Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Narrative illusions

Our brain contains lots of neurons and can do great things. I can read, write and speak fluently in two languages made of tens of thousands of words. Millions of human beings can do that, and much more. But our brains have also clear limits. For example, despite the fact that I have advanced degrees in Mathematics, I still take a small pause when I need to compute the tip (15%) at a restaurant, especially if I have had wine or beer. And I sometimes get the result wrong. My computer could do a billion such computations per second. I could do no more than a handful.

There is overwhelming evidence that our brains do not see the world as it is, but rather they only build a limited model. This is clear when you watch optical illusions. When trying to understand history, technology or your own organization, you often resort to narratives. We build stories. “Steve Jobs became CEO, then he made Apple great again through his charisma.” “Barack Obama took power, rebooted the economy and gave the Americans hope again.”

And then you get “narrative illusions”. Was Apple turned around single-handedly by Steve Jobs? Those who thought so predicted that his death would mean the end of Apple. Yet Apple has continued to grow just as well without Steve Jobs. If you sold your stock when Steve Jobs died, you lost money.

Narratives are hacks to help us cope with the world. Nobody can truly understand how Tesla semi-autonomous cars came along. It is complicated. There is capitalism. There is technological progress… There are thousands of engineers working throughout the world in a distributed matter… How can we comprehend how it all came together? So our puny monkey brains just conclude that this one guy (Elon Musk) did it. He came in, said “I want smart electric cars” and silly engineers went out and built it. End of story.

We often sum up Google by saying “two kids invented a magical algorithm called PageRank and became billionaires”. That’s not even 1% of the story, but we can understand this narrative and it suffices. We should not, we cannot reject narratives. It is how our brain has to deal with the world. We should, however, be aware that these stories are not the same as reality. Elon Musk does not build next-generation rockets while he programs autonomous cars. Bill Gates did not write Windows 95. Steve Jobs did not invent the tablet, the mouse, the modern computer or even the smartphone. Barack Obama did not bring peace and prosperity to the world.

We hear a lot about how computers cannot think like we do or see like we do. But, one day, our descendants might outgrow most of our narrative illusions. They might look back our puny attempts to understand the world and think “how could they survive?”.

Credit: This blog post was inspired by a Facebook exchange with Seb Paquet and Philippe Beaudoin.