree with Sam Harris, who warns of the dangers of ignoring facts, just because they do not support the reality/truth/certainty.

But again, Ezra Klein does not see a fact here, because the logic he uses proves the fact wrong.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra_Klein

[3] https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/18/15655638/charles-murray-race-iq-sam-harris-science-free-speech

[4] https://samharris.org/ezra-klein-editor-chief/

[5] In German “Das will ich gar nicht glauben” – which is a common phrase used in all kind of context.

[6] Understandably, because what is normal for her is likely be normal for me.

[7] Article in German:
http://pha.de/texte/es-gibt-zwei-arten-von-menschen/

[8] I am sometimes temped to fall prey of this logic myself. I guess it is our culture that supports this way of believe.

Hyper-linear storytelling was an accident

Interview with Florian Thalhofer by Dr. Özlem Arda at Istanbul University in May 2017. Talking about linear and nonlinear film. About how humans develop reality using storytelling. Planet Galata, Korsakow and journalism.

The monkey drowns – 8 questions about nonlinear storytelling and Korsakow

Questions by Gülden Tümer

Gülden Tümer has been working as a journalist for more than 10 years. Currently she is doing her master degree at Radio, TV and Cinema Department at Faculty of Communication, İstanbul University.   

 

GÜLDEN TÜMER: According to Ersan Ocak, “In cinema, explorations and experiments on the forms of representation have been made mostly by documentary and experimental filmmakers” (2012: 959). Here, I want to ask why have documentary filmmakers always sought new forms of representation?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: Not so sure if documentary film makers in general have always been so inventive. I guess most documentary film makers work within the boundaries of the craft of making films and are perfectly happy with the medium of linear film. But some filmmakers felt the concrete walls of linear narration and tried to explore alternatives. In my case I have not been a filmmaker, I started with exploring the possibilities of computer to improve communication between humans using images, audio and film.

So why do documentary filmmakers
So why do filmmakers
So why do humans always sought new forms of representation?

Well, I guess the answer is simply because the forms of representation, that are available, are not satisfying (never have been and most likely never will be). All forms of representation, all forms of communicating, sharing thoughts, views, ideas are less than ideal. So some humans search for better ways to communicate, to find better ways to represent bits and pieces of the world.

Most people just follow the rules, communicate the way they were told by the elders, and if they hit the concrete wall, they ignore it.

GÜLDEN TÜMER: “New media documentary transforms the cultural form of watching a film. The audience engages with new media documentary by navigating. Why do people prefer to be “user” within a documentary film rather than solely sustaining the joyful state of just sitting and watching a film?” (Ocak, 2014: 256). What would be your response to this question for a Korsakow-film?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: Watching a Korsakow-film and watching a linear film are two very different things. Like reading a book and listening to a podcast. It is not that nonlinear films will replace linear films. Nonlinear film just seems to be something that is relatively new. There were experiments with nonlinear films conducted in pre-computer times, but of course computer facilitate the creation of non-linear films much better, and to create rule-based nonlinear films (such as Korsakow films) without a computer is almost impossible.

So what is the motivation for someone to view a Korsakow film?
People who prefer to use their own brain to make sense of a particular topic will prefer a Korsakow film. That way a viewer can explore and get a sense of the many angles to a topic.
(own brain / many angles / complex reality)

What is the motivation for someone to view a linear film?
Someone (usually the film-maker) thought a long time about a topic and presents the viewer with one or a very limited number of angles to understand it. This is very convenient for most people. So viewers do not have to spend so much energy or brain power – the thoughts are thought already and prepared for them.
(author’s  brain / limited angles / simplified reality)

Also, almost all living humans were conditioned from early age to enjoy linear films. Kids grow up with linear films and learn to read, understand and enjoy it.

But nevertheless some people have a hard time accepting other people’s thoughts. Some people really enjoy to think for themselves. But at the moment we have not so many tools that facilitate that. Korsakow is such a tool.

For people who are interested in reality, linear film is in fact not such a great tool. I like to say: there is no such thing as a documentary film. Every linear film is fiction. Linearity does not exist in reality.

GÜLDEN TÜRER: On the other hand why do people still prefer just watching a fiction film? Or do you think it will change too?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: I guess people will always be interested in watching linear fiction films. It seems somehow relaxing to be presented with a fixed and never changing angle on the world.

GÜLDEN TÜRER: You said that people doesn’t think in a linearity so storytelling must be in change. What are the advantages and disadvantages of non-linear storytelling?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: Stories have the advantage that they make things easily understandable. But at the same time they have the disadvantage that they are almost always wrong (or at least that they are far from being accurate).

Nonlinear narration is not true, neither, but it is closer to reality. And that we are closer to reality, when we are thinking trough and discussing the problems we currently face (like nuklear extinction, climate change), is probably the key factor when it comes to finding solutions that allow our survival.

GÜLDEN TÜRER: “In a new media documentary, the user can establish his/her own sequence flow and, in a sense, makes a non-linear editing of the project” (Ocak, 2012: 963). But we know that in this era, we all surf on the internet. And it causes distraction. In spite of this distraction problem, can the audience complete all parts of documentary or not?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: Distraction has a very negative connotation. But maybe distraction is not a bad thing. Especially in times of information overload.

Imagine a thirsty monkey, who gets to a lake. The monkey drinks. When the monkey had enough the monkey stops drinking. Does the monkey get distracted from drinking? Sure. Something else crosses the monkey’s mind and the monkey stops drinking and does something else. If the monkey would stay focussed on drinking, the monkey would drown.

An aware mind that changes the focus of attention is still attentive. And that is a good thing.

Human monkeys, that focus – for example – on propaganda stories and don’t get distracted, are in a worse situation than those, that feel like they had enough and focus elsewhere.

It might be easy to stay focused when watching a seductive, exciting linear film, but the whole film, the whole experience is a distraction.

 

GÜLDEN TÜRER: We can say that in new media documentaries, which are established on databases, “each and every shot has equal significance, each and every story has equal significance” (Ocak, 2012: 963). Here I want to ask that if a user without completing one part, start to watch another one because of surfing habit, can she/he understand whole story?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: I think there are different approaches in new media documentaries and different authors have different approaches. The way I use Korsakow (and again there are other approaches) – I can see that you think that every SNU has equal significance. I never looked at it that way. Interesting observation!

In a linear film – because of its fixed sequence – one scene builds on the previous scene,  the scenes build up. In that sense, some scenes are elevated. Only in a system like Korsakow you can achieve to have scenes on an equal level. And usually I try to have it like this.

If the author wants to deliver a message, the viewer has to get the whole (or if not the whole then most of the) story. But I don’t want to deliver a message. There are things to learn, actually there are many potential messages, but the message is born in the viewer’s brain, not in mine.

Once, when I presented my first Korsakow film [Das Korsakow Syndrom], I was asked: And what is the message of the film? – I did not have an answer then, but I have it now, after thinking about it for many years: The film is the message. If I had a message, I would have writen it down in a sentence. Writing down a sentence is far less effort than making a film.

GÜLDEN TÜRER: “Today we can easily see that, play is everywhere in the new media environment” (Ocak, 2014: 258). Audience is not just a user within documentary film, she/he also becomes a player as a homo-ludens. Do you think it can prevent distraction?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: From the reactions I often observe when people watch Korsakow films, they seem to experience it more as work, than play.
😉

Anyway, even from early age on, I never understood what the difference between play and work is. Now I would say both is an exercise – an exercise to shape the form of the connections in our brains. You create paths of thinking in your brain when watching a blockbuster Hollywood film or when watching a Korsakow film. You train your thinking.

To my understanding: watching a blockbuster Hollywood is harmful for your thinking, whereas Korsakow is a good exercise!

GÜLDEN TÜRER: I watched your Planet Galata, and I like it too much. Why you make some changes on it?

 

FLORIAN THALHOFER: Thank you – happy you like it! Planet Galata was originally made with Korsakow Version 5. I recently updated it to Korsakow 6. Korsakow 6 has a number of new possibilities. I was playing around with it.

A Korsakow film is never fixed!

 

 


 

Ocak, E. (2012). New Forms of Documentary-Filmmaking within New Media. AVANCA|CINEMA 2012, International Conference (2012). (959-965)

Ocak, E. (2014). New Media Documentary: Playing with Documentary Film within the Database Logic and Culture. In D. Moser and S. Dun (Ed.), Digital Janus: Looking Forward, Looking .Back (255-262). Oxford, United Kingdom: Inter-Disciplinary Press.