We live in a world of fictions
After a long break, I’m finally back to writing! I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with this newsletter/blog thing, but moving forward, I’ll try to write 1-2 posts per month, still usually about tech but sometimes about other random things I’m thinking about (like this post). Thanks for reading. —Chris
Four years ago, when I was graduating college, I remember being in the pews of a large chapel, elbow-to-elbow with some of my classmates. Parents and friends were sitting in the balcony with tears in their eyes, watching newly-minted graduates sift into our seats. We were wearing black robes and black square hats with long, limp strings dangling from the side, as per usual for a graduation, and we were sweating underneath it all as spring in New England was cresting into summer. Once everyone got seated, an organ started playing, we began singing our college song, and all of a sudden, I felt out of place. I felt strange. For a brief moment or two, I couldn’t bring myself to sing.
It was a strange, visceral sensation. I can perhaps best describe it as an “out-of-body” experience: I felt like I wasn’t experiencing the world in first-person as an active participant, but in third-person as a spectator. The world zoomed out. I looked around me, and I just felt strange… What are we doing?
I’ve experienced this strange feeling with increasing frequency through the years. Just the other day, I was on a walk with a friend; we encountered a random person walking her dog, and the out-of-body feeling suddenly washed over me: We purchase these small four-legged creatures for hundreds / thousands of dollars, put collars and leashes on them, watch them poop, and talk to them in slightly higher-pitched voices as though they understand us. I had to stop and remark to my friend how weird this all was, at which point she just laughed it off.
Perhaps I’m crazy. In these moments, I engage in a thought experiment: If intelligent aliens from lightyears away visited the Earth today and watched what we were doing, how much would they understand? Graduation ceremonies would definitely be quite mysterious. So too would dog-rearing, probably. We live in a world of fictions. Much of our society—our world?—is stitched together by these fictions, things that have little to no intrinsic or universal meaning but have meaning only because we have agreed to give them meaning.
Maybe it’s easiest to explain with more examples.
Marriage. First and foremost, marriage is a legal fiction, a fiction backed and mediated by the law. The day before you get married vs. the day after you get married, you’re still the same person—nothing about you has intrinsically changed. But the law now recognizes you as a different person! You can now file joint income tax returns with the IRS and state tax authorities. You can now obtain insurance benefits through your spouse’s employer. You are now entitled to inherit a share of your spouse’s estate.
Marriage is also a social fiction, one that is backed and mediated by societal traditions. There is no inherent reason why diamond engagement rings are a thing (they became popular in the West only starting in the 1940s, and other cultures have historically and obviously used other types of gifts), nor is there a transcendental reason why engagement rings should be 1/6 of your yearly salary or whatever (this notion is promulgated by De Beers, which owns a monopoly on the diamond industry). Wedding vows, wedding venues, flower girls, bouquet-throwing, open bars, groomsmen and bridesmaids, etc. — we do many things in weddings because this is part of our current social fiction. To sharpen the point: If all cultures could rebuild the “custom of marriage” from the ground-up, there’s no way we would all organically converge on the practices we do today. There is no transcendental, canonical conception of a marriage or a wedding.
Money. Again, a legal fiction. A dollar bill is merely a piece of paper with barely any intrinsic value, but it magically gets value from the fact that the state says you can use it to purchase goods. Gold, similarly, has little intrinsic value. Sure, it is a catalyst in chemistry and a crown in dentistry, but outside of niche uses, gold largely derives its value from the state declaring it as a store of value. Money could also be a sort of social fiction. I’m thinking here about certain speculative trading assets (see the meteoric rise of Dogecoin over the past month or two) whose monetary values are fundamentally untethered from any underlying value thanks to meme pumping and dumping.
Facebook. At the outset, I note that Facebook, like all other corporations, is obviously still a legal fiction: Facebook is recognized by the state as a legal entity, a corporation that is incorporated in Delaware, has a board of directors and shareholders, can be sued, must be taxed, blah blah. Even if I replaced Zuck as the CEO, even if 100% of its engineers were fired and replaced with monkeys, Facebook would still exist as a legal fiction fabricated by the state.
You might fairly push back, though, and say that Facebook isn’t a fiction because it has intrinsic value. It has a tangible product and a market cap of $900 bn, right? Yes, I concede that Facebook the entity has value and creates value for people. But, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the relationships / ideas that bind Facebook (indeed, all companies) together and give rise to its product or market cap are fictions.
For example, Facebook has an internal system of rules that employees abide by. Facebook has an internal company culture that guides employee decision-making. Facebook has a mission statement that guides the future of its product development and investment of resources. All of these things were “made up” in the sense that they are not immutable truths. The executive team, or higher-level managers, create these rules and can modify them at any point. Facebook’s future (or product or market cap) is hardly set in stone—it will depend on the fabrication of these fictions and the level to which employees buy into them. Executive management promulgates these corporate fictions, and all other employees likewise buy into them. Is there a canonical Facebook in the sense that there is an objectively right or best way to run the company?
In The Matrix, the protagonist Neo initially exists in a high-fidelity virtual simulation (the eponymous “Matrix”) until he is awakened and pulled into the real world. For the first time, Neo realizes that for the past god-knows-how-many-years, his consciousness was plugged into a computer program, a fake world with fake rules that merely mimicked the immutable rules of the real world.
In one scene, after Neo is already pulled into the real world, his consciousness is plugged into a kung fu simulation so he can test the boundaries of the virtual world via a sparring match with his mentor Morpheus. Before they spar, Morpheus tells Neo that the programmed rules of these sorts of simulations can be bent and broken. But Neo initially seems not to get it. In the ensuing match, Neo huffs and puffs while Morpheus easily disposes of him without breaking a sweat. Then, with Neo face-down, belly on the floor, and complaining that Morpheus is too fast, Morpheus asks Neo, “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? You think that’s air you’re breathing now?”
Unlike Neo, we don’t live in a virtual simulation, but many parts of our world are fictional in the sense that they aren’t immutable truths. To be a contrarian is to reject the fiction. To be an entrepreneur (or legislator or changemaker or whatever) is to rewrite the fiction. The challenge is being able to see that the walls around us perhaps aren’t even walls in the first place.
I’ll conclude with one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes:
When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it: That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.
📚 What I’m reading
Most of these links are from a few months ago, but they’re great reads nonetheless!