Why are we the dominant species on the planet? We are not the biggest, we are not the fastest, we can’t fly, and we give birth to vulnerable offsprings? Despite our weaknesses why have we dominated every other species in the globe so far?
According to the Austrian Biochemist and Mathematician Martin Nowak, cooperation is a central problem in biology. What has enabled our species to cooperate and dominate the planet? Yes, it’s all about storytelling.
When my daughter Sofía was 2 years old we take a road trip to the beautiful Mexican beaches of Acapulco. At some point, she became tired and bored. I tried for a while looking for a song to play or any toy that could calm her fretfulness. Nothing worked until I tried to craft a story about an imaginary mouse that ran very fast. I called that Mouse Pánfilo, a Mexican name that sounds humorous. Today she’s sixteen and still, she remembers the silly story of Pánfilo, who ran fast and ate Pollo Loco. The rest of the road trip was pleasant. How can an invented story bring peace to an uneasy toddler?
Yuval Noah Harari claims that our supremacy over other species, -big and small, fast and slow, in the earth, water, and sky- is because during our evolution journey we have developed two particular skills. Two talents that combined have made us the deadliest, most adaptable, ruthless species on earth . Those skills are having abstract thinking and developing complex communication abilities.
Abstract thinking is the capacity to reason about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present. Is thinking about things that don’t exist, about feelings, even thinking about thought itself. There is no sound evidence that other species are able to react to menaces that are not present, remember past events or prepare for the future. But we can. We can travel in time, and we do it so much that maybe even that’s even the reason for so much stress in our daily life. But, having that inner capacity is the first thing that sets us apart from other lifeforms.
Communication abilities made our species able to convey complex ideas in a sophisticated manner. We do have sound evidence that other species are able to communicate and some in refined ways like whales or chimpanzees. What differs in humans is the way in which our communication skills have evolved with us. Pinker and Bloom in Natural Language and Natural Selection argued strongly about the adaptation of species and the evolution of language. As our circumstances changed our communication adjusted to in order to accommodate ever-changing needs. Initially through signs and complex noises generated by our unique guttural design. Then words appear evolving to sentences. The sharing of ideas and concepts made us move fast in the evolution ladder that begun 500,000 years ago. As Jason Silva states: “Ideas are powerful because they allow us to see the world as it could be rather than, what it is”. A bit later, 40,000 years ago we started communicating those same concepts and ideas through images in caves. Incipient written communication emerged. It was only 8,000 years ago when pictograms, or written communication, boosted the cognitive revolution .
Abstract thinking is the learning engine that prepares us for and propels us to the future. But that future would be impossible to achieve if we were not able to cooperate. Communication skills are the key that opens the door not only to cooperation but also to empathy. Empathy creates a sense of community. Through cooperation and empathy, the Homo Sapiens gathered together in tribes in order to create the world we were eager to live in. The glue that kept all the pieces together was storytelling.
In the primitive world, the place where stories were shared was the bonfire, at night, in the dark. The light of the fire, a community gathered all together, and the stories shared from generation to generation prepared the pack for hunting, organizing chores, surviving and evolving.
Just as the pack commenced getting more and more complex, stories were developing accordingly. Primary needs were met, and the new set of wants emerged. Packs became tribes and tribes began fighting for territories. Survival evolved into domination.
Boundaries were established and countries started being founded. A country is a territory with a group of people believing in a common created story. Religions are no different, tales shared by a group of people who are willing to believe in the same stories. Sometimes so strongly that for the sake of their beliefs they can even go against the most basic human instincts.
Some human needs for cooperation were so strong that could even cross territorial boundaries and religious beliefs in order to keep growing as a species. One of those needs was the demand for trade, The exchange of goods and services created the need for trade. A common story had to be formed and shared among humans. That’s how currency then came to life. Initially, money had some real foundation like grains or precious metals. Today nothing backup`s currency other that other currencies. Recently cryptocurrencies were created and that is the best example of something that the only value that it has is the shared value that we all believe in that story. A bunch of bits and bytes stored in a silicone board who knows where can define de life that you are entitled to live. A common story created currency and in the last part of this essay, I will come back and share how conversely currency will create stories.
As any living form, we educate the next generations. Education is also all about knowing our own stories right.
Back to the bonfire, stories, and light, in the pursuit of crafting legends in a more engaging manner, new elements in the storytelling task were examined. A clever way of sharing an idea was playing with words and trying to tell them in rhymes. Poetry came as an art form. Adding musing and dance to stories was a way to not only capture audiences’ engagement but also to better remember the plot. Acting parts added another layer to the fiction and theater emerged. That way, the same stories, with the same characters were able to pass the test of time and became a gift from one generation to the next. That all changed when technology arose.
In 1895 the Lumiere brothers perfected Thomas Alba Edison’s Kinetoscope and invented the Cinèmatograph. That sole invention reshaped the way in which stories were going to be told for good. The first content to be shown using the Cinèmatographer was a sequence of workers leaving the Lumiere factory at the end of the journey in Lyon, France . Real-life events were shot and projected. Even with those mundane images shared with and audience fascination was been experienced collectively. That recorded live-action piece and its mesmerizing effect shortly evolved into something more complex, fiction. The first movie director to create a fictional story with the Cinématographer for the big screen was not a man, was a French woman named Alice Guy-Blanché. The title of that first movie was: La Fée aux Chouse, in English The Cabbage Fairy, screened in 1896 in Paris, France. A Parisian newspaper dated July 30, 1896, describes the movie as a “chaste fiction of children born under the cabbages in a wonderfully framed chromo landscape” . From that day on Cinema was born. Cinema, a new art form that will captivate the eyes and hearts of viewers all around the globe for many centuries to come. The Venezuelan American Philosopher Jason Silva describes it best in his quote: “Film is the only technology that allows us to share subjectivity with someone else”.
Even though the Cinema Industry was invented in France by the Lumiere Brothers (Cinèmatograph), Alice Guy-Blanché (Fiction Movies) and the Gaumont Brothers creating the very first movie studio (Gaumont), the country that better exploited that new artform was the US. In the US a pivotal force that made available the cinematic experience to a broader audience was the Nickelodeon experience. A movie for a Nickle was the concept that inflamed flocks to attend to the movies nationwide, in small movie houses, between 1905-1915.
A city bloomed grounded on the storytelling industry of Cinema. Los Angeles, and more specifically Hollywood. In 1914 the movie The Squaw Man by Cecil B. DeMille was the first movie shot in Hollywood, outside Los Angeles. The 1920s was the decade when Hollywood truly flourished with the foundation of studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount and Columbia. The role of the Director and the Star began to become relevant in the eyes of the consumers. Iconic filmmakers and megastars like Charly Chaplin emerged . The professional craftsmanship of scripts was still unborn since most movies in the early 20’s ware silent.
The first feature film movie with sound presented as a talkie was “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 and the Golden Age of Hollywood started with 65% of the population of the country attending to Cinemas on a weekly basis. Then came color in the image in 1938 with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by David O. Selznick. Crowds just couldn’t get enough of the magic that emerged from the Silver Screen. Cinemas and Auto Cinemas started popping up like popcorn kernels during war times in the ’40s. Stories kept filling in the lives of most Americans while movie influence started growing in the rest of the world. Multiplexes followed and the exhibition industry bloomed in the 70s, giving birth to the Megaplexes in the 80s. Hollywood Studios and Cinema Infrastructures kept evolving. The incorporation of technologies and the sophistication of the storied craftsmanship held audiences mesmerized with every new Blockbuster launch. Other rival storytelling technologies emerged along the way of the spread of cinemas, predicting the demise of the movie-going experience. Ever since the creation of the radio, TV, Color TV, VHS, DVD, Blue-Ray, and other innovative forms of watching movies, obituaries of the Cinematic experience were written every now and then. Despite the emergence of all that ubiquitous competition Movie Houses prevail as the premium format for storytelling around the globe. There is hypnotic magic about being a dark room full of people sharing the same story through the bright light of a projector impacted into a white screen. That magic triumphed but threats are ascending now even stronger than ever.
The entertainment landscape has never been menaced before as it currently is and as it will be in the following years. On November 15th the cover of the British Magazine The Economist headed: “The 650 Bn binge. Fear and greed in the entertainment industry” . For starters that is not an Entertainment publishing and rarely covers specific industries when tectonic changes are about to occur. Secondly, the number published in the cover is titanic. Higher than the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of countries like Belgium, Thailand or Poland and more than twice of countries like Colombia. Publishing that number on the cover page is telling the reader that something paramount is about to occur.
The article uses de term big bang to describe and give a sense of what will happen in the upcoming years in the Entertainment Business landscape. It compares the industry’s imminent changes to what happened in the US railroad system in the 1860s or the Automotive Industry in the 1940s. Another way of putting the 650bn figure into perspective is by comparing it within the production budgets within the Entertainment Industry. In 2018 the Big Six studios (WB, Sony, Paramount, Disney, Fox, and Universal) spend in content production 9bn. Only Netflix, the disruptive streaming entertainment service, invested 12bn. One and a half times more than what the whole Hollywood Studio System did in the same year. There is a caveat in those figures, the Big Six produced only movies and Netflix movies and TV shows. Still, those are colossal figures that would suggest that other Non-Entertainment players will be jumping into the content creation competitive panorama.
The Big Technology Giants are the once that take the bulk of the 650bn figure, including Netflix, and other bigger gorillas.
Ranking companies by their net worth Apple ranks number one on the planet and in 2019 they launched their brand-new production studio and their home streaming service through Apple TV named Apple Plus. The third-largest company on the planet is Amazon. They previously sprung their own studio with great success and aim to be a dominant force in the content creation world as they are in retail. The US cable hulk COMCAST that owns NBC Universal, Universal Studios and Telemundo is launching their free streaming service (PVOD: Paid Video on Demand), paid by advertisers, called Peacock. The landlord of Disneyland, after buying Pixar, ABC, ESPN, Lucas Films, Marvel and recently 20th Century Fox, is also launching their own streaming platform titled Disney Plus.
What does that mean? That now, more than ever, the money will be available to create entertaining content. And what’s the underpinning foundation of all those entertainment forms? The story. For our lifetime, what does it means? That more stories will be told, more than ever and that more budgets will be hunting to find the best stories. Remember that I mentioned that stories created currency? Well now, all that currency, will fund the story creation. Yet, purring money into a bad story won’t make it good.
The fascinating essence of story crafting is still ingrained in our human DNA. The skills of abstract thinking combined with powerful communication skills not only differentiate us from other species but differentiate us from each other. The best stories will still come from the best storytellers. Good craftmanship will be a skill required today more than ever and will be handsomely rewarded. Good stories, when found, will be conveyed with the most sophisticated technologies and harmonized with the most delightful artforms available. Still, simple stories like the story of Pánfilo the Running Mouse can become memorable and can create and indissoluble bond.
As an audience, we will be bombarded ubiquitously with stories. We will have numberless options to pick up from to understand and compare our life with. If storytelling has been the tool to evolve our species, then our evolution will go even faster than ever from now on. Stories will be told in the best possible way, will be everywhere and will be cheap or free.
But, considering that noisy landscape. What is the most important story to be told? to be written? to be shared? Our own story.
The story of ourselves should make us feel proud of who we are. The story that we see in our eyes when we look at the mirror is the most significant one. The impact that we make in the world we live in. The happiness that we give to others. The causes that we stand up for. And, even the skills that we develop to live a better and happier life. Those are the relevant chapters to craft in our life book.
Yes, it’s all about storytelling but in the end, the most important story to be told is our own. All craftsmanship tools that we can develop should aim to tell us honest, candid, inspiring stories to move our life forward. If we are able to do so, storytelling will be the most healing, fulfilling, surviving tool that we can ever develop.