Symmentropy in Small Doses - Take Two

This second dose of Symmentropy wraps up four posts looking at anger on Peary Street and offers an explanation of how we keep our anger or control it by remembering that our stories include all of our experiences.

Second rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling preserves the whole story, even the little things.

My artist has demanded that I be more considerate of visual thinkers and provide some graphic representations of symmentropy. The concept of retaining all of our experiences to use them in storytelling lends itself well to images that have been incorporated into this post.

The second guideline from symmentropy involves a small dose of arithmetic, not calculus, just simple addition and subtraction, to go along with the graphics. All of the formulas that simmer beneath the surface of symmentropy begin with Claude Shannon and information theory. Even though he said his formulas would not work for the way humans communicated, their tantalizing effectiveness has lured many into trying to apply them to everything from conversation to mass media. Symmentropy begins with the part of human conversation that Shannon did not measure and proposes a way to measure it for people.


Shannon's equations act as a filter to remove the impurities from the telephone lines. Think about running all of your phone calls (yes, even cell phones use these equations) through a coffee filter. At the end of each hour of using your phone, you pull the filter out, throw it away and put in a new one. Shannon's equations are that disposable filter. They remove everything that is not important sound and make sure that it is not hanging around causing confusion. People do not have filters, blinders, maybe. We can focus on the important parts of what we see, but we cannot just toss the noise in the trash and forget it.

Symmentropy includes ways to look at and evaluate all of the parts of stories, not just the main ideas. The second guideline is pretty simple to explain because each experience we have adds to our set of experiences that we combine into new stories. There is no subtraction, ever. You can not unlive a moment of your life any more than you can unsay something you regret. It gets messy and sometimes we mix one set of details with another, but we do not discard the experience. Even when we have an experience that causes us to realize that we were wrong about something, we do not forget our error. We remember both the versions as part of our storytelling archive.

Storytelling Machine
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Our greatest control over the flow of stories from our library of experience.

Each of us is a storytelling machine. We take all of our life experiences, store them away and then mix them together so that we can tell stories for any number of purposes. It may be easier to think of your story telling machine as a huge library that has one spigot attached to the side. We define ourselves in our communities by how we control the flow of stories from our library faucet. In coming Symmentropy in Small Doses posts, the inner workings of this library will be the focus. This post will only look at the control we have over what flows from the library's storytelling spigot.

From the day we are born, we begin the serious task of collecting experiences to stock the shelves of our library of storytelling snippets and events. We assume the chore because we are cursed with a memory and the ability to reflect on ourselves and what we do. Since we are not equal in either of these skills, some of us have library shelves that are beautifully organized and categorized while some just have dark corners where experiences are squirreled away gathering intellectual dust. Each of also puts a librarian in charge of the stories. We all know that some librarians will make it easy to find ten times the volumes you were seeking and some librarians leave you feeling like the fox in their hen house.

That is the first principle of symmentropy in action. The “librarian” in charge of our experiences becomes our information manager. I grew up in a family that managed their libraries by hording and turning off the lights in some sections to save energy. Hording stories prevents intimacy in relationships. Everyone you meet practices this technique every hour of every day. All of our conversations with everyone we meet involves multiple decisions about what stories to share and what stories to hold back. The amount of intimacy that we have with other people is determined by how much of our lifetime of stories we make available to others. Symmentropy's first principle merely describes our primary relationship tool.

The second principle allows us the luxury of knowing all of our experiences and storing them so that we can make decisions about what level of intimacy we feel most comfortable sharing. Our life experience library expands infinitely to include decades of adventures, even the little details that may not seem to be as important. It also allows us to include stories that we did not actually witness. In the previous post, I borrowed stories from my cousins and sisters to be able to add description to my grandmother's hooked rugs. The second hand stories that we save may end up in the “less reliable” section of our library, but are equally important to creating the stories that manage our relationships.

I have included the genius of Claude Shannon in this section because the idea of filtering information is taught to students every day. There are generations of people who were taught to use Shannon's model of communicating in a way he knew would not work. When we encounter parts of a story that do not fit what we like or prefer to believe, we want to apply a Shannon filter to just hit the “delete” key to avoid resolving contradictions. We want to avoid changing what we know and trust, so we want to believe that ignoring parts of the story will create stability. But it is not possible to just pour all of our life experience library through a filter to remove impurities without creating bigotry, ignorance and distance in our relationships. Creativity springs from taking all of our life experiences and recombining them into something that we did not know before. Closing down sections of our libraries in a futile effort to apply a Shannon type filter, prevents understanding and creativity.

Inventing a story to explain a group's interaction is the heart of propaganda. If you repeat a lie often enough, some might begin to believe, for a little while, but eventually, some little girl will ask why the emperor is not wearing any clothes. My brothers and sisters are split fairly evenly between the ones who think that the family has done a wonderful job in handling all the details of our parent's last wishes and those that see personal interests taking over. I watch them trying to create the propaganda of their chosen stories and more importantly the stories they have selected to keep in the closet. Both approaches ignore the reality of creating family bonds by sharing all of the stories for the sake of some sense of intimacy with family members. Both approaches leave out the stories that do not support their point of view. Both approaches are propaganda meant to further individual goals. So, I have one sister that laments the absence of family bonds while another talks about how wonderfully the family came together in trying times.

The problem for our family keeps coming back to the anger. All the anger is there in our stories and sometimes it bubbles to the surface. My younger brothers still believe that I am angry with the family personally because they can not reconcile the politics of the sixties and the bigotry that my family cherished. Including all of the available stories makes it easy to get a different picture. Closing down the spigot of our storytelling machine encourages bigotry and anger through propaganda. Anger continues in the survivors of Peary Street because they want it to. If the day ever comes that they want to stop living with their anger, they have the storytelling material to smash the anger under the weight of experience. My sister still hopes they will grow up.

I do not believe that any of my siblings have pondered Shannon and his filter when they think of how they get along with each other. I am sure that none of these thoughts were added to my patent's life experience library before I made the effort to explain the mathematics of creativity to them in the last decade of their lives. My parent's lived the example of many of the GI generation who lived through the depression expecting that everyone had problems that you kept to yourself while you put your shoulder to the grindstone. My siblings embraced my parent's teaching particularly in dealing with the anger that existed in Peary Street. More than any other aspect, the unresolved anger was the elephant in the corner bar every time we tried to get together for happy hour.

Our inability to share our stories is the simplest explanation for our inability to come together in facing the end of our parent's lives. In the years that we spent planning ways to help our parents and each other, we consistently backed away from allowing familial intimacy through sharing our stories. We kept the anger alive and thriving by slamming doors and turning off the lights in whole sections of our experience libraries. We did everything we could to apply a Shannon filter to the anger that existed between us to present the world with a view of our family that was more polite than honest.

Back to the stories in the next post and the third guideline of symmentropy.

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