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January 10, 2009

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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?

P.S. It was this old essay by Chris Crawford that got me going, but the more I read it, the less it makes sense to me, so I decided to mostly skip. Credit where it’s due, though. Found it via 2mm.

Posted January 10, 2009 at 1:48 | Comments (21) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Media Galaxy


Wow, yeah that just tripped about 10 different already-simmering tangential trains of thought. Simmering.

it's plato and aristole all over again, except the pendulum now has power-assisted swinging :)

I like this eye- and ear-tasty formulation:

Faced with the search box, you have the entire web in a sort of quantum superposition; anything could happen.

But you know, the drill-down hierarchical box isn't exactly narrative. It's organic (in the sense of relating parts and wholes and functions to one another), it's encyclopedic, but it operates under a very different kind of logic.

I'm reminded of the surprise readers felt when they opened Diderot's Encyclopedia in the 1760s and saw that it didn't begin with God, but with the letter "A." That was, in its own way a rejection of narrative.

So were Petrus Ramus's and Francis Bacon's attacks on rhetoric, history, and scholasticism in favor of spatial maps and empirical science.

So, we could see the internet and search-oriented paradigms not as something that's brand new, but as a culmination of a looong history of anti-narrative thinking and reorganization of knowledge. Put another way -- there are lots of reasons why someone living in pre-Norman England wouldn't understand the internet. But it does make sense to us, in part because our brains and codes of perception have already been primed to make it legible.

Careful Robin. Did you see what Tim just did there? He constructed an argument in response to your post, but not just any argument: it was a narrative.

Ack! Caught!

Let it be known that no man is too slick for Dan.

All right, enough with the narratives, how's about a metaphor:

"Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus among various moments in history. But no state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It becomes historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. The historian who proceeds from this consdideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time."

-- Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History"

I can name a hefty list of great narratives that have even gone viral (the pool of money,'s The End of Wall Street, Atlantic's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", etc.).

But for every one narrative that has been populated across the web, you have 5,000 top 10 lists and link pools and such. I don't think that's a bad thing altogether, but I know that my own brain has trouble holding to a narrative longer than a 2-hour movie. My words are much more concise nowadays; I get angry when I'm tangled up in meetings that don't keep to a bullet-pointed agenda. Just cut the crap and tell me what I need to know.

Perfect example: I skimmed your post before I realized I wanted to say something. So I started typing up a response BEFORE I even read your post. This shift in my thinking and behaviors is summed up in one sentence: If I don't do it now, I will forget later.

Interesting navel-gazing. Do I have attention-deficit disorder or do we all?

I think I'm going to read the "Is Google Making Us Stupid" article once again.

Wait, what are we defining as "narrative"? People don't search on Google out of nowhere - they search as part of making their way toward a goal, and then they search again with refined keywords or click on a few links outward from the page they found. And then they send that link to a friend to reinforce something they said earlier, or they print it out to use as a recipe in their kitchen, or they bookmark it for a later project. That's a narrative process.

When I read parts of Don Quixote in a class last quarter, I was surprised by its seemingly-postmodern metafictional themes. Not what I expected from an old book. My professor explained that metafiction comes in and out of fashion, but it's always been around.

People are getting more used to handling multiple ideas at once, small bits of ideas and references instead of works, but that kind of thinking been around for a long time in smaller ways. I wouldn't say that narrative is changing so much as that it's faster now. Which is also vague, but that's OK.

I won't dispute that internet-based activities follow little cause-and-effect story-paths all the time, but I do think there's a very rich vein of random in there. I keep using the word "stumble," and the fact that StumbleUpon was such a success -- especially vs. other, more structured ways of exploring the web -- is actually pretty interesting.

I really like Tim's invocation of constellation. Such a great (+beautiful) image and metaphor -- in part (maybe this is obvious to everyone? It took me a while to get it) b/c a constellation implies some randomness!

They are pretty arbitrary, after all. There are a bunch of stars over in that part of the sky; this much we can agree on. But which patterns leap out? How do we organize the stars?

You can find patterns in a constellation, just as you can tell stories around, say, a sequence of my web-clicks. And it's not that the stories aren't true, necessarily... it's just that they feel less and less to me like the really essential, or interesting, or informative, thing.

Super-interested to hear all these references to non-narrative thinking from the past, though.

I was just thinking, too, of something like the I Ching -- & I'm sure there are plenty more systems like it that I don't know about. It's sort of an unordered, unpatterned "constellation" of (knowledge/wisdom/advice/etc.) that you navigate using a primitive web browser, e.g. bones and dice. Ha!

Isn’t narrative more for the writer than for the reader? The reordering of those sticky notes or connecting stars by drawing constellations in the sky is a demonstration of understanding that follows the messiness of learning.

Google allows us to view a larger patch of sky. As Britta says, it may point us to narrative, but we often jump to the specific bits that are relevant to our search. All of a sudden we don’t need to read an entire book or article to encounter the portion that is relevant to our understanding.

P.S. Joan Didion on arbitrary narrative, via Kasia: "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."

Shifting phantasmagoria! That sounds like an accurate description of the web, too.

Reminds me of this: "The screen mimics the sky, not the earth. It bombards the eye with light instead of waiting to repay the gift of vision…We look to it for clues and revelations more than wisdom." (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style) - which I keep arguing with inside my head. Also this tag:

How have I not weighed in on this yet? In part, I think, because there's a whole world that this post hints at of narrative theory out there. But let me give you a list, and you tell me whether it's narrative or not.

1. Let's not confuse "narrative," whatever that may be, with "extended narrative." A move toward short narrative is not, in itself, a move away from narrative. Twitter narratives exist.

2. Re: robertgreco, I would actually say that narrative is entirely the result of action by the reader. Narrative is an interpretive category to assist cognition, which is an artificial and not a natural process. Constellations, from a certain angle, are a great example of this. There is nothing inherent about a constellation. The associations between stars are entirely accidental, based on our particular viewpoint and cultural context. This does not mean that the associations are not meaningful.

2.a. Constellations are also great counterexample to "narrative" because constellations are not, in, and of themselves, narrative. There is such thing as non-narrative association, even if it difficult for us to put a perfect non-narrative association into practice. Orion is not a narrative. Orion the hunter being honored by Zeus with a constellation is narrative. A list is not a narrative. A list that communicates awareness of its composition or intended result is narrative. A list of the top ten albums of 2008 is a narrative.

3. What a lot of narrative theory deals with is not so much what narrative "is," but the ways in which readers are trained to recognize and impose "narrative." Thus, the web may be better read as a movement away from a particular historical mode of narrative than as a movement away from narrative itself. After all, as robertgreco observes, we always jump in an out of texts, even linear ones, and the an author's purpose is not always (and possibly not ever) what any particular reader walks away with.

3.a. I don't think that this is my observation, but I don't remember where it comes from: linearity is the difference between fiction and nonfiction. How many nonfiction books are really designed so that they can only be read start-to-end?

2.b. See: David Hume (1711-1776).

4. What the web really makes apparent is that reading, although sometimes moreso and sometimes less so, is always an active and never a passive process.

thanks. this is inspiring. (and thanks to Britta for the great "The screen mimics the sky"-quote in Comments.)

Robin, you always post the most interesting things while I'm mostly off the grid. (This time in Des Moines with friends.) Do you do this on purpose? Please stop. :)

Anyway, this is a hot mess of a post. Here's a constellation of random observations:

  • Google loves narratives. "Narrative" may not be the best description for a Google search result page, but narratives appear with kind of astonishing frequency among the top results for almost any query. Google may not be much of a storyteller (except when it is), but it's a heck of a storyfinder.

  • Narrative ≠ navigation. When you say "the way people use the Web," my internal interpreter compiles "the way people surf the Web." It's certainly accurate to say that I don't always approach my Web browser with a clear narrative framework in mind, but I do tend to use the Web primarily as a narrative discovery machine. When I look at the tabs open in my browser right now, I overwhelmingly see two things: 1) story-finding engines (e.g. Google Reader, Gmail, PopURLs, Twitter) and 2) stories delivered by story-finding engines (e.g. Mark Bittman's blog, the CPI report on broken government, Dave Winer's post on blog investigations). Stories aren't how I navigate the Web, but they're what I tend to find.

  • Intention vs. serendipity: I'm with Britta; I think "narrative" is a shifty word here. You juxtaposed Yahoo with Google to illustrate a shift from "narrative" to "stumbling." Faced with the search box, you have the entire web in a sort of quantum superposition; anything could happen. In that example, Yahoo seems to represent order and Google represents the potential for chaos. Yahoo = intention; Google = serendipity.

  • Tell me if I'm misreading that, because I'd challenge that framing. I'd say Google succeeded by being much better at the intention game than Yahoo (or anyone else). Google's selling point was exactly the opposite of "anything could happen." Google's spartan search box was a boast: Just type a word here and we will give you exactly what you seek. If you really wanted chaos, you'd have stuck with Infoseek.

    What if you could arrive at useful conclusions without knowing how you got there? Doesn't this actually happen a lot already?

    As Britta pointed out, isn't Google Search most often a counter-example for this? Isn't the primary value of Google that it tends to deliver exactly the information you expect to receive? Whatever happens after I search Google rarely seems to resemble stumbling. On the contrary, it's most often deeply intention-driven. I can review months of my Google queries from my toolbar, and the vast majority of them were typed with perfectly clear expectations for what information would result.

    But it's difficult to generalize from that. Turn to another of Google's subdomains, Google Reader, and it's the opposite case. My use of Google Reader is serendipity-driven, not intention-driven.

  • Narratives and reality. I think you're too quick to dismiss the argument that narrative formats help us make sense of the world. You provide a few solid examples of topics where I found my understanding of the topic didn't really arise until someone bundled several loose threads into a compelling narrative. Yet I agree that narratives certainly don't map to reality. They simplify it, amplify it, clarify it, distort it, extend it, challenge it.

  • Where I think a truer picture of reality emerges is in the links, the spaces where narratives intersect. Click on one, and it might present a snapshot of reality augmented/undermined/refracted by another, which itself is augmented, undermined and refracted until you're seeing in three dimensions.

  • Last thought. When I think about the interplay between narrative and navigation, I think about that notion that search is a folksonomy; that when we search and arrive at a page, our query tells someone something about that page. I think about PageRank, and the way Google infers a link's value from its place in the conversation. The way stories get remixed into a million forms -- news articles, blog posts, Twitter streams, graphs on indexed -- iterating into a sort of ethereal info-cloud. Somehow, what it all reminds me of more than anything is the oral tradition.

  • The post-monster has eaten some of my comments 'till now, but forget it, I'll jump in at the end anyways.

    re: Matt's Google as a narrative-finding machine -- maybe a good analogy is to television. There's nothing more anti-narrative (as we've understood narrative) than flipping through channels. But the reason why you flip is because you're looking for something good to watch. It doesn't make sense to say that television is "anti-narrative." But it's certainly true that part of the behavior associated with TV is disorienting if you try to make sense of it as narrative.

    Arguably, Google searches and following links through from site to site is way more structured (I won't say narrative) than the disassociative, schizophrenic act of flipping through channels on a television.

    What we're finding are way more ways to bring order to our information, from hierarchies to keywords to tag clouds to databases where we store our media, contacts, friends.

    Last: People like structure. Narrative is a kind of structure. Narrative and structure are not coterminous.

    Matt, your mention of Google Reader is right on, and I should have made a bigger deal of feeds and the kind of crazy juxtaposition they breed.

    I'm definitely not setting Google up as the serendipity engine. And I disagree that Google loves narrative. I think it has no concept of narrative. It doesn't use it as a tool to help you find stuff in any way whatsoever.

    I mean, to me the crazy thing about Google is that it's one step. The biggest website in the world, by orders of magnitude, has one page. Can you really have a story in one step? Google is instict and satisfaction. Any narratives are strictly mapped onto it after the fact.

    And the way we've all been talking about doing just that plays perfectly into my hands, mwa ha ha. Because you see, of course you can map a narrative onto anything. Draw random strokes on a piece of paper and you can find a pattern, tell a story. But that's just a parlor trick for brains.

    What's important in this context is whether you started with a narrative -- either in your head (e.g. a web user) or someone else's (e.g. a web designer). And I'll still argue that in both of those mental spaces, stories are on the decline. They're being replaced by some other mode of thinking that we don't fully understand yet.

    Also, good call w/ the channel-flipping analogy, Tim. It does establish a sort of baseline for anti-narrative. The only thing more anti-narrative would be, like, flipping between channels that were all static.

    Which I think I saw once at MOMA.

    From my software worker point of view, a search engine can be very much about narrative (or something that can be mapped onto narrative!): many teams develop their products using tools like "user stories", and product managers are always trying to discern what behavior would help their product aid (or modify) the intent of the user. There's a lot of talk about the second part if you search for [google user intent] - and this is not only about the intent of the query at that moment, but how that kind of query fits into a pattern of gathering information and deciding to buy something, for example.

    Also, something else: a discussion of the "Center for Future Storytelling" at MIT, noting some skepticism:

    Yeah, agree, that MIT center could be cool. This assessment from the blog post is nice:

    rather, i think narrative studies are entirely under-represented in media & cultural research, and if our unique technological moment is indeed as seismic as has been suggested, then the inflection we stand upon needs thorough, and engaged interaction.

    Narrative isn't going anywhere—it's the reason we are who we think we are. Narrative is the story we tell ourselves, the connections we create from moment to moment. Narrative is our consciousness.

    Sure as attention fragments we have to keep track of many independent narratives simultaneously. Look how complicated movie and television plots have become. But we still crave a story, and that's not stopping as long as we're human.

    On the flip side, we imagine narratives where there are none, and this creates all kinds of problems (conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, etc). The internet provides the ability to tap into many stories all at once.

    Science is the constant improvement of the stories that explain the world.

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