How We Use Stories to Adopt Technology

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

Everyday we tell stories to each other. To our co-workers on Monday morning about our weekend. To loved ones about our day when things are good or go wonky. We likely started telling stories around fires at night, with grunts and gestures. Eventually, we figured out language. We cannot tell stories without language. Stories also play a vital role in how we decide what technologies we like or dislike.

The technology industry figured this out during the first “.com” boom of the late 1990’s. They did this as marketing evolved to include communications in its practices. Quite quickly, the industry found that if they could tell interesting stories to the public through news media, sales typically followed. In industry parlance this is called unpaid or earned media. Today, this process has become finely honed.

Perhaps the best storytelling technology brand in the world is Apple. Steve Jobs has been lauded as a great storyteller, despite his other flaws. The phrase, “one more thing” was repeated by Apple CEO Tim Cook this past week with the launch of its VR headset, Vision Pro. Google and Microsoft try to tell stories like Apple, but have never quite been able to match it.

So why is telling stories about technology so important? Storytelling is the warp and woof of culture and culture is the code we use as our operating system, our software if you will, to survive as a species. We use culture to survive where biological evolution takes too long.

We also need technology in order to survive. Culture is the software that makes the hardware of technology work. Language, writing, are technologies as well. Software.

Stories also play a role in how we define, understand and agree upon our realities. Every human perceives reality in a different way. You see the world differently from me, from your parents, siblings, children. So telling stories helps us find common ground so we can move forward.

Religions tell stories that shape our understanding of the world. Companies tell stories through their advertising and marketing activities. Marketing is, basically, about telling stories at a distance, while sales is about telling stories in the now, close up. Salespeople use analogies all the time, which are stories, by selling the customer on a perceived future state.

Then there’s all documentaries that tell us how technologies may impact society. And the millions of YouTbe videos that explain new digital technologies and how to fix technologies. All stories. Art and music are also forms of storytelling.

Story telling makes use of our ability to imagine a future state. To understand how we got to where we are today. One of the best storytellers today is historian Yuval Noah Harari. Two great storytellers on technology and potential futures is Peter Diamandis and Peter Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine. Oprah Winfrey is another great story teller about how we live our lives. Stories happen because of our ability to imagine.

Technologies are also invented through our imagination. In anthropology we refer to this as the “imaginarium” of the human mind. An inventor of a technology imagines a certain future. From that imagined future comes a technology that can make it happen.

Then inventor then tells their story of an imagined future to other people who can help them create that technology. Some technologies arise to harness a phenomenon, such as electricity. Other technologies come into being as a result of the technology that harnessed the original phenomenon. Edison and Tesla harnessed the phenomenon of electricity, then imagined, along with others, technologies that could be built upon the original, imagined idea of harnessing electricity.

As technology companies came to understand this, they created stories to sell their products. We’ve used storytelling to figure out how to adopt technologies for hundreds of thousands of years too. If they’re bad at storytelling products fail. If they’re really good, then they sell. Up to a point.

The more impactful a technology is on society, the bigger the role culture plays in how we decide to adopt or reject a technology. As a technology becomes more pervasive in a society, culture eventually supersedes the original invention and then changes the technology to adapt to a cultural system. Some cultures may end up rejecting a technology altogether or modifying it to fit in with values, norms and traditions.

Perhaps the biggest storytelling going on today around a technology is Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). There are two main themes of the stories being told; 1) humanity is done for and 2) the future is awesome dude!

Yuval Harari has, I think, explained the threat the best. It is because of language. And the better A.I. tools get at telling stories, the greater threat the pose. To a degree, this is true. You can watch a short speech he recently made here.

The internet and the resulting technologies that came out of it, such as social media, is largely a medium for storytelling. Memes are a form of storytelling. And because we can all tell stories at a scale never before possible, it means we are also trying to share our realities with one another.

This is very messy right now because we haven’t created any overarching, globally accepted frameworks, rules, norms and behaviours around how stories are told and how we might agree on various realities. The imaginarium has exploded like the Big Bang and is sparking off everywhere. Essentially, we haven’t developed a cultural code for how to deal with all this story telling. Eventually, we will. And that will be very fascinating indeed.

Time for a bedtime story.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.