In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Dr. Harari writes:
“Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions, Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.”
What Dr. Harari is referring to is the complex ability we have to create ‘fictions’ (stories of things that are beyond what we can physically see) and then communicate them to large groups, even to those we don’t personally know, thus resulting in collective ideas.
Imagine someone in the 13th century from what is now France, traveling southeast to join the Crusades, encountering someone on the road who is from what is now Germany. They do not speak each other’s language, and they’re likely both illiterate. And yet they see that this stranger in front of them is wearing a cross, and carrying a satchel. Immediately, a vast amount of information is transmitted between them through these symbols and other gestures: that they are both Christian, both believing in the same deity with the same story of resurrection behind. In their respective home towns, through the ability to imagine and communicate realities one has never personally witnessed, they had both become Christian. And so on this road to the Holy Land, both can walk together, share bread, and protect each other as they, and thousands of others, walk with common purpose. For they have a collective idea that allows thousands upon thousands of strangers to cooperate successfully.
It is this remarkable set of abilities that Dr. Harari puts forward as the decisive advantage our ancestors had over other human species, and over all other species that inhabit this planet.
Think about it: What is a corporation? What is a state? What is a brand? These are collective ideas that are like the ‘fictions’ that Harari is referring to. We have an extraordinary ability to develop stories and concepts about things that are too large or too small for us to personally see, or too abstract, or completely non-physical. And we can communicate these stories to each other in such compelling ways that it organizes our thoughts and behaviours into what we know as Civilization.
So wouldn’t it stand to reason that those who are developing and shaping these stories have a profound influence on how we think and behave? Shouldn’t we be more conscious of this ability—and use it wisely and deliberately? For these stories can become so pervasive and powerful that we don’t even see them any more. We simply say to each other, “Well that’s how it is. ” When in fact, it would be more accurate to say, “Well that’s how we’ve chosen to tell it.”
In next week’s post, we’ll bring it back around to the art of branding and storytelling in the modern age. But I suspect you’ve already started to apply it yourself to such topics.