Telling Stories

Have we given up the ability and the desire to tell our stories? At first glance it seems that digital media, with its relentless emphasis upon the short term, is following television’s lead by encouraging our short attention spans. Television certainly has seduced us with its promise of instant gratification over the years, offering up its constant doses of dopamine and oxytocin as rewards for our attention. But to those ends, television has relied upon the centuries old, tried and true methods of storytelling, placing its emphasis upon tales that contained an introduction (beginning), a conflict (middle), and a resolution (ending). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. This traces back through radio and movies to the novel, and before that to the folktale. Storytelling, it is argued, is what separates humans from other animals.

Computer media doesn’t like storytelling. It doesn’t lend itself to long term relationships with any of its content. We don’t watch sports on our smartphones. That’s partly because the screen is too small, but mostly because most team sports take too long and we end up becoming distracted by the device itself. Same goes for watching movies, or for anything that requires a long term commitment (anything more than a couple of minutes) in order to receive the payoff. Games offer continuous payoffs as we move from obstacle to obstacle. We don’t read novels on our computers or handheld devices. Sure, we have our Kindles and other e-book readers, but as they become smarter and smarter, with more built-in features, we will find ourselves more and more distracted by them, unable to read for two hours the way we used to with a printed book. In fact, as we use our digital devices more and more, we find ourselves unable even to read a printed book for as long as we used to.

Have computers followed television’s lead? No, it’s the other way around. It’s no accident that reality shows have taken over much of TV’s programming content. We no longer want to sit through an entire episode of conventional storytelling. We want a more rapid payoff, a continual reward for our attention, so we choose instead the spectacle over the narrative. The spectacle—the reality show about cops, or bachelors, or fashion victims, or cooking contestants, or singers, or island survivors, or apprentices, or fat people—has replaced the narrative. Storytelling—that with a beginning, middle, and ending—has been exchanged for spectacle—that which is non-linear, random, and without any underlying sense of story.

Television is simply competing with computers, with the internet and with our newfound abilities to communicate across multiple channels, instantly with substance that means something to us as individuals. But even as we try to quench our endless thirst for something new, we sacrifice our ability not only to tell stories, but to listen to them as well. For all its faults, television used to supply us with stories, from Saturday morning cartoon shows to the evening news, from sitcoms to crime dramas, and from movies to miniseries. It still provides us with some of these, but their supply is dwindling. As television continues its struggle to compete with the internet (a struggle that it will ultimately lose) it steadily remakes itself in the internet’s image.

If storytelling is what separates humans from other animals, it is also what teaches us about ourselves. It is how we learn to become good people, how we discover who we are. While the internet provides us with amazing opportunities to find out about these things, it doesn’t put them into any sort of meaningful context. We are left to our own resources as individuals to try to make sense of it all. And the smarter the internet gets, the better it becomes at steering us toward what it thinks we like, and the more it shields us from opposing points of view. And within all of this, it doesn’t tell us stories. It simply offers up short term connections in the form of easily read blogs (such as this one), youtube videos, tumblr pictures, and endless sources of amusement in all manner of shapes and forms. It gives us bits of the story, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.

And so, who are our narrators now? From whom can we get our sense of self, and with it our sense of morality? TV is still a viable source, though probably not for much longer. For stories, I look to three sources. And no, it’s not politicians, religious leaders, and news commentators.

My three sources are writers, poets, and songwriters. Yes, they’re all writers of sorts, but each approaches the craft in a different manner, with different criteria applied.

If you want to do something to save humanity, my advice is to seek out what these three sources provide. Read books. Read poetry. Listen to songs (not just music… songs). Be selective. Be judgemental. Raise the bar on quality.

And if you really want to serve humanity, then become one of these… become a source.