The end of storytelling

Home Technologist 02 The end of storytelling

Linear narrative might be good for fiction, but it is no longer adapted to reality, says American commentator David Weinberger.

David Weinberger

Everyone likes a good tale. We watch them on TV, we read them in books, we tell them over the dinner table. Some of us even read them online. But after thousands of years of being the dominant way we make sense of our world, their time may be up. Yes, blame it on the Internet.

It’s not that the Net has given rise to some newfangled way of telling stories. Hyperlinked “create your own adventures” have not exactly caught on. Rather, the very nature of the Net shows that the narrative form represents how the world works only because of the way we’ve been explaining it for centuries. Since book pages are sewn together, the easiest way to go through them is from front to back, one page at a time. Books are made for narratives.

The Web, on the other hand, is built of links that entice you to leap to a new page before you’ve finished reading the one you’re on. You can tell a linear story on the Web, of course, but it’s not the medium’s natural form.

Some people still insist that our love of stories has nothing to do with paper, but rather that it is baked into our brains. They cite research by American neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who found that people were more inclined to donate to a charity after listening to a story about a terminally ill two-year-old if the story was presented in the classic narrative arc described 150 years ago by Gustav Freytag: conflict deepens, comes to a climax, is resolved. This correlated with an increase of the neurochemicals cortisol and oxytocin in their brains, apparently proving that the narrative arc was part of our brain chemistry.

We’ve seen this reasoning before. In the 1970s, sociobiology caused controversy by suggesting evolutionary explanations for such evils as slavery, racism and rape. Social conservatives trumpeted this as support for maintaining the status quo. After all, such behaviours are – so went the argument – written in our DNA.

Nowadays most people recognize the flaw in this thinking. Even if our genes do lead us toward certain social behaviours, we are not powerless against them. We provide incentives to resist them, and we teach our children to do better. “The human genome made me rape her,” is not even close to a justification.

So, even if our brains are wired to think in narratives, it’s an urge we can fight. And we should, because the world is far too complex to fit into traditional stories. At last we have a medium capacious enough to let us stop reducing the world to what fits into a narrative. In the age of networked Big Data, our machines can find correlations that we cannot comprehend. In a field like systems biology, for example, a computer can predict the cascade of chemical reactions caused by a single molecule touching a cell wall, even though our brains can neither contain all the relevant information nor process the vastly complex interactions that occur. Reducing knowledge to a narrative arc turns it into a story fit for children.

Still, stories will remain. In the Internet era we continue to seek them and enjoy them. But we are learning that they do not explain everything in our world, from the quantum to the biological to the personal to the historical. They are not how the world is. They merely show how our brains and books want to make sense of the world. Stories are an art. The truth is too large for them.

– By David Weinberger

Technologist 02.019

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