January 10, 2009
Stumbling Away from the Story
I’m just gonna throw this one out there and let it simmer a bit over the weekend: What if narrative thinking is on its way out?
Here’s a starting point: Google is the anti-narrative king of the web.
Classic Yahoo! was narrative; it was all paths and branches and journeys. Google was, and is, a story that happens all at once. Faced with the search box, you have the entire web in a sort of quantum superposition; anything could happen. Then you search and, wham, one thing really does. But you don’t really know how, or why.
In general, we’re finding that the way people use the web is less narrative and more random than we ever expected. It’s probabilistic. The table of contents — the navigation bar — gets smaller. The search box gets bigger.
On the web, we don’t understand, consider, and act; we stumble.
Think next of WIRED’s “the end of theory” and of Wolfram’s a new kind of science. Both propose a new, more probabilistic way of doing science — and yes, I know, both are almost entirely rejected by mainstream science at this point. But even so, they give our assumptions a healthy twist. What if you could arrive at useful conclusions without knowing how you got there? Doesn’t this actually happen a lot already?
Think, finally, of news. Think of the kind of story we’re confronted with these days: 9/11, Enron, Iraq, the money meltdown, Mumbai. Sure, you can build a really revelatory narrative around something like 9/11; you can almost make it seem inevitable in retrospect. You can tell a story about a giant pool of money.
But how closely do those narratives map to reality? Sometimes I think events today more closely resemble a giant wall of sticky notes. Draw lines, make clusters, add more facts as you find them; do your best to hold it all in your head. But it doesn’t all add up. There are contradictions. But hey, that’s the world — and maybe we need better tools to understand it that way.
We argue: Stories are those tools. It’s stories that allows us to understand these things at all: “Once upon a time, this happened, then that happened.” Our brains are wired for narrative.
But I don’t buy it. Our brains are constantly changing, and I think the internet is a bellwether: We are not using the web in a narrative way. We’re using it in some weird, new way that we don’t have good words for yet. It’s all juxtaposition and feeds and filters, searching and stumbling and sharing. And importantly, it’s starting to make sense. It’s not gut-churning chaos out here, unmoored from the safe haven of story. It’s actually getting kinda comfortable.
So does that new way of thinking start to infect everything else? It’s not just a superficial perspective, but almost a new operating system entirely; I think it’s going to go really deep.
How do things change? The internet’s leading the way. New media follows close behind — video games, new forms of music, movies, theater. What about journalism? Science? Medicine? Law? Relationships?
I’m pretty obsessed with this idea lately, so expect to hear more about it. I’m curious to know what it cross-connects to in your brain; not like, “please comment directly on the thesis of this post” (though I am sure there are some sharp debunkings waiting for me), but rather, what does this make you think about? What’s related?