Researching for Biograph’s forthcoming memoir on the story of our founding and early days, I returned to an article I had saved from Harvard Business Review, where Dr. Piero Formica illustrates what entrepreneurs can learn from the model of Renaissance workshops, which put collaboration and knowledge at the center of value creation. Myself a Renaissance scholar turned entrepreneur, I was intrigued by Dr. Formica’s thinking, which illuminates the kind of collaborative innovation that we cultivate at Biograph. Digging into Dr. Formica’s work, I discovered more affinities with Biograph. As he writes in his book, The Role of Creative Ignorance, by humbly knowing what we do not know, “path creators reveal latent, unexpressed needs of consumers.” Biograph has created new paths by addressing the human need to narrate life—an instinct that remains painfully unexpressed for many who find themselves without the skills or resources to tell their own stories.
We believe that everyone has a story, but that many are unable to tell it, despite new technologies that theoretically make it easier to narrate our lives than at any point in human history. Too much faith in data, biometrics, and social media lulls us to complacently assume that the best stuff of our lives has been preserved and will be ready to call upon whenever we need it. Likewise, Formica argues that the infinite supply of data at our fingertips blocks “the creativity from which all things new emanate. Thanks to the Internet, it seems that we are all knowledgeable, confusing facts and figures (information) with cognition (knowledge) as a result.” By contrast, Biograph emerged from the kind of “creative ignorance” that Formica associates with innovative artists and entrepreneurs. As “path creators,” we practice what Zen Buddhists call Shoshin, or an open “beginner’s mind.” We began not from preconceived knowledge of what consumers need, but rather from a need to overcome our own ignorance regarding the vast data of our experience—and from an instinctual curiosity about the best ways to activate memory in service of the stories upon which our future, our life itself, depends.
The buzz around data storytelling reflects the truth that humans are storytelling animals; we shape ourselves and our environments through narrative. So, our belief that storytelling is vital to life represents more than a Biograph tagline. Without the stories that make life meaningful, one is left with cold facts, figures, and graphs, but as Dostoevsky asks rhetorically, “Who wants to live according to graphs?” The exponential growth of data in our time presents exciting opportunities for insightful and creative problem-solving, if we can understand the data enough to act on it. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our data. Formica observes that scientists may wish “to accumulate as much data as possible. But without a narrative to make sense of the data, won’t this obsessive, feverish search end in an overwhelming and undigested mass of numbers and figures?” Companies such as Narrative Science have emerged, whose “data storytelling software takes your data, analyzes it, and turns it into plain-English stories.” Though we admire the work of such organizations, we believe that stories are more than tools for understanding data—that stories themselves make life meaningful and worth living. As Formica remarks, “You can portray the Great Depression with data stories, but data will never make you feel the power of what happened, as reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will. We can use narrative in tandem with the statistical, econometric, and probability models we already have. But stories can also lift us beyond our current intellectual and creative limits.”
Critics may insist that now is not the time to question facts—when there’s already epidemic distrust of scientists and experts, when public health is politicized, when every day gives us whiplash from new opinions on the relative risks and benefits of coffee or tea, butter or margarine, six feet or more, Remdesivir or Hydroxychloroquine, and so on ad nauseam. Yet, Dr. Formica does not argue against facts and data, but against our misplaced trust and excessive reliance on them at the expense of our nature as homo narrans, storytelling humans. If we ignore data, we put our heads in the sand; however, if we trust data too much, we forget Socrates’ truth: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Beyond clarifying what we already know from data, the power of stories is that they teach us what we do not know. While Biograph is skilled at gathering and preserving “data” in the form of interviews, photographs, home videos, and other personal media, we reject the primitive accumulation of data for its own sake, insisting instead on the thoughtful curation of our clients’ knowledge and lived experience, which we interweave into stories that enlighten, entertain, and inspire.
With all this in mind, I recently wrote Formica to introduce myself and thank him for his inspiration. Practicing what he professes about innovative collaboration, Formica replied quickly from Bologna, Italy to set up a Skype meeting. Signing off, he wrote, “I wish you salad days à la Shakespeare.” From Antony andCleopatra, “salad days” refers to the heyday of youth, when one is “green in judgment” with innocent idealism and invaluable excitement. Though Formica was already well established through traditional publishing houses including Springer and Palgrave Macmillan, he saw in Biograph an agile and empathic publisher whose editors make meaningful contributions to the books we produce and publish. Traditional publishing can be an impersonal and lengthy process—and the urgency of Formica’s latest work demands both diligence and speed, a sweet spot where bioGraph excels. “In such an exceptional time in which we live,” Formica wrote, “the essay I am proposing to you is a work that must proceed as events unfold.” The following essay, excerpted from Formica’s evolving manuscript, is our experiment with the French model of feuilleton, where full texts are published in a series of parts, allowing for nimble adaptation in response to rapidly unfolding events. I admire Formica’s “creative ignorance” and almost youthful energy; despite being a veteran scholar and global thought leader, it seems that Formica, like myself and Biograph, is still enjoying “salad days.” Indeed, his perpetual “salad days” may be the cause of his success, not an exception to it.
Excerpt from Nature’s Voice, by Piero Formica, with Biograph
The world of facts no longer provides the reassurances it once did. Nowadays, it feels like facts have many meanings—and those facts are fleeting, evanescent. Shall we long for the old certainties? Or should we, instead, find stories and narratives that help us make sense of our own insecure, unsteady position? I propose that we turn to stories: not to lull ourselves into complacency, but to forge connections between people of science, and people of letters, between the facts exposed by scientists and the narrative representation of those facts in words and images. Designers and storytellers are nature’s partners: they turn to narrative to help us make sense of nature itself.
The Capacity to Be Amazed
The hardship of the time in which we are living puts human creativity to the test. Rather than succumbing to despair, we must let ourselves be seized by the wonder that the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) called “the capacity to be amazed.” Without such wonder and amazement, human beings merely solve existing problems—and computers can do that better than we can. Disorder and uncertainty are an invitation and a challenge to our minds. We must transcend existing questions and uncover new ones; those new questions will spur us to work out radical solutions to the threats we face. To identify problems and then solve them, we must look for other pathways: those stemming from narratives, stories, and conversations. We can use narrative in tandem with the statistical, econometric, and probability models we already have. But stories can also lift us beyond our current intellectual and creative limits.
Hard-headed economists and scientists might shudder to admit it, but this is nothing new. Literature has always been the muse of the economy. Fairy tales, fables, stories, novels, and essays arouse emotions and ideas that affect our economic activity. It therefore comes as no surprise that literature can inspire reform, including the reform of human behavior. Narrative encourages us to recognize and accept other people; it allows us to understand their minds and motivations. Reading stories, we develop an open mind, an understanding of others. In turn, this inspires spontaneous social connections and sympathies, without the heavy-handed intervention of the law. Further, the study of literature and other art forms also has immediate and practical benefits for economic activity: it can promote communication, analytical thinking, and precision of expression; it allows us to embrace uncertainty and imperfection.
In Praise of the Coffee Break
Most importantly, reading stories frees the imagination, inspiring new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking. Literary conversations are non-linear. In these creative environments, people give and receive ideas freely. Indeed, it is the free exchange of ideas—outside of any material or economic considerations—that forged the most fertile creative environments in human history: the symposiums in Athens, the artistic workshops of Medici Florence, the salons of the great French dames of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Benjamin Franklin’s Junto Club in Philadelphia, the English clubs that were the hotbeds of the first industrial revolution, and the “Āddā” that shaped the Bengal Renaissance. In Plato’s Symposium, for example, Socrates and his friends stay up late into the night discussing love and desire. The air is festive: everyone is tipsy; some have been up for days, carousing, attending tragedies, ceaselessly debating the contours of a good life. And the conversation itself is democratic. Rather than simply having Socrates lecture his friends on love and desire, they all get their say. Plato is thus making a subtle and important point in the way he presents his symposium: it is better to provide a range of different pathways, narratives, and stories, rather than insisting on one method, one viewpoint. In its branching paths and possibilities, the Symposium encourages its readers to think vigorously and open-mindedly: to find their own path through the thickets of desire.
Modern quantitative experiments have backed up Plato’s intuition. MIT professor Alex Pentland has shown that water-cooler conversations among colleagues are not a waste of time—though they might look that way to anxious managers: “One team was given a shared coffee break, while the other, efficiently, staggered theirs, so work was uninterrupted. The social team’s job satisfaction went up, and it was $10m more profitable. What’s happening in that wasted time? People were sharing information, problem-solving, motivating and helping one another” (Heffernan, 2020). Conversation—inefficient, democratic, hard to quantify—is key to solving problems in business and economics. Without such freedom of exchange, people fall into the same old ruts, the tried—and tired—ideas. And the companies that employ them suffer as a result.
Aristocrats of Data
In the social sciences, too, researchers are turning their attention to narrative, arguing that stories can have a substantial impact on people’s behaviors. People are not always rational actors. Their response to a crisis may not be driven by a clear-eyed analysis of the facts. Instead, it may come from panic or ignorance; it may be determined by the stories circulating in the media. As Robert Shiller, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, writes,
We have to consider the possibility that sometimes the dominant reason why a recession is severe is related to the prevalence and vividness of certain stories, not the purely economic feedback or multipliers that economists love to model.
The aristocrats of data dream of embarking for the island of incontrovertible facts and, once there, they would organize a gallant party in honor of those facts. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) gives us a vivid image of what such a festival might look like in Voyage to Cythera (1717): the small-minded and self-satisfied out for a weekend pleasure cruise, with fat little putti doing cartwheels in the sky. It’s a seductive vision, but a false one: we must always remember that Cythera—Aphrodite’s island, the seat of unimaginable pleasure—is the destination of our earthly journey. But it is not attainable by mere mortals. So too, the island of incontrovertible facts is our goal, but only the foolhardy imagine that they will arrive there. Solid empirical arguments are never definitive and irrevocable. Further investigations can steer us in a completely new direction.
The Baconian scientific method requires one to reach the sacred shore of reality by standing on the stable boat of facts. But the boat is constantly obliged to retreat and change directions. To love facts is to love polygamously, to love many things and ideas, subject to contradictory and ever-changing winds. The journey continues. Its unfolding is a story of misadventure and happenstance, chance encounters and felicitous accidents. It involves the protagonists—the scientists and economists who search so vigorously for the truth—and those they meet along the way, who influence and are influenced by conversations with these passionate truth seekers. The shore of reality has, therefore, a narrative form: it is the story we tell ourselves about our search for truth.
The Uncertainty of Science
By admitting that stories are key to scientific and economic progress, will we get a clearer view of the disruptive events that have seized our society? A scientist might insist that the best way to respond is to accumulate as much data as possible. But without a narrative to make sense of the data, won’t this obsessive, feverish search end in an overwhelming and undigested mass of numbers and figures? In his story, “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986), the Argentine fabulist, imagines a society that has indulged, to a dangerous degree, in such a love of data gathering for its own sake:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
As Nobel Prize laureate Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) points out in The Uncertainty of Science, “It is not always a good idea to be too precise.” Otherwise, one arrives at a map as big as the thing it maps: perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. Only a narrative, a story, can help strike the necessary balance between accuracy and imprecision. Without such a balance, science itself fails.
Time to Tell Stories
In a world of facts with many and elusive meanings, storytelling is the connective tissue we need. It not only facilitates an encounter between scientists and artists. It also forges a connection between different kinds of facts—the facts of the laboratory and the truths of the novel, the reality of the empirical study and the experience of the person who must live in the reality which that study seeks to describe. Finally, stories give the flexibility and freedom of mind we need—so that we are not overwhelmed by the pomp and pretense of science. When we see the City of Facts off in the mists, we are not blinded by its splendor: the stories we tell act like sunglasses, diffusing its dazzling brilliance, protecting our eyes. Indeed, our narratives allow us to see facts more clearly and in greater detail. The City of Facts is not the Emerald City where the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz reigns, and which one must enter with green-tinted spectacles to protect oneself from the overwhelming brightness. If we were all forced to use the same stories, to wear the same sunglasses, reality itself would be reduced to a drab conformity, its pleasure and possibility drained away.
As we confront an unprecedented global crisis in COVID-19, we must be willing to recognize that the old ways of thinking have failed us—and that new stories are needed to account for our new reality. What better time to look again at the facts, to see them with new eyes, and to invent new ways of reckoning with them? What better time to interrogate the assumptions that scientists and economists make about their studies? The time is now to repair the connective tissue between disciplines that have been unnaturally estranged. Now, as ever, it is time tell stories.