We keep hearing about how everything from marketing, to news journalism, to advertising is going digital. At first glance, this might simply be taken to mean that we are replacing brick-and-mortar infrastructures with ones made of code, that they are merely leaving old media and moving things into cyberspace.
But something going digital can mean much more than that. The change we keep hearing about is more than just a synthetic change of clothes. Look at how the nature of news media changed after it went digital. Look at how music changed after it went digital. Marketing and advertising underwent something of an overhaul as the field took to the digital realm. In all these cases, in addition to the outward change of medium, a lot of the core values also changed. Music comes to us through digital media now, but it also comes in smaller doses — as individual tracks (as opposed to a whole disc full of songs). News now comes to us as short text updates and video clips that are often only a few minutes long (earlier these were long form reports and hour-long video shows). Going digital changed these venerable old-world domains in very fundamental ways.
How might the digital switch affect the act of storytelling? In a previous essay, I wrote about how the web might eventually become a vehicle for the mass distribution of short fiction — how it may finally free the short story from the clutches of the short story collection (much like how it freed the individual song from the clutches of the disc). But there is more to be considered here.
Here is the core difference between digital and analogue.
Analogue systems are small packages of causality. This means that they contain a set of components that are related to each other either chronologically or by way of a hierarchy. Analogue systems give you the whole picture containing all these components and then you have to decide which parts you want to focus your attention on. Think book. Think audio cassette. The various different content units in these media are united by a common theme or source or idea.
Digital systems are cropped versions of these packages. Instead of giving you access to the whole picture, they narrow things down and make you focus on only one thing. This helps avoid clutter and simplify matters by reducing cognitive choice, but it also does away with a lot of context. Think single short story (as opposed to a thematic collection). Think single MP3 file instead of a CD.
Here’s an example to illustrate the point I am making.
An analogue watch is the one with the dial. All the numbers from 1 to 12 arranged in a neat circle with hands for hours, minutes, and seconds to point to them in the appropriate manner and help you understand what time of day it is. A digital watch on the other hand, breaks the idea of time down into only the right now. You see a set of digits on the little screen and all these digits do is tell you what time it is now.
This, in essence, is the difference between the digital and the analogue. Analogue narratives give you context — a sense of where you came from and where you are going. They give you the whole picture and let you see where you are in relation to various other points. On a wrist watch, even though it is 3 pm, you can see that it was 1 pm some time ago and that you are on your way to 4 and 5 pm — the numbers are all on the dial, plainly visible at all times regardless of where the various hands are pointing. It may not seem like much but I think it matters on a cognitive level. In a similar fashion, digital media has narrowed the feel of the news narrative down to single units of information. The focus has shifted from the narrative to the event happening right now.
Instead of there being a large capsule of information like the newspaper where you had an entire sequence of pages containing various sections, sub-sections, and categories, your news now consists of tiny text updates floating about freely in the blogosphere, statusphere, and other assorted spheres. Video media also, in the analogue world, used to be part of a package — an entire channel that ran 24 hours a day and had content divided neatly into sections, shows, and prime time news hours. Now, it is disjointed and free from the constraints of such envelopes. With analogue media, you viewed a content unit as part of something larger — a newspaper, a 24-hour-channel, a book — but when this same content went digital, you started seeing these same units as things in and of themselves. What was lost was the sense of context and the sense of history.
The thing about digitising units of content is that it can’t be done infinitely. You can strip a newspaper down into sections and it will only become a smaller package. You can strip each section down into individual reports and each report, though devoid of the package, will still make sense upon reading. You can go even further and break the report down into even smaller parts and share those (quotes, a line of statistic etc.) and share those about as tweets and similar text updates. But such stripping down eventually hits a barrier. You can’t break things down beyond a point because you start sacrificing coherence of the narrative. A single sentence might be easier to consume and digest than a 500 word news report but there is really no comparing the respective value of the two. An hour-long video can be broken down into several smaller clips that may make sense by themselves. But again, it is coherence that is at stake. You can’t immerse yourself into the experience of a 2-minute-video of two people discussing a matter of national interest as well as you can with a prime time TV interaction.
Immersion is key to experiencing a story. If you have ever lost yourself in a book, you will know what I am talking about. You can’t read a story as a side activity. Well you can, but then you wouldn’t really be experiencing it. A book — a packaged super dose of concentrated fiction or non-fiction — helps this immersion process. For the duration of time that it takes to finish the book, you are completely inside it. There are no distractions, no advertising, no alternate means of entertainment, no email, and no friend requests. Experiencing a narrative is all about the willingness to put in time.
There is talk among futurists about the future of storytelling. They talk, among other things, of interactive narratives — where the reader or viewer may be able to set into the story and affect the course of events by his or her actions. They also speak of the reader or viewer’s ability to enter the story at any point in the middle and proceed from there to any other point in the narrative. Basically, this amounts to skipping the beginning-middle-end structure of a narrative and playing it as you might play a game. We are replacing the reader with the gamer. In the process, we might unsettle the structure of the story in a very fundamental way. I am not saying that’s a bad thing. It is obvious that the story as it exists in traditional media like books can’t perform according to the same old standards on the web.
But even as news reports evolve into something different from their analogue ancestors, becoming statistic-laden chunks of information (as opposed to being a narrative), I still think there is something to be said about the simple act of listening to a story from beginning to end. If the real time web has proven anything, it is that we look for distractions every five minutes. And it is not possible to have an engaging relationship with any kind of narrative without spending quality time with it. Interactivity for the sake of interactivity might end up killing the story as we know it.
The story is an independent unit. Take it out of the paper envelope called book or publish it on the web as plain text, it doesn’t matter. But as far as structure goes, the old model — beginning, middle, and end — seems like something that is integral to storytelling and therefore, worth preserving.