The Future of Stories

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.


17 thoughts on “The Future of Stories

  1. I love Coupland, and I definitely share his more existential approach to storytelling and the role it plays in our lives, but personally I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the future. I see our impulse to tell stories and make sense of our experience in narrative terms as too ingrained in our very humanity to ever really go away, even if the shape of those narratives continues to change. But perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, as I really have nothing more solid to base my hopefulness on than “…but narratives are really really important!”. Anyway, thank you for the thought-provoking post, which ties in very nicely with all the debates on digital futures, utopian and dystopian views of the information society, etc that I’ve been exposed to so far in library school.

  2. Nymeth – it’s so lovely to have you back in the blogworld! And I’m looking forward to hearing more about library school and what you’ve been doing there. I really don’t think (in my own ill-informed way!) that narrative is going anywhere. There will be ever more diversity in narrative, I can see that as likely. But it’s the interplay between living and storytelling/reading that is hard to call but undoubtedly about to change. It’s scary to my mind because the link is so profound – which can make it almost invisible, until we realise that things are very different. But then I’m getting older – I’d like to think that there may be good, productive change, too.

  3. I’m currently following an online work-in-progress-interactive-story-with-wikis-and-stuff at

    It’s very much a “man-novel” (the two professional writers behind the project are Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear) with lots of violence and (as it’s set in 12th Century Europe) horrible things happening to people.

    The idea behind it is that people who are not on the main writing staff can contribute to the canon of the work, either in forms of art or sub-stories that (pending approval) will be added to the site.

    Apparently, the novel will be published in paper form in a year or two, but for the terminally nerdy (such as myself) it’s fascinationg to watch it unfold in weekly installments.

  4. The words, the sentiment of what you address feels so like “Brave New World” that I admit to being quite disconcerted. There are other pieces of entertainment that address a notion; that these mediums (books, film, television, radio) being considered only for entertainment value is a danger and that using them for information is vital to having an informed society. Where this pertains to Brave New World is the mass absorption and consumption of things that make us feel good. The subjective experience, the importance of self is only asserted in the manner of which is socially appropriate and not based upon our own inner composition and desires. Those desires become dictated and controlled by the confines of society’s approval which, of course, is defined by what’s best for all those who feel entitled and perpetuate an out of control Id, a flawed/damaged ego and a startling lack of true self. I think the dire predictions are accurate (I find both of the ones you mentioned to be dire as I find it wholly disconcerting that one would even remotely want a magazine marked to highlight what OTHERS thought were important) so long as people keep themselves moving in the direction of doing what’s expected without considering why it is so. The new soma is social approval and too often social approval is based upon doing what everyone else is.

  5. I was struck that Coupland said it will become harder to view “your life” as a story. Perhaps we assume that a) that comes naturally to everyone and b) it’s beneficial. Galen Strawson has argued that a) is untrue – using his own self-perception as an example. He disputes b) reasonably persuasively as well. So perhaps in Coupland’s future, people like Strawson get more common…
    Strawson’s most accessible piece on this was in the TLS, incidentally, though you can also google up a paper. Can’t find a link to the former, but there’e an interesting comment on it here

  6. I read the Coupland article. Um…he’s not expecting us to take him seriously, right? Although, I do agree with him that we don’t always get leaders with enough smarts – although we get the ones we deserve, alas – at least those of us who have the privilege to vote our leaders into power. I thought the article itself was a lot of fun; I didn’t take it seriously. If, indeed, he did mean what he said, he’s a real buzz killer and probably not any fun to live with.

  7. Great post! You’ve sparked so many ideas in my head, but for a moment I just must be silly. ‘there are no absolute truths any more’ – horrors, hehe. Sorry, but I just have the image of a whole bunch of white, establishment style men (bankers probably) dressed as Southern belles fanning themselves and calling for smelling salts. The problem with many of the prevailing truths was that they were at base opinions with a huge screen built up around them to disguise just that fact (in my opinion, but I could be wrong, isn’t that wonderful?).

    But I am intrigued by the idea that we’ll be able to close our ears to dissenting voices in the future due to technology, because I think that’s dangerous for a few reasons whether someone is liberal left or far right conservative. I still find myself unable to completly ignore dissenting views, as I’m one of those terrible people who will see a link I won’t enjoy and click through to have a good old argument wth the author in my head. Sometimes though there are ideas that make you think differently, or at least give you an understanding of why somoene feels the need to be so passionately in conflict with you ideas. I love Jeanette Winterson’s commitment to picking up a book a year that she knows will conflict with her ideas, not to rail against it, but to learn new things. Not sure I could keep my temper for a whole book though 🙂

    I don’t know about the idea that stories will cease to offer guidelines for our life. Aren’t there always going to be a couple of very basic universal truths that every human being responds to – mostly to do with crimes that should not be committed? Authors might seek to mitigate their characters reasons for committing such crimes and get readers to see it from their perspective, but I can’t imagine say a narrative like ‘Lolita’, or ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ being launched that totally exhonerates the criminal. In any case – stories we need them for understanding people and the world. I’m not sure I’d make it through without them.

    And do you think this argument about what will happen to stories is similar to worries about the loss of oral story telling? I don’t know much about specific things people worried would disappear if we just wrote everything down, but I remember a surge of interest in that subject around 2000.

  8. I used to wish I had a time machine to travel back in time and see how wrong we’ve got all our stories about the past. These days, I wish I could travel into the future and see how wrong we’ve got all our stories about it. But then, my time travel stories would certainly be different from anyone else’s, and some would believe me while others adamantly denied all I told.

    My only real fear about the future is that we will do what we have always done: embrace each new thing with no thought as to the consequences. Sometimes that will be good. Other times, we’ll have to clean up huge messes. I don’t think a time machine is necessary to envision such a future.

  9. I really like what you say about the collapse of grand narratives, and the rise of relativism. Here in the US, the loss of a nationally accepted narative is very threatening, especially to conservatives, and I think gives rise to much anger and a desire for a world that conforms as it seemed to post-WW2 (and before those damn hippies came along).

    Raised Unitarian-Universalist, relativism has always been key to my family’s narrative, yet opens us up to the criticism that UU’s can “believe in anything.”

    Not true. You can’t believe in jihad or fascism or that the immorality of muslim extremists justifies torture by Americans; after all, if western tolerance really is superior, it has to maintain its precepts, even when difficult to do so.

    Further, I think there is another sort of absolutism inherent in the idea that we each ought to be able to develop and voice our own beliefs in a coherent and consistent fashion, and tolerate those beliefs getting tested while someone else does the same.

    (Although we walk through swamps and quicksand, we have faith in fancy footwork. Plus, we believe absolutely in the joy of dancing.)

  10. I think we will always tell stories. They might not be like the stories we used to tell, but I can’t imagine them not existing. The big thing right now in marketing libraries (and nonprofits in general) is to be able to tell a good story. I read the Coupland article and I can’t help but think that he is being facetious. I did find it interesting that it is the novelist who says narrative will disappear and the tech guy that narrative will be good entertainment.

  11. Hmmm…I read Coupland’s article,and while I believe that he does have his tongue firmly planted against the side of his cheek, he also makes some interesting points. Such as #24: “Much of what we now consider ‘personality’ will be explained away as structural and chemical function of the brain.” This is already happening, in the form of current antidepressants and other medications, for example, or the connection between certain vaccines and autism.

    Your point about the connection between the type of stories we tell ourselves and our sense of self is well-founded. Virginia Woolf wrote: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” Exactly a century later, it is happening again. We cannot control what occurs globally, but we do have some say (perhaps) in our own stories. That might just keep the narrative drive alive for a while…

  12. I don’t know if it’s just me, or the fact that I’m in America, but I’m struck by how often I hear people saying things like “it’s God’s will” or “everything happens for a reason” or something similar. I wonder, especially among non-intellectual types, just how much the idea of grand narratives is really gone. Or maybe, as you say, it’s the importance of the individual narrative, not so much the religious or social one, that matters. We all want our individual stories to make sense, but how they intersect with other people’s stories doesn’t matter so much. Interesting ideas!

  13. Jon – what an amazing thing that is. I’m not sure what to call it – a collective novel, a community novel? I am all for experimentation with creativity every which way, although I’m not immediately drawn to reading something with multiple authors (which gives me pause for thought in itself). Have you ever visited Kate Pullinger’s website? Only I know she was involved in all kinds of new media writing projects. Thank you for the link – it’s really interesting to know these projects are going on.

    Kimberley – absolutely! This idea of being defined by the external world – either appearances, or other people’s dictats or even the ongoing rush of groupmind feels uncomfortable to me. It’s not like appearances and ‘what other people will think’ haven’t long constrained our behaviours -and in their furthermost excesses that’s good. But when it comes to entertainment and creativity, well, I’m all for the original and the quirky and the different, and can only hope very much that enough others think so too.

    jon – I’m very interested in this comparison between episodic and narrative mentalities, and have written about that before (if you want the link please say but I won’t trouble to seek it out just yet). What always intrigues me is that the ‘episodic’ character is considered to be against the notion of a consistent identity, whilst episodic fiction absolutely reinforces it. If you think of Huck Finn or (my favourite example) Desperate Housewives, the episodic simply insists that anything can happen to the character but they revert to a default setting for the start of the next chapter. What it also makes me think of is the rise of scientific narrative, which Lyotard talks about. He argues that scientific narrative, with its celebration and reliance on the factual has worked to undermine conventional narrative, and to make it look mythologising and insubstantial, not to be believed in or trusted. And yet Lyotard points out that there is no scientific narrative that does not rely upon the conventional narrative form. Facts have very little to tell us unless they are part of a narrative that shapes and interprets. So I also wonder whether the notion of an episodic identity refers to people who are still reliant on stories and their form, but do not see or experience it as so. The story has become invisible, or they have risen above it, but it is not exactly absent. Again, thank you for the link – I found that a very interesting discussion.

    Grad – lol! I’m more of the opinion that Coupland is a buzz kill. Perhaps this is one of those cases where American humour has fooled a Brit? (Much as we used to joke that British irony didn’t register with the Americans). But I kind of think he means it at least in part.

    Jodie – no not wrong at all about absolute truths; as I mention in the post, that was precisely the advantage that Lyotard saw in their collapse. I kind of think that dissenting voices can only be heard if they are very clever, very well-worded, and that that has been the case for a long time. But, if economics or groupmind get more powerful, if we can only get attention for the popular view, then that makes marginal voices harder to hear. I really hope that doesn’t happen, and think there is probably enough appeal in diversity, and enough cussedness in human nature, to keep difference alive. I also think that stories will continue to guide people’s lives, but that as stories change, so the way we live and the way we reflect on living will change. How, I have no idea. We have changed a lot because we don’t rely on oral storytelling for instance (no memories any more, not like we used to have), so I guess we will change again.

  14. Emily – now I agree with you completely there. Embracing the new with no thought to the consequences is a very popular thing to do through history and will keep on happening, despite the ill-advised nature of such behaviour. And I also agree that really, we are very bad at predicting the future. The element of surprise never really seems to diminish!

    Ben – Thank you for an intriguing comment! I don’t think relativism is exactly the same as believing everything. I think relativism is about… things being relative (it sounds stupid like that, but I’m sure you know what I mean). One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist – so people believe only one thing, but that belief depends on where they are standing. I’ve just finished reading A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore, which is by no means a perfect book, but is very interesting on the subject of tolerating racial difference in the States. She seems to be suggesting that there is a veneer of liberal humanism that is very thin indeed. That was the most gripping part of the story – some of the rest of it was a bit random. But she offers an interesting insight that offers a more insiders view of America than I could ever hope to gain!

    Stefanie – yes, that was intriguing wasn’t it? But I’m not saying that stories will disappear – only that they will change, and that will have knock-on consequences that are much deeper and more pervasive than we initially realise. It’s the interplay between stories and life that interests me, as always!

    ds – that is a wonderful quote from Woolf and exactly what I am getting at. I don’t have any fear for the immortality of the narrative drive, but I wonder where it will go, and whether it will get recognition. I think it’s possible that stories will be as powerful as ever, while we all deny that stories have anything to do with our lives. If we don’t teach literature at university level (or do so in a hugely reduced capacity as will happen, I expect) then that kind of self-awareness of the power of narrative will fade away.

    Dorothy – I will admit that no one says that around me much, so I think we must assume you move in very stoical circles! 🙂 But I’m very intrigued by this idea that stories change according to the level of education received – I think you must be right there, that it is as dependent on social class as on anything else. Hmmm, something else there to think about!

  15. And yet, whatever technology does and however it changes the way we relate, people are still physical beings who are born, poop, and die. In those very physical and basic human experiences, there is something long lived I think, that will seek out stories that have meaning whether it’s through a grand narrative or something more immediate.

  16. I must say neither scenario has much appeal to me. Getting a magazine with articles marked by importance by my ‘friends’ sounds sort of absurd, but why does it seem like something that might well happen? I’ve yet to be convinced that the pervasiveness of social media is a good thing–I find it completely intrusive and overwhelming, but maybe I really am getting old. I can’t imagine what stories will be like in the future–I do wonder what my niece’s world will be like–vastly different than what I’ve experienced? I sometimes feel like the whole facebook phenomenon is going to devour us rather than being a simple tool to make life easier. What a sad world without stories to help guide and understand.

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