Friday, October 15, 2010

The Future Of Stories

Writer Douglas Coupland shares his not so hopeful views of the future in this article, A Radical Pessimist's Guide To The Next 10 Years. Of interest to those of us who love stories is this point he makes:

It will become harder to view your life as “a story”. The way we define our sense of self will continue to morph via new ways of socializing. The notion of your life needing to be a story will seem slightly corny and dated. Your life becomes however many friends you have online.

Writer Nick Bilton has a contrasting viewpoint here in his interview, Nick Bilton Sees Media's Future: Storytelling.

WIRED: The publishing industry is obviously suffering with selling content. What do you think they’re doing wrong?

Bilton:I think they’re stuck in this world where they’re trying to push these analog models because they made so much money that way, and what’s happening is you have experiences … where someone starts a blog that caters to the same analog experiences.

With these mainstream products you can’t force the consumers to buy [the analog] versions; you have to enable these consumers to access the digital stream or else they’re just going to go somewhere else.

WIRED: So be honest: Does the WIRED iPad app fit your description of a good storyteller?

Bilton: I think it’s great because it offers a really beautifully designed experience, and it offers typography and the full narrative storytelling experience — but it fails drastically where it doesn’t have a social part to it.

The future has to involve our networks, where it comes to content consumption or creation, or else it’s missing a fundamental piece of the story. When someone goes to Facebook they can comment on their friend’s photos or comment on an article; there’s all these sites that allow conversation. Yet a product like the WIRED magazine application still doesn’t have that.

I think once social is integrated into it, it’s going to be a pretty compelling experience. I would love to download that WIRED magazine article and for it to reorganize itself based on which articles my friends have commented on, and I’d love to be able to see all those different kinds of views.

Tales From The Reading Room blogs about these two differing opinions here. An excerpt:

The underlying reason for their differing emotional reactions seems to be the same, however: both writers envisage a world in which stories are no longer offering guidelines for our lives but are mere tools that serve social interaction. In their future, we’ll be able to pick and choose whatever sorts of stories we want, but due to their fragmentation and their diversity, the implication is that the concept of stories will diminish in philosophical importance (even if they remain commercially useful). They’ll be less challenging, as an inevitable consequence – because whatever we want to hear, we’ll be able to find if we seek online for it diligently enough. We can close our ears to dissenting views, we can live more fully in the moment. Bilton sees stories responding to our immediate needs and personal desires, but Coupland fears that the very act of succumbing to the moment means that we’ll be ever less able to construct an overview, or a sense of long-term purpose or meaning to our lives.

This isn’t really a new conversation, but an addition to one that has been going on since the 1970s-80s and the collapse of the so-called ‘grand narratives’. This is the idea that we can no longer believe wholeheartedly in any of the founding stories of our civilized world – the story of religion, for instance, or the one of historical progress in which mankind is tending towards self-perfection through the use of reason. These are stories that comprehensively explain and regulate experience, offering universal truths of existence. But in the twentieth century, the growth of science, the study of language and two world wars and the Holocaust stuck a spanner in all of that. The critic who proposed this argument, a Frenchman called Jean-François Lyotard said it was just as well, too. The grand narratives were often used to reinforce structures of power already in place, and failed to recognize the reality of millions of people, not to mention the natural state of chaos in which the universe exists. In their place have come a whole bunch of little, local, individual narratives – the notion that my perspective is unique, just as yours is, and that our truths and principles may well be different in ways that cannot be reconciled. This is one of the main characteristics of the postmodern era, and it has been criticized for reducing everything to a condition of relativity – or, if you like, that there are no absolute truths any more, only an endless sea of personal opinions.

And how has this affected stories as entertainment and stories as a guiding principle for life? Well, the difference is the one you can see between a novel written at the end of the nineteenth century and one written at the end of the twentieth. That’s a huge field of inquiry but we can at least point out that we are much more sophisticated readers now, in an in-bred sort of way, but with a tendency towards a shorter attention span. And as for the story of our own lives, well, no longer understanding ourselves as constituent parts of some grand plan, we don’t often say ‘it’s God’s will’ and believe it, we don’t donate our lives willingly to wars in the service of a nation, and we think we have all sorts of rights and entitlements because our individual story is as important and malleable and open to possibility as the next person’s. The grand narrative no longer has any power – it is dispersed between all individuals, and we all like to think we have our share of it.

I have no idea how our lives will change in the future, but I do believe that if we change the way we experience and consume stories, then we will inevitably be changing the way we experience our sense of self and our lives. And so we should think carefully about what we wish for from our entertainment experience as it may just come true.


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