Monday, July 25, 2011

Aphorisms and The Black Swan and Twitter

The most compelling aspect of Nicholas Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan was his dissection of the narrative fallacy. We continually concoct explanatory stories to comfort ourselves in the face of an irreducibly complex world. Crucially, stories compel not only by their truth, but by their very nature as stories. (Taleb cites those fantastic split-brain experiments where intelligent patients, faced with their own obviously contradictory behavior, will fabricate wild explanations without hesitation or doubt.)

However, stories often fail (even the best inevitably fail at the hands of unpredictable, rare, black swan events), and we rewrite our stories and hang on until they fail again.

But these stories do have kernels of insight and nuggets of experiential wisdom. How do we pluck out the insight?

Enter the aphorism, short statements that focus on the insight and dispense with the time-consuming and misleading narrative. Nietzsche authored many of my favorites:

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."

"Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it."

Are Twitter, status updates, and the sound bites of social media digital aphorisms, dispensing with the narrative and going straight for the insight?


Zingari said...

Maybe, but what glimmers of insight there are are crowded out by the deafening roar of the "irreducibly complex" world with all its little inanities and vanities. we still call this media flow euphemistically a "stream" or at places a "torrent" but panning for the aphorism gold in a stream is fine. in this boiling ocean of content less so.
Moreover I guess increasingly we find the nuggets of wisdom that suit our own view rather than the wider truths we should hunt down.

astupple said...


Yeah, it's not a justification of Twitter, just speculation about why it's not a complete waste of time. I mean, if I had to, HAD to sift through that boiling ocean looking for insight, I'd prefer to swim in the aphorism seas a bit.

Thanks for commenting!