What will stories look like in the future and what role will they play in our lives? This week, Mister Litlove has sent me links to two online articles that predict what the future will bring, and that ostensibly see very different prospects.
This is the first, A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next Ten Years, by novelist Douglas Coupland, in which (along with 44 other points) he proposes that:
‘28) 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.’
This statement is of a piece with Coupland’s generally depressing view in the article that the future will become more unpredictable and, overall, worse. He believes that life will be completely determined and eventually ruled by technology, and that we will become ever more dispersed, distracted and insignificant within its grip.
The second is a much more upbeat interview with technology writer, Nick Bilton, from The New York Times, on the publication of his book I Live In The Future and Here’s How It Works. He suggests that:
“As we move to this world where we consume things on screen and the lines blur between television and radio and the printed word and every medium, everything is going to be catered to storytelling,”
The interview promotes one of those faintly messianic visions of the digital world, as being something we all want badly, even if we don’t know it. But the future of digital is seen as bombardment by thousands of niche products, coupled with increased elasticity and interactivity of content. For instance, Bilton thinks how wonderful it would be to receive an online magazine but with articles marked in order of importance by one of his friends.
Although these seem at first glance to be radically opposed perspectives, with Bilton puppyishly excited and Coupland full of doom, you can see a way that they fit together. Coupland is considering the way we use stories to make sense of experience, and Bilton is considering the way we use stories as entertainment. But in that very opposition we can see how stories crossover from being the amusement of a couple of hours to having a determining effect on how we experience things. When we pay for a book or a movie ticket we’re buying relaxation, but also insight into existence, and access to ways of organizing and understanding what happens to us. If we change the way we formulate our stories, then that has a knock-on effect in the arenas where we use stories to help us extract the meaning from our experience. Bilton is ‘on trend’ if you like, with the way that stories are changing, because he’s looking at it from a consumer’s perspective, whilst Coupland is far gloomier because he’s looking at the situation from an existential one.
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.