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Laboratory Note - A New Kind of Monster

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

I am going to invent a new kind of monster.

Monsters are the most important idea humanity has ever had. Agriculture. Money. Government. Medicine. Science. Those are all nice, I guess. But seriously, Monsters.

Go find your great-grandparents’ wedding photograph that’s on the mantle or in the photo album in the attic. Gosh, it’s old. It’s black and white. The film might be grainy. Their clothes are out of date. Perhaps they’ve struck a serious pose – nobody said “say cheese!” when that picture was taken. But squint away these artifacts of technology and fashion, and they’re still just like us. They had jobs, paid taxes, told jokes. And they were, at least sometimes, afraid. Afraid of things they imagined.

Put the photo back on the mantle or in the box in the attic and hop into your time machine. We’ve got to go much farther back in time than your great-grandparents wedding for you to understand why monsters are just so important to the future of mankind.

Slowly back your time machine out of the garage and pull out onto the road. Turn left – we’re going into the past. It doesn’t take long before we’re already far back enough that photographs had centuries yet to be invented. The rich people here look like what we see in old oil paintings - people just like us, but with far fancier clothing.

Sure, the 1500s seems like it was a long time ago. But we’re only just getting started. I want you to really stomp on the gas pedal of your time machine. Blow right past the era when steel was the new big thing. Chuck your cigarette butt out the window as you scream past that little historical blip called Christianity. Pop in the cassette tape of Steppenwolf and settle in to the driver’s seat – we’re on a long, hot drive down the road of time.

We fly past a dusty sign that says “You are now leaving recorded history.” Please refrain from making what-goes-in-prehistory-stays-in-prehistory jokes. Instead, slow down and take a look at the windswept landscape of before-anything-was-written-down. Eventually, with the sign well behind us, we see that the people here have changed from ourselves and our great grandparents. Like, they’ve really changed. They are shorter. Hairier. They don’t pay taxes. They hadn’t even invented the idea of money yet. Slow down to take a look, but don’t stop. After you’ve seen what you need to see, roll the window back up and give the machine more gas. Blast your way farther into the past.

The sun is staring to set. We’re in a really strange land now. Dorothy’s trick of repeating “there’s no place like home” doesn’t stand a chance of returning you from this place. People aren’t even technically modern humans any more. Their skulls are different. Pelvises unlike our own. You could have sex with one of these people, but no baby would ever be produced. They are that different from us.

But they’re still cool dudes. They hang around the campfire and laugh. And tell stories. Scary stories about things they imagine exist, but that don’t really. Monsters. You could have a great time with them on a Friday night, telling scary stories. Except Friday hasn’t been invented yet.

Wave goodbye to this group of sapiens hanging out around the campfire, then hop back in the time machine and keep going, into the night. Deeper into the past.

Slow down now. We’re almost there. Roll your window down and turn off the music. We’ve got to find the exact right spot. It’s here somewhere. Up there – a location on the road of time with no marker. Nothing to distinguish it from any other nearby points in the past or future. Two people are standing there, flanking this anonymous point in time. One of them just slightly closer to the future than the other. Slightly closer to us than the other.

We bring our time machine to a full stop. Engage the parking brake and turn off the engine. We get out and cautiously approach this pair.

Talking is a little awkward, as language still hasn’t fully caught on here. But we eventually figure out how to communicate well enough. Short noun-verb word pairs do the trick. You can use a few prepositions too. But stay away from adverbs. Adverbs haven’t been invented yet.

The guy on the left – he’s a smidge closer to the future than the lady on the right. At first, this pair of our ancestors seem more-or-less the same. You have a conversation with them about being hungry. Then the conversation branches out to other topics: being thirsty, being cold. You talk about dental pain for a while. Then you get to the subject of fear.

Here’s where the difference is. Here’s where you realize that one of them is a person, and the other is … well … still a person, but somehow less so.

They both tell you that sometimes they are afraid. There’s plenty to be afraid of here. Predators routinely eat their friends and family. But there’s a difference in their fear. The guy on the left, just inches farther into the future than the lady on the right, tells you he’s afraid of something he has never seen. Something he only imagines exists. This guy, a guy we’ve never heard or, or probably even considered the existence of, is the most important person ever. He’s the first person to be afraid of monsters.

The woman on the right, just a generation deeper in the past than the man on the left, is missing something from her experience of life. Whether by inevitable forces of evolution, or just dumb luck, a person was born whose mind was slightly different. And from that difference, comes the ability to fear something imaginary.

We give the woman on the right a Snickers bar that that was lying on the back seat of the time machine. She takes one bite and runs away screaming into the dark void of the space-time continuum. She’ll be okay. Hopefully. Let’s talk to our new friend who is afraid of monsters.

What do his Monsters look like? Are they dragons? Vampires? Werewolves? Xenomorphs? Are they like Godzilla, or zombies, or giant flying turtles? No. His Monsters are simple – antelopes the size of elephants. That’s it. Big antelopes.

To our modern notion of scary creatures, big antelopes don’t sound too impressive. You couldn’t base a movie franchise around them. Maybe you could find the funding to make a B-grade flick about big antelopes, but it’s going to be a tough sell. Imagine sitting in a waiting room, hanging out with all the other writers for your chance to pitch to your screenplay to the big guy with money. Everyone else has fantastic ideas – vampires that are also pirates! Dragons that emit flame from their mouths AND their anuses! Parasites that seize control of your mind and make you right-swipe on literally everyone. And you’re sitting there with … big antelopes.

Movie franchises, though, are a million years in the future. Back here, in the Calabrian Age, the idea of unreasonably large antelopes is what is captivating the minds of those lucky enough to be descended from the First Person to Imagine a Monster.

What, exactly, does the first person to be afraid of monsters think about, when he imagines giant antelopes? At first, he said, he was worried he might meet one, and be killed by it. But, after lying awake night after night worrying about being gored, kicked, or bitten to death by an unreasonably large antelope, his fear transformed into something else. He started imagining ways he might kill a giant antelope. He started thinking about what it would taste like. Now he actively looks for giant antelopes. He hunts farther from camp than he normally would, in hopes of finding one. He climbs tall hills and small mountains, just to scan the horizon, in case the land of giant antelopes is visible just past the edge of the lands he knows. He tells stories about giant antelopes to his children at night. Stories that make them scream and stay awake until dawn.

We say goodbye to the most important person of all time, get back into our time machine, and start the long drive back to the present. On the drive home, we pay more attention to the little details of the time periods we pass through. What imaginary things are people afraid of?

Monsters illustrate the boundary of what we know. You can’t have a Kraken if you’ve never seen the sea. Dragons can’t be imagined until you’ve seen all three of fire, a lizard, and a bat. You can’t have aliens without the idea of outer space.

Monsters are things that might be. That could be. They are what we create to fill in the blank spots in our understanding of the world. They are born from an absence of knowledge. This makes them creatures of pure creativity – things that can only be imagined because they exist only where there is no data.

This is why monsters are so important to us. Our entire civilization isn’t built on ideas, like stones in a foundation. It’s fueled by them. We need a constant supply of new ideas to keep us alive. New ideas to treat new diseases, new ideas to escape from the catastrophe of climate change, new ideas to solve racism, overpopulation, hunger, wealth inequality. These burning problems are hard ones, and we need to douse them with a firehose of new ideas. It’s not clear that we are creating new ideas fast enough to get the flames under control.

Creativity is the most beautiful and mysterious phenomenon we know of. Where do new ideas come from? How do they just “pop” into someone’s head? Where were they before that and what made them suddenly and mysteriously appear in a mind? This blog is really about amplifying creativity. It’s about finding ways of using the power of computers and the mind-twisting algorithms they execute to come up with ideas – good ideas – much faster.

But why monsters, though? Why not just tackle one of the “biggies” like cancer or hunger from the get-go? Why turn from a path aimed at a Nobel and turn towards the path that ends, in a best-case-scenario, with being the weird guy in the corner at parties that nobody wants to approach?

Because of our friend who was the first person to be afraid of something they imagined.

We – humans and the variety of sapiens that came before us – have been imagining new kinds of monsters for a long time – possibly even millions of years. I claim that monsters have received more creative attention from sapiens’ minds than just about any other topic. Coming up with a new monster, therefore, may be the most difficult challenge that exists from the standpoint of pure creativity. That’s why I’m going to spend the next decade or two working on this project. To invent a new monster.

I have a plan.

I am going to gather data on monsters. I will analyze that data using clustering algorithms, regression techniques, machine learning, and advanced data visualization methods. I will use the latest results from neuroscience, computer science, and social science to engineer a new, terrifying antagonist. And I will write a story about it. And it will terrify you. It will be much scarier than big antelopes.

Oh, by the way...

My new book, Second Death, is now available in Kindle format, just in time for the holidays.

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