Saturday, November 14, 2009

Storytelling and the Digital Age

I've been thinking a lot about stories recently. What is a story? Why do we love them so much? Does it matter if a story is true? What does it mean for a story to be true, anyway? Some of those questions are at the heart of doing research in the Social Sciences (like Education), but they are also important in the way that we live day-to-day, and the way we communicate with others.

These questions are at the forefront of The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, which I am currently rereading. The story itself is blissfully inconsequential, full of absurdity and drama, humor and even a little sarcasm. That makes it enjoyable to read, but it's not the kind of book that warrants dissection. No, it's basically a children's adventure, meant to be read aloud, meant to be immersive and silly. But it is punctuated by another story: Goldman's narrative about hearing the story as a child, trying to pass it on to his own child (a son, which he does not have), and finding that he needed to abridge the original. This story is as fictitious as the story about Buttercup and Westley, but it is so believable that myriad forums and websites have discussions about whether or not it is actually true. Was there a Morgenstern (the supposed author of the original story)? Is The Princess Bride really based on true events? How could Goldman simply invent this incredibly elaborate and utterly conceivable back story, and why would he?

Mixed in with this background story is a thin layer of truth. Goldman was married at the time he was writing The Princess Bride, and it was born as a story to tell his daughters, and he did end up getting divorced from his wife (as the background story suggests is likely). He even includes a few parenthetical stories in the various introductions - and there are many - that say "this is a true story," to set them apart.

Why does Goldman tell the story this way? I won't pretend to be able to get into his head, nor will I try. Rather, I wonder why we tell stories at all. I know that they are enjoyable, and engaging, and immersive. I know that most people love to imagine different worlds, to take on different identities and to play with the possibilities those worlds and identities propose. So much learning happens, indeed, from the ability to imagine oneself as someone else, to take on a new identity. So much happiness comes from the ability to imagine a better world, or at least a different one. Perhaps that is why the Waldorf schools emphasize myth and imagination so much.

Learning and fun aren't the only reasons here, though. There's also the story teller, who is not always seeking to teach. Perhaps he is always seeking to entertain, but with what tools, and why? Is there a desire for self-expression, no matter how fictitious the story ends up being? Is there a pride in invention? Is there a sense of community the storyteller becomes a part of?

I think of Homer, and the story of Achilles. So much of that story must have been false, but it didn't matter anymore. It was a story that captured what it was to be a Greek, what it was to be a man, to struggle with the knowledge of your own mortality, to be great and finite all at once. It was also a story of clashing steel and spears and gruesome deaths made poetry. All of those things we find in our modern stories - whether they be movies or books or the innovative blog posts at Cardboard Gods or just a series of pictures. I would argue that some video games are build to tell stories, too, some obviously so - Mass Effect, The Witcher, God of War - some not as overtly, but in a way, more deeply - Fall from Heaven, Europa Universalis, Out of the Park Baseball, PeaceMaker. Stories come in so many forms, with such variety in authorship, reality, and audience.

What was the Iliad to Homer? Who was it for? His audience has turned out to be thousands of years worth of Westerners, even though his audience was originally just groups of interested men and their children who they desired to grow up warriors. Was it for Homer, too? And was his audience also an author? That is the modern trend, where blogs are replacing the page, and interactive games are replacing the TV screen, and people are connected with each other almost always, and having conversations. Authorship and audience are becoming the same thing, and yet, that doesn't seem so strange. It's certainly not a return of what stories used to be, but it is a moving forward that simultaneously looks back. "The human voice is making a comeback," a Professor here at Stanford told me. She's right, and while the story is once again becoming central to what it means to communicate, to think, and to learn, it is a very different kind of story that we are beginning to see. Let me tell a little story, to give a little perspective before the end of this post.

The original movies were just films of a stage play. There was no zooming, no panning, no cut-scenes or splicing or, really, editing of any kind. The movie was shot from beginning to end, because it was just another medium to capture and distribute a whole methodology of storytelling that already existed (and had existed for millenia). It wasn't until much later that film makers distanced themselves from their theatrical roots, and began to take advantage of their ability to mix in music, to cut from one actor to another, to take things out of order (consider an extreme version of this: Memento). Eventually, film makers imagined things that it would have been impossible not only to do without film, but even to imagine without film. Technology is often like that.

The kinds of stories, the kind of communication and co-authorship, the kinds of interactive games computers and the internet make possible are only now starting to become apparent. For a long time, computers have been used to do what we always did before, just faster. Even the name - computer - suggests that it does little except perform mathematical operations. Stories, however, that would have been unimaginable before the internet are now starting to crop up. Games are allowing for stories to be told in a way that was inconceivable not twenty years ago. Authorship is becoming collaborative at a level unseen in history. And the effect is probably going to be greater than what anyone anticipates. The internet is one of the most world-changing inventions of human history, not because of what it has done, but because of what it is yet to do.

I cannot say what exactly will change, and how, and to what degree. But through it all there will be language - of one kind or another - and stories, and self-expression, and communication. Indeed, these things are becoming more and more prominent. Those who bemoan the death of reading fail to recognize that, in many ways, more people are reading more often than ever before. They're just reading blogs and tweets and text messages and facebook walls. That may not be satisfying to we bibliophiles, who cling to the printed page, but it shows a profound potential for art and beauty and good writing even in the digital age. What that writing is, and will be, what stories will be told, who knows? Regardless, the future of reading and writing - the future of stories - is an exciting one.

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