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What can technology do for stories?

Professor David Trotter

Contributor

In the first of a series of monthly essays about the interplay between technology and storytelling, Screen Media and Naturalism specialist at Cambridge University’s English Faculty, Professor David Trotter, looks at the value of interactivity.

What can technology do for stories? That’s a question which ought to induce a sharper sensation of vertigo than it actually does. For centuries, the main platform for the delivery of narrative fiction has been the printed book. The book is a medium so stable, so solid, and yet so versatile, that until very recently its existence could pretty much be taken for granted. Propped up in your lap, or stretched out on a flat surface, a novel is like a domestic pet. Stroke it, and it begins to purr. To look out over the edge of that safe place into the infinitude of the digital multiverse ought to make us feel sick, either with anxiety or with exhilaration. In fact, it doesn’t. Why?

Because the new challenge which greets us at each turn in the labyrinth is the same old challenge: interactivity. Interactivity seems to be regarded as the holy grail of those new media which might be thought to have the most to offer to, or have done the most to upset, literature. We allegedly want always to intervene in, and so to divert to our own ends, the stream of words flowing from an author to what would once have been, back in the printed day, the reader’s receptive mind.

In his Literary Platform review of the app version of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Gibbs complains that the app’s ‘date order’ and ‘random shuffle’ functions are only available after the user has read the book’s chapters (each conceived as a complete story) through in the correct order; as an add-on, rather than a ‘radical opening’ of the text. There’s no chance to intervene. He may well be right.

What interests me about his complaint is that it should establish as the ultimate criterion of the digital version’s success – that is, of what technology can do for stories – the reader’s ability to re-order the text in real time according to her own wishes: to (re-)make it up as she goes along.

If we were interactively to re-write Wallace Stevens’s ‘Notes towards a Supreme Fiction’ today, we would probably want to add to his three solemn injunctions – ‘It Must Be Abstract’, ‘It Must Change’, ‘It Must Give Pleasure’– a further one: ‘It Must Interact’. That, in effect, is what some of the most dazzling projects housed on the staunchly innovative Dreaming Methods site have quite explicitly done.

To me, however, Stevens’ criteria for a supreme fiction remain more compelling than the one we would be most likely to add to them (though I agree that they might in some circumstances benefit from its addition).

I’m not convinced that interactivity is all we want technology to do for stories, or that having it always and everywhere is an advantage. Interactivity is what capitalism now most wants to sell us. Doesn’t that in itself make you suspicious?

I think that we need to find a way to put the vertigo back into the original question about what technology can do for stories. That will involve a history of the uses to which electronic communications media have been put. How, and why, did interactivity emerge from more than a century’s worth of innovation as the (technological, social, moral, political) principle to which we now so widely subscribe? There was interactivity before digitalisation, not just in life (where would the species be without it?), but in some forms of mediation, and, to a degree, in literature.

Which brings me to a final point. Literature has always been rather good at capturing the moment of the emergence of new media: the moment at which the principles motivating the use of a particular technology (telephone, television, radio) are still undecided, raw, palpable. So we might also need to return to literature from a different angle. It wouldn’t be altogether implausible to answer your question with a further, mirroring question. ‘What can stories do for technology?’

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8 Responses to “What can technology do for stories?”

  1. Paul Tyrrell Says:

    September 21st, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Interactivity needn’t be about putting the reader in control of the narrative. It can be as simple as, say, allowing the reader to point at a term they don’t understand and receive an instant definition of it from a dictionary or from Wikipedia. That’s something a digital platform can do better than any printed book, which is why I’m amazed it took the e-publishers so long to adopt it, and other similar features. Your point about capitalism foisting interactivity upon us is a valid one, though – albeit, in my view, for the wrong reasons. Capitalism doesn’t foist anything on anybody. It’s just a system – the most effective system yet devised (even taking into account all its hideous inadequacies) to improve living standards for the most number of people. In a free capitalist system (i.e. not the one we live in), good ideas thrive because they deliver value, and bad ideas die out because they don’t. Interactive systems are therefore good for capitalism because they enable suppliers of goods and services to better understand what their customers want. And what do readers want? The same things they always have. In non-fiction, they want the quickest possible access to the most relevant information. And in creative writing, they want, as Sol Stein put it “an experience superior to their everyday experience”. The bigger publishers and platform-providers have made some progress in addressing the first of these needs, albeit at a woeful speed. As for the second, they’re nowhere, because they cannot shake off the dated view that the best way to deliver “superior” experiences is through reams of linear text. For some people, myself included, a novel remains a satisfying way to invest hours or days of time. For many, however, it’s not, and (thanks to capitalism) there are now a plethora of alternatives – the video games industry, for example, has been bigger than Hollywood for years. My point is that interactivity works because it helps the user to get the experience they want. Those of us keen to find new and exciting ways to tell stories should, in my view, be looking for opportunities to make our work interactive – provided we don’t just do so for the sake of it. Ultimately, our job is to serve the reader and give them that “superior” experience they crave.

  2. Chris Meadows Says:

    September 22nd, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Technology has been doing a lot of things for stories that haven’t necessarily required interactivity. I blogged my response here, with some examples from my own life.

  3. What can technology do for stories? | The Passive Voice Says:

    September 23rd, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    [...] now most wants to sell us. Doesn’t that in itself make you suspicious?Link to the rest at The Literary PlatformClick to Tweet/Email/Share This Post wpa2a.script_load(); Ebook/Ereader TechnicalNo Comments to [...]

  4. What can technology do for stories? | Dead Machinery's Blog Says:

    September 23rd, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    [...] What can technology do for stories?. Share this:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  5. Andy Lancaster Says:

    September 24th, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Good to read something which takes on the notion that digital reading is only about interactivity, or rather a narrow definition of interactivity. Or to approach from a slightly different direction, reading is always and has always been an interactive process, at every level I can think of.

    The fact that the physical action of book reading is reduced usually to the turn of the page, the limited and repetative finger move that admittedly doesn’t rank highly when comnpared with the thumb action of videogaming, ignores the fact that the reader is constantly interacting intellectually and imaginatively with the text.

    As Chris argues, technology can enhance the reading experience in many ways, and add to the creative act both of writing and reading. It can enable collaboration,interaction between storytellers, and dynamically alter the distributive interaction between writer and reader. But it is hard to attribute this merely to technology, when both collaboration and self poublishing have been a constant feature of storytelling from the days of the Norse saga.

    It is right of course to pose the question, for it in part helps us define what we genuinely desire from our stories. And the answer to that is not simple – ideas, challenge, novelty, tradition, consolation, catharisis, the list is very long indeed, often multi-dimensional and rarely straightforward. So too I suspect is the notion of interactivity – the ability to change the story to which we listen is interesting, but for most of us, the joy and value of the story is to listen to the voice of the other.

    Prioritising OUR story is a part of a distinctively 21st century view of the world, and perhaps that is why the debate centres so often around our ability to ‘influence and control’. However, what for good or ill technology exposes and disables is the concept of the authorial primacy, the single truth of narrative, for it reflects the very processes which happen in our heads, the multivoiced commentary and referencing that is what we do as listen to the story.

  6. Cosa può fare la tecnologia per la narrativa? Says:

    September 25th, 2012 at 9:43 am

    [...] tutto: What can technology do for stories? Share this:Facebook Questo articolo è stato pubblicato in Idee trovate in giro. Aggiungi ai [...]

  7. What can stories do for technology? Says:

    October 17th, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    [...] October 17th, 2012 In the second monthly essay by Professor David Trotter, Cambridge University’s Screen Media and Naturalism expert examines the way that stories can bring meaning to technology. Last month he addressed the inverse question for us here. [...]

  8. What can technology and stories do for each other? | Literature Technology Media Says:

    October 29th, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    [...] Trotter’s What Can Technology Do for Stories?, posted on 21st September on The Literary Platform, investigated the value of interactivity. It [...]

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