07/12/2011 11:30 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2011

Queries and Hopes for the Future of Storytelling

"One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived."

-- Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, addressing the 'graphomania' [the obsessive compulsion to write, also called scribomania] which he sees spreading through his home country of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s.

If we take 'writer' to include its 21st century multimedia variants -- Youtuber, blogger, filmmaker, etc. -- then Kundera's fateful morning has come. Everyone today is a 'writer.'

Let's be precise: everyone with online access has the capacity to 'write' for everyone else online. [Living in the United States, it's easy to forget that most of the world remains wirelessless. The most populous continents, Africa and Asia, currently have 11 and 23 percent of their populations online, respectively, as compared with nearly 80 percent in North America.]

For those of us who now perceive and use the Internet as though it were truly ubiquitous, (I include myself) how do we feel about Kundera's prophecy? Do we see ourselves in an "age of universal deafness and incomprehension?" Is each of us so intoxicated with the sound of his or her own voice that no other voice can reach our ears? Does our inward gaze preclude, as Kundera warns, the ability to even understand each other?

Unless you're an outraged Luddite, or you're trying to hype up another rapture, the answer is no.

Today we listen to each other, read each other, and watch each other more avidly than ever. We may not listen or read or watch for long. We may be evolving, as Jonathan Carr's The Shallows so compellingly claims, a neural circuitry incapable of deep thinking; and for these new, shallower brains we may end up paying in dear and unforeseeable ways. But we have not become the nightmarish 'graphomanic' society that Kundera saw augured in Communist Czechoslovakia.

We are still consumers of stories other people make. And therefore we are consumers of criticism, reviews, and recommendations. We have tastes. We compare and rank and 'like' at a newly ferocious pace. The stories we love, we pass on because we want others to partake in the joy or tragedy or humor we experience. Massive media conglomerates may create many of our stories and influence our choices among them -- but ultimately it's a very personal exchange that occurs with any story, no matter what it's corporate origins.

The single most important question Hollywood producers ask of their focus groups at the end of a screening is: would you recommend this film? For all the leveraging power of the advertising and marketing industries, in the end they bow down to the opinion of the individual. As Freud's nephew and 'the father of public relations', Edward Bernays, once wrote: it is sometimes possible to change the attitudes of millions, but impossible to change the attitude of one man.

What I'm getting to is this: as long as you and I can agree or disagree about the quality of a movie, or a book, or a blog, or a vimeo, Kundera's dystopian forecast will remain a literary provocation from another time. As long as we care about what happens to characters -- whether those characters are dead or alive, real or imagined -- we will have a common currency for the mind and heart. We will be able to talk about what provokes our thoughts and what moves us by referring to the same fixed and authored series of events. Whether the author is a single novelist, a team of Hollywood executives, or an online community of writers and artists.

Now look to a vision of the not-so-distant future. Indulge me for a moment by suspending the obvious question -- exactly how is that going to work? (Chances are that current technology has a jump on you anyway.)

Imagine, in this future, that stories are no longer fixed. You and I buy the same book, or the same film, and it starts off in the same way for both of us. But then your story goes one way and mine another. Instead of reading or watching a single organized form consisting of specific characters, a plot, and a setting, we end up in two completely different worlds. The story is adapting in real-time. It's a changeable experience that tailors itself to the individual. An experience that shifts according to your decisions, your desires, what you hope and fear will happen, so that you become audience, author, and protagonist.

[Think: The Never Ending Story. You are both Bastian, the boy reading the book, and his counterpart in Fantasia, Atreyu.]

Fun? Absolutely. But what are we going to talk about when you come away with one version of the story and I come away with another? Do we recount how things went in mine, then yours? After these mind-blowing, personalized journeys, would that seem a little dull, a little pointless, and a little too much like listening to someone ramble on about the crazy dream they had last night? Would we cease to have exchanges over stories altogether? Would we lose our common emotional and intellectual currencies and end up in small, naval-gazing bubbles of self-authorship? Would we, in Kundera's terms, grow deaf to each other?

Choose your own adventure: in addition to an excellent series of children's books and a plethora of less excellent and occasionally outrageous imitations, it's an integral part of how stories get made. From the way Greek oral tradition accrued new voices through the centuries, eventually culminating in the Homeric verse we read today, to the less... organic way in which Hollywood film endings are rewritten, reshot, and re-edited depending on how a focus group responds, the stories we inherit are, to a greater or lesser extent, the product of multiple lives, multiple minds, and multiple visions of how things ought to end up. What are storytellers, after-all, if not people with good antennae who can pick up frequencies from the rest of us and reshape [or remix] them in a meaningful way?

But in the digital age, what the individual wants, feels, and thinks is not merely going into the greater cultural process by which stories are distilled -- it's fast becoming the endgame. The story form (or forms) of the future. And it's being pursued in every medium, every combination of mediums, with big money and small, and under the banner of a dozen buzzy names: the Supernovel, alternate game reality, transmedia, interactive film, virtual reality, next-gen storytelling, story technology.

Scavenger hunt style experiences, like Pandemic 1.0, which premiered at Sundance this year, in which participants raced around Park City over 120 hours trying to stop the spread of an imaginary, globe-threatening virus. Penguin Books' We Tell Stories project for which six authors worked with a 'next-gen' company to create six distinctive ways of collaborating with readers online. Interactive films like Unsound, from this year's SXSW line-up, in which hand sensors on the audience registered heart rate and skin response and then relayed the information to a control center called the 'biosystem,' which changed scene selection, musical score, and sound effects according to each person's physical responses, so that everybody ended up with a different viewing experience.

Making morbid strides toward something like Star Trek's Holodeck, the New South Wales Film Festival recently saw the unveiling of Scenario. 'The world's first 3D interactive film' is based on the experience of Elizabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who was imprisoned for 24 years in her family home by her father, Josef, who raped, abused and fathered six children by her. Five audience members at a time enter a circular room in which the walls are covered in 3D projections, giving the impression of 'walking into a film.' Each audience member is then assigned an avatar in order to complete the film's mission of collecting body parts and depositing them inside a giant baby whilst dodging the computer-controlled 'sentinel avatars' who are programmed, as I understand it, to keep said parts out of said giant baby.

Hollywood storytellers like Guillermo del Toro, director of Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, are equally committed to bringing us thrills once reserved for the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Del Toro describes his creative workshop in Los Angeles, Miranda as "an imaginarium where we are free to explore the practical possibilities of transmedia without compartmentalizing the artistic process." No doubt the pool of international talent at Miranda will be putting forth novel, if not extraordinary, works in the coming years. For digital age storytellers, the future glimmers and beckons like a modern-day promise of California gold. If you're aiming for big industry storytelling, and if del Toro's instincts are right, you're going to want to learn advertising, filmmaking, writing, composing, animation, television, new media, old media, mass media, transmedia, and trans-Siberian media or the wave of well-equipped gold-diggers is going to leave you in the proverbial dust.

The rush, of course, has been brewing for decades. Computer games. Videogames. Roll-playing. Interactive fiction. All the industries once a touch too nerdy to take over are now very much in the process of taking over. In 2005, worldwide videogame industry revenues surpassed worldwide film revenues for the first time and never looked back. Movie box offices worldwide took in $31.8 billion dollars in 2010. Video games made $60 billion, and are projected to hit $90 billion by 2015. This is not to say that 'film is dead' -- on the contrary, box office receipts in the U.S. reached an all time high in 2010. Only that it is old. Old like printed books old. The majority of people worldwide who want to entertain themselves now want immediate, real-time authorship over the form and content of their entertainment. In other words, interactivity gaineth.

I find the word dangerously misleading -- interactive. It suggests, for one, that the way we have encountered stories until now has been passive, and that by taking a physically active role in the story's telling we are getting a higher level of stimulation. Anyone who has read Moby Dick and played Mario Kart knows that this is patently untrue. You may not prefer Moby Dick to Mario Kart, but I'll wager there are a few more areas of your frontal cortex lighting up over Melville's prose than during your laps with Yoshi around Rainbow Road.

Simply because the still and silent practices of listening, reading, and watching are still and silent, does not mean they engage less of our neurophysiology. If anything, I would argue that the imagination has more space to breathe and react and take off when fewer of our senses are being worked upon. Isn't that why Huxley's prophetic feelies in A Brave New World excel at keeping the population so numbly content and so utterly unimaginative? Shouldn't a good story, no matter what the delivery method, ruffle us? Open us up? Compel the imagination rather than quash it?

To be sure, the gaming world has produced more scintillating plot-lines than knocking go-carts for a place on the castle podium, and avatars of greater emotional complexity and nuance than Yoshi. We may soon, after all, have ourselves a Moby Dick 3D interactive experience. But when that day comes (and I think it will be soon) and we find ourselves hurling giant digital harpoons into the giant digital mouth of the white whale, the experience will not be rewarding because it is interactive, it will be rewarding because a good story has been expressed in a meaningful way through an interactive medium.

We stand, to some degree, in the position of the French audiences at the turn of the 19th century who watched, jaws agape, the Lumiere brothers' completely unexciting 50-second film of workers leaving a factory. How we love to lose ourselves in the novelty of new toys! In a hundred years our current interactive baby-step experiments are probably going to look pretty lame, just as a watching a few soundless Lumiere brothers' films today would put anyone straight to sleep.

In this regard, nothing happening now is new. But I want to submit that there is a crucial difference between our artistic transition to interactivity, and the ones we went through as a species with the advent of the printing press, the motion picture, and the Internet.

The inchoate choose your adventure medium is the first storytelling technique in human history to put the burden of authorship -- or a considerable part of that burden -- on you, on me, 'the user'. I say burden because writing, or designing, or filming good stories is hard. Period. Anyone who has tried it knows, and if we're going to produce good stories in the new medium -- stories that persist through more generations than the one producing them -- we had better start asking the hard questions now.

To begin with: do we believe that semi self-authored experiences can make good stories at all? 'Semi self-authored experience'--isn't that just another way of saying life? Surely we want some divide between our daily lives and the stories we can escape into, don't we? Isn't that part of why we benefit from stories about other people? Don't we learn more about ourselves when there is some distance between us and the actor, the character, the protagonist, some room for reflection, for the mind to be able to see itself through the lens of someone else's tragedy or comedy, so that it can turn around and say: I am, or I am not, Prince Hamlet?

And what about Kundera's cautioning: do we risk turning into mouths with no ears? Eyes that only see themselves? A thousand Bastians, some who save Fantasia, some who don't, and some who go to New Jersey? A civilization with no communal stories and therefore no communal language, doomed to splintering antagonism, a Tower of Babel built with 21st century tools?

Please understand, I'm asking these histrionic questions and writing this article as a cheerleader for interactivity (though, as mentioned, I think we need a different word), not as an opponent. I very much want to be part of the exploration; I want to test the new toys; I'm thrilled to be part of del Toro's boundary-pushing generation. I grew up on the first computer and video games and I still haven't outgrown the occasional session of 'Dungeons and Dragons'. Today, in addition to my own projects, I write and direct for a story technology company. At a fundamental, biological level, I ascribe to Professor Brian Boyd's view that all our arts evolved out of our species' distinctive knack for playfulness, and therefore I see no reason to draw rigid lines between stories and games. The former is beholden to the latter, as far as I'm concerned.

It's just that stories [and here I refer to the ones that don't change in mid-reading/mid-viewing, that are authored without you] have that special quality of touching on, and touching us with, universal human truths. By virtue of being fixed in their forms, they are required to perform at the highest level of insight and inspiration if they are going to survive. They must demonstrate what Professor Boyd in his book On the Origin of Stories calls: "art's special capacity to earn and hold attention despite the diverse situations of audiences."

It's my hope that going forward we do not come to undervalue, or lose sight of, art's special capacity. Even as we astound ourselves with personalized and immersive digital marvels, I hope we continue to circulate those stories, those works of art, that have been hewn and worked and crafted against the standard demanded by mortality: will this be here and worthy of notice when I am gone? I hope the idea of composition does not become eclipsed by the idea of interactivity. After all, a composition deftly and convincingly invested with life-energy can go on renewing and inspiring that same energy through time, whereas an interaction occurs once only and we are allotted so precious few of them in a lifetime.

I hope future generations will be able to spend their moments, if they so choose, interacting with the ever-replenishing fount of a composition passed down from long ago, or made just the day before. I hope the society they live in will support and encourage such a choice.

For myself: in fifty years time, I want to be able to ride a digital Falkor over a terrifyingly real grand canyon, and to drive a harpoon through Moby Dick myself, or (if I so choose) spare the old codger. But I also want to be able to travel to a foreign country and strike up a conversation with someone, as I have many times before, in which the only words exchanged are the names of writers, filmmakers, novels, and movies that moved me, and that moved this stranger, whose language I don't speak, but whose eyes are telling me we are nonetheless kindred in the stories we share.