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By Design: Storytelling Reveals Human Exceptionalism

Image credit: John Everett Millais, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Our colleague Andrew McDiarmid had a fascinating conversation with Eric Metaxas, starting with issues of technology — how Big Tech seeks to addict us and then to crowd out all else from our consciousness — and building to a discussion of our design, as human beings, for storytelling. There are some very telling points here. As a model story, Eric and Andrew focus on the movie Braveheart, but what they say is true of all captivating tales. Part of the story’s art, as Andrew says, consists of withholding how it will turn out. Our waiting to see what will happen is how the suspense builds. A particularly ingenious kind of story reverses, at its very climax, much of what we thought we understood about what’s been going on with the characters. For good reason, we often say to each other, “Don’t spoil it for me” by giving away the end.

That humans enjoy being made to wait seems to have been deliberately built into us. It’s unique in nature, an intelligent design reflecting our human exceptionalism. If you’ve owned a pet, you’ll know that even the animals that are closest to us (like dogs) have to be trained to be able to tolerate waiting. By nature, they don’t relish suspense. But even young human children do. Our familiar tech devices, as Metaxas and McDiarmid agree, violate this design: the whole idea of “downloading” content from the Internet, or performing a Google search, is to give you everything, now, all at once. No waiting, and the faster, the better. This feature of online existence is hailed by many as a blessing, but it’s really a curse.

Technology of this kind is a curse in other ways. As Andrew emphasizes, we need free time with our own thoughts, open space in our minds. This too makes stories and other inventions possible. The devices that addict us are, again, deliberately created in order to starve us of that. Along the same lines, Eric gives a shout-out to the Biblical institution of the Sabbath — which, as he says, people like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager have done much to popularize — as a way to carve out open time each week. Listen to the whole discussion here. Yes, it’s ironic that you can only do so on a device! Also, see Andrew’s excellent article for the New York Post on the subject, here.