Urbit, Article

Urbit and narrative

Disclosure: I took a course from Robert Shiller, which I paid for, and had lunch with him once, which he paid for

With Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events (2019, Princeton), Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale Robert Shiller develops many of the same themes from his recent books on behavioral economics co-authored with George Akerlof, Animal Spirits (2009) and Phishing for Phools (2015), while also addressing bigger questions of the usefulness of economics and finance in the world brought up in Finance and the Good Society (2012). Of the four it’s probably the most academic, but like the rest it’s non-technical and accessible. The book grew out of Shiller’s presidential address to the American Economic Association in 2017 and his Marshall Lectures at Cambridge University in 2018-2019 (which focuses on bimetalism and Bitcoin).

William James noted that “mankind’s common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism.” Everyone wants to be a hero for some story, and looks for heroic stories to make sense of the world around them. A narrative is the telling of these stories, linked together with a lesson or moral that allows the reader/listener to personally identify with it. Some of these stories spread, whether in print or by word-of-mouth or (increasingly) by online media, and become contagious (‘going viral’ and ‘trending now’ have themselves spread contagiously since introduced around 2010). Some people make efforts to make new, contagious stories that advance useful narratives, sometimes leading to significant changes in society. Historians, anthropologists, and psychologists have understood this for a long time, but economists have for more than a century been so focused on quantitative data and seeing social factors as an outcome of economics rather than the reverse that they have neglected it. This despite the fact that there are many obvious examples, from bimetalism (adoption of silver to back currencies) to Marxism, of narrative-based social movements that lead to significant political economic changes (bimetalism pamphlet Coin’s Financial School sold one-million copies in 1894 to a country that had hardly been aware it was on the gold standard a few years earlier).

Shiller offers a number of vignettes and examples, some significant and others frivolous. Too many to include here and do justice. With the wheel invented millenia ago, how come no one thought to put them on a suitcase until Northwestern Airlines pilot Robert Plath came out with the Rollaboard in 1987 (Shiller puts it in the ‘1990s’, though perhaps meant when it became widely popular)? Similar products had actually been patented in the past, as long as almost a hundred years earlier, but hadn’t become popular. What they didn’t have was the image of a pilot and flight crew (much more glamorous and admired 30 years ago than today) pulling them through the airport and aboard the plane. They didn’t have a ‘hero’ behind them.

If you learn about Urbit mostly through Hacker News, then you might think it has a certain narrative, though I argue we are only in the first part of the early days of the platform. What I do believe is that Urbit can be a platform for narratives, just the way the legacy internet has been. They won’t be the same. They won’t have the same heroes, the heroes will do different things. The space is open. What will you do?