A Work in Progress

How technology is shaping the way we tell stories

Nicholas Carr
Nicholas Carr

The media climate is and has been rapidly changing, and there seems to be no sign of slowing any time soon. Certain fears have arisen about our constantly connected culture – second thoughts about multitasking (it isn't possible), concern about how the Internet and constant connectivity is altering not just our attention spans but the very neural pathways of our brains, complaints about the quantity of information being disproportionate to the quality of information found on the Internet, the need to "power scan" instead of deeply reading and therefore losing the ability for contemplation, as Nicholas Carr wrote in his much-quoted 2008 essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Even Douglas Rushkoff, an early evangelist for digital culture, asked "whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize" in a February episode of Frontline titled "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier."

Debbie Stier
Debbie Stier

Sure, neurons and all those electrical synapses in our brains are one thing, but outside the head, what can be more essential than story? That's right, story, from the simple response to "How was your day?" around the dinner table to the epic telling of a tale, embroidered with music, light, and costume as in a film or theatre event. Story, the ability to exchange information about our experiences, is an entirely human pursuit. Is the ability to appreciate and hear stories another casualty of our digital age?

Writing in the aftermath of World War I, the great German writer and thinker Walter Benjamin was already regretting the loss of story and storytellers, calling stories "inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions" in his 1936 essay, "The Storyteller": "Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories."

The "news" Benjamin was talking about was from the printed morning newspaper. He went on to lament: "This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information."

Suneel Gupta
Suneel Gupta

With newspapers shuttering and 24-hour televised news barking information (or infotainment, some would argue) relentlessly from the screen, the old man must be spinning.

Because Benjamin's concerns, occurring during a time of great flux, bear some resemblance to the concern and turbulence of the current media climate, his thoughts on story are provocative and perhaps a useful springboard to think about the present. Is story really "inalienable" and essential to our humanness? Is story necessary? Technology surely shapes the way we tell our stories and receive stories. Does it also help us value them?

"Story exists," said Nicholas Carr in a recent phone interview. His forthcoming book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is a long-form exploration of his "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" essay. "All you have to do is turn to the movies, turn on the TV, open a book or a magazine," Carr continued. "People still like to tell, see, and hear stories. It's at the heart of entertainment. To imagine them without story, I don't see it happening," he said. "I do think, as we become more distracted and intent on sharing small bits of information, we'll probably see a diminution in stories. They're not going away, but the richness of them may be lost."

A Work in Progress

Like prior moments of rapid media development – script to movable type and the proliferation of books and other printed matter, to the invention of radio, cinema, and then TV – there has always been a "the sky is falling" response along with the flush of excitement at the brave new world the new medium ushers in. And yet, there is something particularly notable about the digital age that makes many media watchers pause.

"What we saw in the past was an exploration of new ways to tell stories by both authors and readers," Carr said, referring to prior new media waves. "It worries me that we don't see the new influx in narrative. Every new medium exposed opportunities for storytelling. Why is this important new electronic medium not conducive to narrative?"

Facebook, blogs, personal websites, YouTube, Twitter, and other online sources have made it possible for people to tell their own stories in their own ways. While the democratization of access is something to celebrate, the downside is that everything in the smorgasbord beckons our attention, contributing to the knowing-a-little-bit-about-a-lot phenomenon.

"The world I'm immersed in (for better or worse) is whiplash fast; it's a world made for skimming idea books in big gulps on an iPhone and then summing it up in 140 characters," writes Debbie Stier at 26th Story, the blog site for HarperStudio, where she is the senior vice president and associate publisher.

According to the website: "HarperStudio is committed to partnering with authors to publish books in a way that is effective, creative, and sustainable. We believe books are a vital part of our culture. We believe traditional publishing models are broken and are experimenting with new ones. We believe in embracing technology. We believe the future is now."

Stier believes story isn't dying, but evolving. Evolving into what, is the question, and she's as interested in finding out (if, indeed, there is a singular answer) as much as she is in trying to experience all that is out there.

"Who has eight hours to sit and read a book?" she asked in a recent phone interview from her home in New York. It's a somewhat disconcerting question coming from a bookwoman, even one obviously aware of, and purposefully plugged in to, new technology. She agrees that as "people become fatigued with the peppering of information," the presentation and consumption of story that requires time and attention will have a place again. How stories will be consumed is what will change.

"I really think there's going to be a resurgence in the audio book," said Stier. "E-books are going to do well, and I'm excited about the video-enhanced book" – aka the "vook," which sounds very much like something out of Harry Potter, with moving images alongside printed matter). While Stier consumes content in many high tech ways, even she has returned to the old-fashioned book.

"Certain books I want in print," she said. "The Kindle is not good for flipping back and forth, or taking notes in the margins," she said. Although she didn't state it, the choice of when to go with the fast and furious as opposed to the relative, low-tech calm of a paper book may be as individual as the consumer herself.

"It will be incumbent upon consumers of content to be smart, to be judicious, and to be aware of what we consume," said San Francisco-based writer and CEO of BookTour.com, Kevin Smokler. In his view, to demonize Twitter, for example, for offering a mere 140 characters to express an idea is not a reason for alarm.

"There will always be those who are content with bite-sized pieces," he said. "What I'm more concerned about is people being so overwhelmed they choose nothing, or always default to what is comforting and familiar." Instead of fearing the demise of story – the telling of which is something Smokler believes makes us fundamentally human – he would rather place his attention on how to make efficient systems for audiences to find and consume content. "What I'm begging [book] publishers for is to come up with the MP3 of books." But even more directly, he is less concerned with "story" appearing between the covers of a book or on paper than with being open to how and where a particular story finds its ideal means of expression.

"We have so many tools not available in the past," said Smokler. "Does story choose its medium? Does story naturally gravitate to a certain technology – a guitar over Twitter or paint and canvas? Why we choose certain technology to make content is fascinating to me, but why? I don't know. What I do know is the kind of interaction I want to have with content."

Defining that interaction is what distinguishes the Kahani Movement (www.kahanimovement.com). The site serves as an online repository where oral histories of first-generation South Asians in the U.S. can be collected and shared by anyone with Internet access and a camera, a cell phone, or any other recording device that meets the website's specifications.

"In the age of Facebook, there's a real need to sort the signals from the noise," said Suneel Gupta, a co-founder of the website run under the auspices of Kahani Pictures. "I feel that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell."

He's right. While the website obviously appeals to South Asians, even a passing glance shows that story, in its most fundamental form (the oral history), is undeniably necessary no matter what the source, no matter who the intended audience. And that such a simple, narrow-cast site can be so compelling should bring some comfort to those filled with anxiety about how our malleable brains are being reprogrammed by the technology we use.

In his day, Walter Benjamin was known but hardly famous. His fame (such as it is) came after his death, when his collected works were shared and studied mostly by academics. So, one might wonder: What would be on Walter Benjamin's Kindle? Would he be content to read the news of the day from a variety of sources on his laptop, or would he be compelled to create his own version of The Huffington Post? Maybe he'd take time out of his solitary writing to host his own radio show or post his community access TV show on YouTube. Maybe he'd be a Luddite. Revisiting how this man of letters from the last century responded to his media climate, before words like "story" and "storyteller" were supplanted by "content" and "mediamaker" may offer some insight. Or not.

Fast-forward 50, even 100 years: Who will be looking back at these writings about new media? Will they be shaking their heads forlornly or laughing at our quaint anxieties? Either way, I hope it makes a good story.

Related Panels

Story.Next: Narrating the Crowd
Sunday, March 14, 9:30am, ACC 10AB

A Brave New Future for Book Publishing
Monday, March 15, 12:30pm, Hilton H

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Book Reading
Tuesday, March 16, 11:30am, Day Stage

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storytelling, Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Douglas Rushkoff, Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Debbie Stier, 26th Story, HarperStudio, vook, Kindle, BookTour.com, Kevin Smokler, Twitter, Kahani Movement, Suneel Gupta, Story.Next: Narrating the Crowd, A Brave New Future for Book Publishing

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