If you follow my other feeds (Twitter, robinsloan.com), you’re going to be sooo sick of this by now—but most of you don’t, so let me point you to some fun Friday reading: a very short story inspired by a pair of pants.
Not to be grandiose (I mean, it is a very short story), but there’s actually a larger idea at work here.
The meta-inspiration was an idea that Geoff at BLDGBLOG threw out a while ago. It went something like this: How about fiction commissioned specifically for a new building? Imagine it: There’s a swank new apartment tower going up, and the developers pay a writer to compose a book of short stories about it. (It would be great arbitrage: a fortune in writer-terms is a pittance in developer-terms.) When you move in, there’s a crisp, limited-edition copy of that book waiting on your polished-concrete kitchen counter. The action is all set in and around the building: characters move in and out of spaces you recognize. They walk down your street, shop at your grocery store. They have the same view out their window that you do!
Why do I like this? Well, one of the things writers need desperately, I think—especially writers of short fiction—is new venues, new contexts. General-interest magazines used to provide one (I guess?); the internet sort of provides one now, but honestly, a short story on the internet can be pretty random. The most vital venue for short fiction today is probably, uh, school. Which is fine if you’re in the 7th grade, but what about the rest of us? How do you ground a story and—here’s the crux of it—give people a reason to read? (And, optionally, how do you support the creation of new fiction? Where does the money come from?)
So, as one of many possible solutions, I really love this idea of hooking a story to something in the real world, whether it’s a new building or (in this case) a pair of pants. Imagine that you took this a step further, and the story actually came with the pants. You open the trademark blue-paisley Bonobos box that just arrived in the mail and there, folded neatly atop your new khakis: a short story to get you started, to fire up your imagination.
What if every product shipped with a story?
Imagine analogues in other media: an album composed with a new car in mind, and when you buy the car, the album is loaded into the stereo, waiting for you. (It’s fine-tuned for the car’s acoustics, natch!) Or a movie set in that swank new apartment tower—filmed after construction is complete but before people move in.
It’s fanciful, but I think it connects to the idea of a data shadow—the idea that every physical object has tons of metadata attached to it, cascading away from it—and expands it. That “metadata” can be more than, like,
a stream of usage information. It can be narrative; it can, in fact, be fanciful. Call it a story shadow.
It happens naturally, of course. Think of New York City’s story shadow! It’s huge! It’s like, a fifth of all movies ever made! Most cities already have story shadows; some buildings do; relatively few products do. So really what we’re talking about is priming the pump: producing a starter story-shadow on the front-end. And I think done right—again, this is the whole point—it could give people new reasons to read new fiction.
Probably the best example of story-shadow engineering today is the super-awesome Significant Objects. I feel like you ought to be able to take what they’re doing and move it up the food chain—imagine a future for new objects, as well as a past for old ones.
Does this even make any sense? It’s one of, like, the top ten things I’m interested in these days—but I’m not sure I’ve figured out quite how to articulate it yet.
P.S. Ha ha, now here’s a reason to read. Dave Eisenberg from Bonobos chimes in and offers a discount to short-story readers!