Marching beat-by-beat into a Purposeless infinite horizon
This essay is part of the Protocol Narratives series
During periods of emergence from crisis conditions (both acute and chronic), when things seem overwhelming and impossible to deal with, you often hear advice along the following lines:
Take it one day at a time
Take it one step at a time
Sleep on it; morning is wiser than evening
Count to ten
Or even just breathe
All these formulas have one thing in common: they encourage you to surrender to the (presumed benevolent) logic of a situation at larger temporal scales by not thinking about it, and only attempt to exercise agency at the smallest possible temporal scales.
These formulas typically move you from a state of high-anxiety paralyzed inaction or chaotic, overwrought thrashing, to deliberate but highly myopic action. They implicitly assume that lack of emotional regulation is the biggest immediate problem and attempt to get you into a better-regulated state by shrinking time horizons. And that deliberate action (and more subtly, deliberate inaction) is better than either frozen inaction or overwrought thrashing.
We’ve even started teaching these formulas to the artificial lives we are creating right now. When an AI model is overwhelmed by the complexity of the intention underlying a prompt, we instruct it to proceed “step-by-step.” The result is usually more coherent. I suspect we’ll find some analog of overcoming overwrought or paralyzing emotions to be the underlying mechanism.
This is a curious thing.
There is no particular reason to expect taking things step-by-step to be a generally good idea. Studied, meditative myopia may be good for alleviating the subjective anxieties induced by a stressful situation, but there’s no reason to believe that the objective circumstances will yield to the accumulating power of “step-by-step” local deliberateness. In general, such strategies (often referred to as “greedy” or “myopic” in computing) don’t do particularly well. They tend to drive off cliffs, get caught in dead ends, or wander around ineffectually, getting nowhere. In humans, myopia is generally desperate and selfish, and arguably the root of all evil.
And there are certainly situations where myopic strategies don’t do well, where it pays to “think things through to the end” (or at least as many steps ahead as you are able), and even frozen inaction works better.
So why is this common advice? And is it good advice?
I’m going to develop an answer using a concept I call narrative protocols. This step-by-step formula is a typical invocation of such protocols. They seem to work better than we expect under certain high-stress conditions. Precisely what those conditions are, I’ll get to.
And speaking of step-by-step, it’s clear that I’ve accidentally started yet another series essay-by-essay. This is the fourth essay in a new series I am calling Protocol Narratives. I’ve been thinking and writing about narratives for a lot longer though. A lot of my older non-substack writing is also relevant context, and is listed and linked on the series home page if you want to go spelunking.
Also, a generic acknowledgement — a lot of the ideas in this series are drawn (and will continue to be drawn) from ongoing conversations in the Summer of Protocols program. The good ideas are probably stolen from others,1 and the bad ones are probably mine.
Protocol Narratives, Narrative Protocols
Loosely speaking, a protocol narrative is a never-ending story. I’ll define it more precisely as follows:
A protocol narrative is a never-ending story, without a clear capital-P Purpose, driven by a narrative protocol that can generate novelty over an indefinite horizon, without either a) jumping the shark, b) getting irretrievably stuck, or c) sinking below a threshold of minimum viable unpredictability.
A narrative protocol, for the purposes of this essay, is simply a storytelling formula that allows the current storytellers to continue the story one beat at a time, without a clear idea of how any of the larger narrative structure elements, like scenes, acts, or epic arcs, might evolve.
Narrative protocols are a special subset of what I called narrative technologies in my last essay. Narrative protocols, rather logically, produce protocol narratives, which have the features a-c defined above.
Note that many narrative models and techniques, including the best-known one, the Hero’s Journey, are not narrative protocols because they are designed to tell stories with clear termination behaviors. They are guaranteed-ending stories. They may be used to structure episodes within a protocol narrative, but by themselves are not narrative protocols.
This pair of definitions is not as abstract as it might seem. Many real-world fictional and non-fictional narratives approximate never-ending stories (though ironically, the movie Never-Ending Story is not one of them).
Long-running extended universe franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, MCU), soap operas, South Park (but not The Simpsons), the Chinese national grand narrative, and perhaps the American one as well, are all approximate examples of protocol narratives driven by narrative protocols.
You can argue about specific cases of course. For example, there is fairly widespread consensus that The Simpsons jumped the shark around 2000, and is therefore not a protocol narrative but a finished narrative with a non-narrative zombie continuation tacked on (sort of like tacking on an endlessly looping fragment of elevator music after a song, or playing out a chess endgame past a recognized livelock draw).
On the other hand, there is no such consensus around South Park. I personally think it has managed to stay fresh 25 years in, and shows no signs of going zombie.
Narrative protocols, in the case of fiction, can be fairly explicit. TV shows designed to go on indefinitely until canceled have governing documents called showrunner bibles that define the protocol. I assume there are rules governing how additions are made to the MCU and Star Wars. I assume these rules are maintained somewhat like amendable constitutions rather than being immutable like literal Bibles.
But narrative protocols need not be Biblically complex. The improv theater rule of yes, and is a complete narrative protocol. Just not a very good one, since improv premises are hard to sustain for longer than the duration of a short sketch. But in principle, it is a narrative protocol that might generate a protocol narrative, via a premise that is so rich that a changing cast of actors can keep it going for generations. We can obviously make the case that national grand narratives are in fact such examples, with successive generations of politicians serving as the improv actors, but I think that stresses the definition of improv too much.
There’s a lot to say about both protocol narratives and narrative protocols obviously, but in this essay, I want to focus on the never-ending aspect, via connections to three other processes that can be conceptualized in never-ending (or eternalist) frames: computation, life, and capital-P Purposes (as in the ineffable eternal higher motivation religions claim to supply via connection to a loftier eternal process).
Let’s tackle each in turn.
Protocol Narratives and Computation
There is an obvious and intended connection between my definitions above and computability theory.
As defined, protocol narratives should sound rather like non-terminating (“crash-only”) computations, and narrative protocols should sound a bit like the Universal Turing Machines that can produce them given certain inputs (though the problem of determining, via a general procedure, whether or not a given computation will terminate, is undecidable).
I think there is something to this connection, but I lack the technical competence to go too far down that bunnytrail, so I’ll just share a couple of preliminary notes here.
If protocol narratives are traces of non-terminating computation processes, they are a special case with additional properties. I won’t try to precisely define these properties, but let’s just say they correspond to the intuition that for a computation to be a story, it must have a certain overall interestingness, coherence and continuity, a kind of identity that allows for unbroken sensemaking.
Another way to put it is to say that protocol narratives are progressively summarizable (I’m borrowing the term from a principle in note-taking, but also gesturing at the Schmidhuber model of intelligence). At any point in a protocol narrative, you should be able to tell a condensed version of the story so far, and it should not only make sense, it should make sense as a single story. But this summary obviously can’t be vacuous or banal. It should acquire more substance with time.
This is a very strong condition, and is roughly equivalent to the belief that there is a progressively discoverable grand-unified theory underlying a course of events.
Non-terminating computations do not in general have this property. A trivial example: an infinite loop that generates a new true random number at each iteration based on observing a natural random process as input. In general (with probability ~1), such a string of numbers will not be “progressively summarizable.” The shortest version of the number being generated will be the number itself. A number that does have this property is π. An algorithm for generating the digits of π, along with a specification of the number of digits required, can be considered a “summary” of the first n digits of π. A pseudandom number generator algorithm, along with its seed and number of digits, is also a “summary” of its output.
Non-terminating open computations (such as a cellular automaton that has random inputs mutating its state) also do not in general have this property. Despite the apparent evolving order in the behavior of such automata, in general there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary history of such a computation will be progressively summarizable.
These conditions are strong enough to make you wonder: can there actually be such a thing as a never-ending story?
Still, it seems to me that it is meaningful to apply the idea of non-terminating computations to narratives. Star Wars and South Park seem like plausibly non-terminating protocol narratives to me, capable of being continued indefinitely past the deaths of the originators, while remaining progressively summarizable.
It’s not clear to me that any available examples are literally non-terminating. All the old mythologies of various world religions and cultures have in fact terminated. The Mahabharata may be extremely long, but isn’t currently being continued. Norse and Greek mythologies may have evolved through syncretic accretion over centuries, but again, aren’t being really continued now. New contemporary narratives may reference them, but it feels fundamentally incorrect to argue that Marvel’s Thor is somehow a continuation of old Norse mythology. It is somewhere between an homage and an appropriation.
But for now, I’ll state a hypothesis: there exist non-terminating computations that satisfy the definition of protocol narratives.
Protocol Narratives and Life Processes
Narrative protocols can be thought of as the equivalent of longevity protocols in health, of the sort pursued by people seeking to extend their lifespans, possibly indefinitely, in which case it is a putative immortality protocol.
For the connection to be interesting, however, we should restrict it to sufficiently complex life processes. There are relatively simple processes that we recognize as being alive, such as those driving algae or starfish, which are perhaps technically immortal (much like the trivial non-terminating, non-progressively-summarizable computation processes in the last section). These are not what we’re talking about.
We need a condition that we can impose here that’s similar to progressive summarizability. I’ll argue that this condition is continuity of identity relative to indefinitely extended memory. So a life process is analogous to a protocol narrative if it features an evolving identity with indefinitely extended (but not necessarily infinite in size) memory.
This can get surprisingly tricky to apply, because you have to define what you mean by memory. Are mutations accumulating in the genetic code of a starfish “memory”? How about in the cell-line of Henrietta Lacks?
I won’t attempt to answer these questions right now. I’m just noting them as relevant. But for the purposes of this essay, let’s hand-wave these subtleties away, and agree that we’re talking about immortals that are identifiably human-like. If they live for a million years, they’ll be able to say something coherent about their million-year life, even if they don’t store all the zettabytes of memory that would imply.
Their life will have been necessarily progressively summarizable merely by virtue of them having sustained coherent and continuous identities. Their sense of continuous identity is that summary (as in the aphorism template, “you are the sum of all your _____” where you might fill in the blank with words like decisions, mistakes, experiences and so on).
As with longevity protocols, if the premise of indefinite continuation potential is true, what actually drives mortality is catastrophic external events (just as only a physical system crash can stop a non-terminating computation). In the case of longevity, even a person following a potentially real immortality protocol could be killed by being hit by a bus or falling from a height. If you’re interested in this topic, you may enjoy this interview I just did with Bryan Johnson, of Blueprint Protocol fame, and a long-time client, who is semi-ironically actually trying to do this.
Now personally, I don’t believe in the physical possibility of immortality, even under idealized conditions of accidents being impossible. I suspect there are aspects of continuity of identity and memory over very long horizons that make the idea of immortality internally inconsistent and impossible to reconcile with the second law of thermodynamics. Ie, the same sorts of problems that perpetual-motion machines run into. But that argument doesn’t tell us how long is impossibly long. Maybe humans can live for 300 years before the brain breaks under the weight of a too-extended memory/identity. Maybe 3000 years.
This intuition about the burden of identity-and-memory seems to be the implicit idea behind the rules of Doctor Who’s immortality — the character must “regenerate” periodically in a way that seems to archive a chapter of lived experience under a previous identity; accessible but with a degree of indirection in the mode of identification (which is why episodes involving multiple Doctors, since he is also a time-traveler, can be written coherently).
The same intuition seems to underlie theologies of reincarnation, where no memory of past lives is possible, but some karmic causal connections across reincarnations are both admissible (in explanations of current events), and addressable (in terms of being influenceable by how you live your current life). This is not a trivial point. Some observers argue that the extreme stability and continuity of Indian political-cultural life, through millennia of tumult that has destroyed civilizations of similar antiquity, is due to the curious mix of resigned fatalism and stubborn persistence induced by belief in reincarnation.
Protocols and Purpose
In ongoing discussions of protocols, several of us independently arrived at a conclusion that I articulate as protocols have functions but not purposes, by which I mean capital-P Purposes.
Let’s distinguish two kinds2 of motive force in any narrative:
Functions are causal narrative mechanisms for solving particular problems in a predictable way. For example, one way to resolve a conflict between a hero and a villain is a fight. So a narrative technology that offers a set of tropes for fights has something like a
fight(hero, villain)function that skilled authors or actors can invoke in specific media (text, screen, real-life politics). You might say that
fight(hero, villain)transitions the narrative state causally from a state of unresolved conflict to resolved conflict. Functions need not be dramatic or supply entertainment though; they just need to move the action along, beat-by-beat, in a causal way.
Purposes are larger philosophical theses whose significance narratives may attest to, but do not (and cannot) exhaust. These theses may take the form of eternal conditions (“the eternal struggle between good and neutral”), animating paradoxes (“If God is good, why does He allow suffering to exist?”), or historicist, teleological terminal conditions. Not all stories have Purposes, but the claim is often made that the more elevated sort can and should. David Mamet, for instance, argues that good stories engage with and air eternal conflicts, drawing on their transformative power to drive events, without exhausting them.
There is a side-quest to be pursued here to connect functions and Purposes to Carsean finite and infinite games, but it’s not particularly valuable to get into here, besides noting that Purposes may have either a finite or infinite game character.
In this scheme, narrative protocols only require a callable set of functions to be well-defined. They do not need, and generally do not have Purposes. Functions can sustain step-by-step behaviors all by themselves.
What’s more, not only are Purposes not necessary, they might even be actively harmful during periods of crisis, when arguably a bare-metal protocol narrative, comprising only functions, should exist.
There is, in fact, a tradeoff between having a protocol underlying a narrative, and an overarching Purpose guiding it from “above.”
The Protocol-Purpose Tradeoff
During periods of crisis, when larger logics may be uncomputable, and memory and identity integration over longer epochs may be intractable, it pays to shorten horizons until you get to computability and identity integrity — so long as the underlying assumptions that movement and deliberation are better than paralysis and thrashing hold.
The question remains though. When are such assumptions valid?
This is where the notion of a protocol enters the picture in a fuller way. There is protocols as in a short foreground behavior sequence (like step-by-step), but there is also the idea of a big-P Protocol, as in a systematic (and typically constructed rather than natural) reality in the background that has more lawful and benevolent characteristics than you may suspect.
Enacting protocol narratives is enacting trust in the a big-P Protocolized environment. You trust that the protocol narrative is much bigger than the visible tip of the iceberg that you functionally relate to.
As a simple illustration, on a general somewhat sparse random graph, trying to navigate by a greedy or myopic algorithm, one step at a time, to get to destination coordinates, is likely to get you trapped in a random cul-de-sac. But that same algorithm, on a regular rectangular grid, will not only get you to your destination, it will do so via a shortest path. You can trust the gridded reality more, given the same foreground behaviors.
In this example, the grid underlying the movement behavior is the big-P protocol that makes the behavior more effective than it would normally be. It serves as a substitute for the big-P purpose.
This also gives us a way to understand the promises, if not the realities, of big-P purposes of the sort made by religion, and why there is an essential tension and tradeoff here.
To take a generic example, let’s say I tell you that in my religion, the cosmos is an eternal struggle between Good and Evil, and that you should be Good in this life in order to enjoy a pleasurable heaven for eternity (terminal payoff) as well as to Do The Right Thing (eternal principle).
How would you use it?
This is not particularly useful in complex crisis situations where good and evil may be hard to disambiguate, and available action options may simply not have a meaningful moral valence.
The protocol directive of step-by-step is much less opinionated. It does not require you to act in a good way. It only requires you to take a step in a roughly right direction. And then another. And another. The actions do not even need to be justifiably rational with respect to particular consciously held premises. They just need to be deliberate.
An example is a class of narratives that is not usually considered as such: Economic narratives.
Economic narratives do not offer any notion of eternal purpose. There is just a set of functions involving demand, supply, price information, interest-rate movements, and equilibrium. At most there is maneuvering driven by the logic of cyclic phenomena, like recessions. You can step-by-step an economy at even the largest scales, with no big appeals to lofty purposes.
There are payoffs for individual transactions, but no terminal narrative payoff ending an economic narrative that is its Purpose (except under special conditions like wartime, where other narratives take control of the economic narrative).
Economic ideologues may, however, place Purposeful interpretations on the workings of the market as a narrative protocol (the “free market” or “free market with Chinese characteristics”). Through such interpretation, you can bolt on Purposes such as Progress, Arrival of Worker’s Paradise, or Slouching Towards Utopia, but the process itself does not need or have a Purpose. The protocol narratives (streams of economic indicator numbers) generated by an economic narrative protocol need only a set of economic functions (an “engine”) to keep going.
Economic narratives might even be hostile to Purposes. Economics lore is full of aphorisms deprecating Purposes:
The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent
In the short term, the market is a voting machine, in the long term, it is a weighing machine
In the long run we are all dead
Yet, the economy does not feel either random like the random-number generating computation or a memoryless, identity-less immortal entity of the sort we discussed earlier. It seems to have a low-level narrative logic and evolving identity to it (hence the “economic character” of a nation) independent of particular ideological spins on it (though just barely).
This is why arguments about what that logic/identity is seem to be fruitful, in exactly the way David Mamet requires of good stories. Narratively speaking, there is a there there to the raw protocol narrative of economic indicators. It has the bones of a good story.
The corresponding narrative protocol is the set of governing mechanisms (which is usually some sort of negotiated compromise between warring ideologies — the US economy for example, is an uneasy detente between Keynesian and monetarist ideas about how the engine of the economy ought to be structured). It is important to note that these mechanisms have a reality to them that is independent of the theorizing that may have led to them. Whatever you believe about moving interest rates around, the rates actually moving around does things to the protocol narrative (hence the idea that the economy is an engine, not a camera).
Another sign that economic narratives are bare-bones protocol narratives is the fact that they tend to continue uninterrupted through crises that derail or kill other kinds of narratives. Through the Great Weirding and the Pandemic, we still got GDP, unemployment, inflation, and interest rate “stories.”
I bet that even if aliens landed tomorrow, even though the rest of us would be in a state of paralyzed inaction, unable to process or make sense of events, economists would continue to publish their numbers and argue about whether aliens landing is inflationary or deflationary. And at the microeconomic level, Matt Levine would probably write a reassuring Money Matters column explaining how to think about it all in terms of SEC regulations and force majeure contract clauses.
I like making fun of economists, but if you think about this, there is a profound and powerful narrative capability at work here. Strong protocol narratives can weather events that are unnarratable for all other kinds of narratives. Events that destroy high-Purpose religious and political narratives might cause no more than a ripple in strong protocol narratives.
So if you value longevity and non-termination, and you sense that times are tough, it makes sense to favor Protocols over Purposes.
Step-by-Step is Hard-to-Kill
While economic narratives provide a good and clear class of examples of protocol narratives, they are not the only or even best examples.
The best examples are ones that show that a bare set of narrative functions is enough to sustain psychological life indefinitely. That surprisingly bleak narratives are nevertheless viable.
The very fact that we can even talk of “going through the motions” or feeling “empty and purposeless” when a governing narrative for a course of events is unsatisfying reveals that something else is in fact continuing, despite the lack of Purpose. Something that is computationally substantial and life-sustaining. The stories of J. G. Ballard, for example, usually feature empty and purposeless worlds, yet manage to sustain psychological life and satisfaction. They constitute the output of an interesting narrative protocol that attempts to do little more than proceed step-by-step through bizarre realities, thereby normalizing them. Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, is another example. Though there is an ostensible Purpose (as indicated in the title), the action is simply the characters going through the motions of a minimum-viable existence.
I recall a line from (I think) an old Desmond Bagley novel I read as a teenager, where a hero is trudging through a trackless desert. His inner monologue is going, one bloody foot after the next blood foot; one bloody step after the next bloody step.
Weird though it might seem, that’s actually a complete story. It works as a protocol narrative. There is a progressively summarizable logic to it, and a memory-ful evolving identity to it. If you’re an economist, it might even be a satisfying narrative, as good as “number go up.”
Protocol narratives only need functions to keep going.
They do not need Purposes, and generally are, to varying degrees, actively hostile to such constructs. It’s not just take it one day at a time, but an implied don’t think about weeks and months and the meaning of life; it might kill you.
In the frenetic edge-of-nihilism narrative that is Rick and Morty, this idea is reduced to a catchphrase: don’t think about it. The rejection of lofty, eternalist purposes is underlined by the sacralization of a trivial one: the search for McDonald’s Schezwan sauce across the multiverse.
Despite its Purpose-free near nihilism though, Rick and Morty has struggled to become a protocol narrative. For a couple of seasons it went unsatisfyingly meta before beating a chastened retreat to more conventional narrative modes. It has not found a step-by-step protocol the way South Park has. It struggles to string together Hero’s Journeys, with no bare mechanism for getting through unnarratable patches.
While protocol narratives may tolerate elements of Purpose during normal times, they are especially hostile to them during crisis periods. If you think about it, step-by-step advancement of a narrative is a minimalist strategy. If a narrative can survive on a step-by-step type protocol alone, it is probably extraordinarily hard to kill, and doing more likely adds risk and fragility (hence the Protocol-Purpose tradeoff).
During periods of crisis, narrative protocols switch into a kind of triage mode where only step-by-step movement is allowed (somewhat like how, in debugging a computer program, stepping through code is a troubleshooting behavior). More abstract motive forces are deliberately suspended.
I like to think of the logic governing this as exposure therapy for life itself. In complex conditions, the most important thing to do is simply to choose life over and over, deliberately, step-by-step. To keep going is to choose life, and it is always the first order of business.
This is why, as I noted in the opening section, lack of emotional regulation is the first problem to address. Because in a crisis, if it is left unmanaged, it will turn into a retreat from life itself. As Churchill said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
To reach for loftier abstractions than step-by-step in times of crisis is to retreat from life. Purpose is a life-threatening luxury you cannot afford in difficult times. But a narrative protocol will keep you going through even nearly unnarratable times. And even if it feels like merely going through empty motions, sometimes all it takes to choose life is to be slightly harder to kill.
The discussions of memory in this essay are inspired in part by Kei Kreutler’s research, and the discussions of purpose by Nadia Asparouhova’s research. Both will be published sometime in the next few months.
It is also useful sometimes to distinguish an intermediate motive force: Terminal payoffs. These are teleological narrative mechanisms that motivate a finite sequence of events, and are capable of exhausting the narrative at some point. Not all narratives have terminal payoffs, and never-ending stories in particular, may not. Think of it as a market-clearing event at which point there is no reason for the narrative to continue. Or as a kind of punctuated equilibrium process, where the punctuating quiescent phases represent episodic terminii, but not end-of-history Purpose type terminii. Boy wins girl might be such an event for a romance. Exterminate all people from an outgroup might be such an event for a fascist movement. A ritualized tail-summarizing formula like happily ever after can be used to terminate a narrative once the payoff has occurred.