Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Media Lab explores the future of storytelling

Had a fascinating and fortuitous chat yesterday with my Acela seatmate, who turned out to be Frank Moss, Director of the MIT Media Lab. He told me that, among all kinds of other characteristically cool projects, they were also developing a research area around the future of storytelling, exploring multi-platform and/or transmedia and/or buzz-word of your choice ways of telling stories.

He said he’d just been out in Hollywood and many studios were experimenting with ways to expand the traditional formal elements of the film: from its duration (very short to very long) to the way you encounter it (multiple screens in your life), to some feedback mechanisms that allow the film to be shaped by the viewer’s own personal data or feedback.

It sounds “cool,” in the classic nerdy sense of the word: technologically innovative, visually striking, full of potential. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

But at the same time, it’s worth remembering that storytelling in its basic form, with all the traditional elements (plot, character, scene, etc) has been around for a very long time and historically, it has been durably conservative.

For one thing, traditional storytelling in both literature to film has weathered very many cultural and technological challenges to its conventional structures from surrealism to modernism to the French New Wave and while these movements influence its development and often lead to great innovative works of art (e.g., Ulysses) they tend not to create new pathways. Rather, the dominant culture tends to steer storytelling back to the center.

Even new technologies have had only a minor on narrative form. We have bigger explosions and better special effects, but we still have heroes and villains and beginnings and ends. And let's not forget that other new technologies have made big claims about the transformation of storytelling as we know it but after a few fledgling efforts (technologically "cool" and artistically primitive) they basically went away or became the pet projects of subcultures. Remember hypertext and the create your own story fad?

The development of video games is a bigger question. There is a long and surprisingly heated debate on whether games count as stories (they do in some ways and don’t in others) which you can read all about here (Check out pdf entitled "Ludologists love stories, too). But listening to Frank, it sounded like many of these experimental modes were taking their cues more from video games than film or other narrative forms.

And it’s certainly possible that games will become the dominant cultural form of entertainment moving into the next century. Of course nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s great that places like the media lab are exploring these questions. Traditional narrative storytelling has lasted at least 5000 years and it may be here to stay. But it’s possible we are just at the very very beginning of something totally new.