The Truth
November 2, 2016 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Please help me understand this story by Ted Chiang.

Ever since I first read this Chiang story (The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling) it's been sitting at the back of my mind like an unsolved puzzle. I feel like I understand one half of the narrative (the sf part) but not the other (the Tiv part), and not how they inter-relate. Can you help me understand what's going on?
posted by bq to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My take is: Oral History → Written History → Recorded History is the natural and inevitable transition. But not to worry, it's a good thing.

The Tiv story relates a community's upheaval at transitioning from an Oral History to a Written History. The idea being that our own transition from a Written History to a Recorded History will be just as rocky.

Concluding that:
Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that—I hope—acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.
posted by zinon at 12:25 PM on November 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

One connection:
And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.
Jijingi originally goes to the European archive to prove that his elders were right and the elders from the west were wrong. Now think about the story of Joel and Dierdre. They are, writ small, the elders from Jijingi's village vs. the elders from the west.
Here was the line at which the pursuit of truth ceased to be an intrinsic good. When the only persons affected have a personal relationship with each other, other priorities are often more important, and a forensic pursuit of the truth could be harmful.
In the disagreement between the Tiv elders, the fight over ancestry was a proxy argument for the real disagreement over whether it would be better for the tribe to ally with Shangev or Jechira. Writing technology records how this disagreement would have been settled in the past, at the time of recording, but not how the disagreement should be solved now.
posted by muddgirl at 1:07 PM on November 2, 2016

Zinon is just right. Another way to look at is is that the Tiv story allows us to see writing as the technology it is (rather than taking it for granted as a "natural" part of human life). Like all technologies, it changed us -- and like technologies before it, it may eventually pass away, only to be replaced by a new technology that will change us in different ways.

Here are a few things you might want to read and listen to that will give you more food for thought on this topic:
- This episode of the Invisibilia podcast tells the story of Thad Starmer, a man who built (and has, since 1993, worn and relied on) a real version of the "Remem" wearable computer described in Chiang's short story.
- Accelerando, by Charlie Stross (Amazon, or distributed free online by the author). It's a group of sci-fi stories that examine the effects of ever-quicker technological change on a human family and humanity in general. It basically starts with external memory drives and moves on from there.
- A Stranger In Olondria, by Sofia Samatar. It's a fantasy novel about, in part, the changes that the technology of writing brings to a non-literate society.
posted by ourobouros at 1:23 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

My take is: Oral History → Written History → Recorded History is the natural and inevitable transition. But not to worry, it's a good thing.

But the Tiv scribe rejects the value of Written History in determining the dispute among his people, and rejects its value for himself, obliterating his journals. He attempts, as much as he can, to maintain his culturally preferred, mediated Oral history. To live according to mimi.

It seems to me that's its not so simple as saying "this transition is a good thing." It's more "the transition will cause loss and pain, yet some good can be derived from it." Overall, the story seems to me agnostic on whether the transition ought therefore to be embraced or resisted.
posted by Diablevert at 3:52 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

the story seems to me agnostic on whether the transition ought therefore to be embraced or resisted.

Both main characters' decisions were made to bring them closer to the people they cared about; that concern was the most important to both. So, in the context of the story, both decisions seemed to be the best choices.
posted by amtho at 6:02 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's also important that the Tiv story is being (consciously, deliberately, and reductively) told by the journalist-narrator (the father of Nicole). He claims authorship at the end: "The account I’ve given of the Tiv is based in fact, but isn’t precisely accurate. [...] The actual events were more complicated and less dramatic, as actual events always are, so I have taken liberties to make a better narrative. I’ve told a story in order to make a case for the truth. I recognize the contradiction here."

He's striving for mimi, not vough, but he's still bound by the paradigms and restrictions of writing. He has composed his words consciously and carefully, he has chosen "which details to include and which to omit," he has left the artificial spaces between his word-clumps (just like all those missionary sermons, full of Biblical parables).

Also: His daughter accuses him of being self-absorbed. Given that he has told the Tiv story as an act of deliberate mis-remembering and mis-telling, given that he has gone out of his way to render a story of colonialism and technological disruption as a parable for his strained relationship with his daughter -- is Nicole necessarily wrong?
posted by toast the knowing at 6:11 PM on November 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think it's a rebuttal and capitulation to the argument that Socrates makes in The Phaedrus, where Thamus objects that writing will eliminate virtues bestowed by memory. The Tiv story is an enactment of Thamus's objection.

The story of Joel and Deirdre is a transposition of Thamus's objection, where the new invention, Remem, makes them ".. appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." That's a quote from Thamus, again.

The story of Nicole and the Journalist is the rebuttal, showing that the new invention provides a new wisdom and self-examination, of which Socrates might have approved; while at the same time pointing out that another invention is eliminating writing as Socrates and the Journalist recognized it.

Of course, I just read it today. I think about Chiang stories for a long, long time.
posted by the Real Dan at 8:20 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

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