For the past few weeks, I’ve been on a bit of a sci-fi kick. First, it was Frank Herbert’s Dune, then a few of Isaac Asimov’s short stories, followed up by his magnum opus, Foundation. I’m currently in the middle of reading Watchmen, and while it may not be a typical science fiction tale, it incorporates several philosophical elements that cast a techno-futuristic lens on our own society.
All three stories share the same focus of thrusting their audience into a foreign world, left to their own devices to pick up clues and piece the story together. Dune is near impossible to understand without the reference of alien terms at the back of the book; in fact, the 1984 screening of the movie based on the book provided its viewers with a physical sheet of vocabulary so they could follow the story. A lot of the time this doesn’t just concern the geography or culture of this alien planet. Yes, we learn about Trantor, or Arrakis, or even Mordor for that matter and its people through vivid details that help us picture the world these authors crafted. The more interesting piece is the importance of time. In most stories, the reader doesn’t know about the events prior to the adventure they embark on, adding an additional layer of mysticism to the novel.
Sci-fi is a great example of worldbuilding because it is very explicit; words, societies, maps, and details are so distinct from the world we live in, but we still manage to find the common “humanity” in our protagonists despite these differences. A more important questions is: can we find traces of masterful worldbuilding in other realms, perhaps less obviously?
Let’s look at the news. The objective of the media is to report the news as it seems fit. Keywords: as it seems fit. The ambiguity in this phrase enables large media conglomorates to push their own personal agendas, twisted into the guise of factual reporting. Like Herbert, Asimov, and Moore, the media wants you to buy into their story. If you’re used to watching FOX and one day you switch the channel to CNN, you’re thrown into an entirely different world, one where the facts reported don’t reconcile with facts in the the world that you identify with. Unlike science fiction with its made up worlds where you are simply an outsider, the news deals with the real world, one where people have already bought into a world narrative. This clash prevents us from seeing eye-to-eye with the human on the otherside of the screen because we’re think we’re being lied to. As defensive creatures, our instincts motivate us switch the channel and never look back.
Education is another example of worldbuilding. Every modern university has the goal of convincing you that it is worth paying upwards of $60,000/year for a degree. You pay a heavy amount upfront with the hopes of making that money back, plus more, in the long term. This is why such a large portion of our population is burdened by student loans. People are sold on this seemingly certain vision. Unfortunately, a college education often doesn’t come with a 10-year satisfaction guarantee.
A key component of all these worlds are not the stories themselves; the stories are a vehicle for a much more powerful idea: principles. A particular court case doesn’t matter in the larger context of society compared to the principles that drive it. All a court case represents is an event where people met, argued, and adjudicated a result. We care more about the fundamental ideas that push it forward, be it civil rights or abortion, and the reasoning that supports the final decision. In a similar vein, principles motivate worldbuilding because a world paints a much more illustrative and compelling picture than a standalone person, place, or ideal. Worldbuilding packages principles in a more digestable manner.
“Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.”
Peter Thiel has his famous contrarian question, what important truth do very few people agree with you on? An individual’s answer to this question is a world in itself. It highlights uniqueness, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to go against the grain, a shared attribute of succesful people. Bret Victor believes that having a personal principle is the most important trait of people who push for change. To him, aving a principle is akin to being an activist. Elizabeth Caddy Stanton was deeply aligned with the principle of fighting for women’s suffrage. Larry Tesler’s famous “no modes” motto pushed him to break computer systems from the mode-siloed feature of early computers, eventually developing the first word processor.
Identities are reductionist by nature. Saying that you’re a computer scientist or avid frisbee player effectively creates a caricature of yourself, while saying that you follow a particular principle, like Bret Victor’s “creators need immediate connection to what they are creating,” shares a much more exhaustive picture of who you are. Principles are associative: people can hold an opinion on the world that you are selling and this can force you to think more deeply about what you want to fight for or work on. In this way, principles have an external buy in from outiders. No one has to agree with you, and this can make your principle more powerful. Most importantly, a personal principle is well defined and showcases conviction and personality.
When people want to learn more about you, be it at a social gathering or interview, force yourself to answer with the principles that build your personal world. Invite them on a journey in your thoughts, one that they can push against and ask about.
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Copyright Varun Shenoy