The Power of Story (and justice, Bitcoin/Thomas Edison)

How does a good story change our thinking?

Two artists have quantified the power of a good story to change how we perceive the ordinary. They started out spending $128.74 at thrift stores on random crud (snow globes, creamic bowls).

They then listed each object on eBay using a non-sequitur fictional story instead of a real description. It was clear the story was fiction.

The $128.74 in objects sold for a total of $3612.51 with stories attached. With such a smashing success, this experiment was repeated several more times, raising $4351.50 to various literary nonprofit causes.

The most significant increase in value was for a snow globe, which was originally purchased for $0.99 but sold for $59:

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t do was control for the value added by the marketplace itself. Taking objects from a thrift store and listing them on eBay is itself a huge increase in value, because they’re now accessible to many more people (who might want a toy toaster for reasons unconnected with the story).

Therefore, if anyone wanted to repeat the experiment, I would suggest splitting the thrift store haul into an experimental and a control group at random. Provided the population is large enough, you’d be able to look at the increase in value of each group and derive the true value of a story.

Security implications? The social engineers among you already have the wheels turning in their heads. Stories short-circuit our thinking, leading us to buy into things more easily and more strongly than we would if you just presented the facts.

It’s the classic line, “I really need your help, the presentation is tomorrow and the computer just barfed, my boss put his reputation on the line with this and then dropped it on my lap, can you help me out just this once?”

Justice: See, here’s the thing. I have no trouble with inequality that arises because not everyone wants to put in the work and discipline to get rich. What isn’t OK is when the people at the top work to keep others out of the club, instead of doing better themselves.

Many people think of this in terms of conspiracies working behind the scenes. But it may be that ideas and mind-viruses are more powerful than any secret society.*

A former prosecutor deliberately got himself arrested, and found out the hard way how much these memes resist being exposed. You can practically see the idea-slugs living in people’s brains clamp down in fear and then lash out in hate as the guy forces the system to examine itself.

* This leads to the logical conclusion that, rather than relying on interpersonal connections, the ideal weapon of a shadowy cabal would be memes.

Tracing the origins of Bitcoin: in the process of hawking some financial newsletter, someone did a TON of research and traced the ideological roots of Bitcoin all the way back to Thomas Edison.

“The bidding for this object, with story by Blake Butler, has ended. Original price: 99 cents. Final price: $59.00. Significant Objects will donate the proceeds of this auction to Girls Write Now.”

“Significant Objects, a literary and anthropological experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.

The project auctioned off thrift-store objects via eBay; for item descriptions, short stories purpose-written by over 200 contributing writers, including Meg Cabot, William Gibson, Ben Greenman, Sheila Heti, Neil LaBute, Jonathan Lethem, Tom McCarthy, Lydia Millet, Jenny Offill, Bruce Sterling, Scarlett Thomas, and Colson Whitehead, were substituted. The objects, purchased for $1.25 apiece on average, sold for nearly $8,000.00 in total. (Proceeds were distributed to the contributors, and to nonprofit creative writing organizations.) All the project’s stories are archived on this site.”

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