Let's Get This Straight: Story time

Can narrative save us from information overload?

Published September 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Everybody knows this is the "information age." We're awash in data. And every second of the day, engineers all over the world are working on faster, smarter tools -- intelligent agents and database visualizations, number crunchers and personal profilers -- to try to help us make sense of the data glut.

Automation and organization are fine things. But they alone won't save us from drowning in the flood of information. The better our computers get at sorting and filtering and storing all the information that's raining down on us, the faster other computers will get at pumping yet more data into our groaning mental in boxes.

What's missing from this picture? A small but growing movement among the more humanist-oriented digital-culture devotees suggests one answer. The missing ingredient, they argue, is narrative -- the crucial catalyst that can transmute a pile of raw information into valuable knowledge crystallized within a memorable story.

This movement goes by the awkward name of "digital storytelling," which provides only a rough sense of what it's really about: using the most modern tools -- like digital video and the Web -- for telling and distributing stories, to revive and preserve the ancient art of personal storytelling.

"Personal" is a key word here. As the explosion of personal Web sites over the last four years demonstrates, there's no shortage of human beings on the planet with stories to tell and the desire to express them. Some of these tales win a wide audience; others might be meaningful only to a handful of relatives or friends. But in all cases, the people creating the pages aren't viewing their work as "information," any more than they would think of referring to their shoe boxes of family snapshots as "data." They're simply taking advantage of a technological opportunity to tell their own tales.

Every year the Digital Storytelling Festival in Crested Butte, Colo., which recently concluded its fourth event, serves as a gathering place for artists, technologists and educators who believe that narrative is even more important in the digital age than it was in the print era or the age of the oral tradition. The festival is a rare bird in a world full of bland, sales-pitch-driven industry conferences; intimate and artistically diverse, it's both a showcase for new works of art and a think tank for thrashing out complex questions -- like who owns stories, who gets to tell them, why some stories work and others don't and what happens to a broadcast-dominated society when suddenly everyone is at least potentially a producer and distributor of media.

I've attended this festival each year since its inception, writing commentaries for its Web site and enjoying the camaraderie of its dedicated and thoughtful attendees. Though the festival remains a small event -- maybe 150 people attended this year -- it has snagged sponsorships from both Apple and Intel; persuading such computer-industry rivals that there's something valuable going on here is one sign of festival founder Dana Atchley's success in bootstrapping a phenomenon. This year's festival featured presentations by Web storyteller Maggie Donea, girl-game pioneer Brenda Laurel, hypertext publisher Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, interactive designer Alex Mayhew (the artist behind the forthcoming CD-ROM "The Ceremony of Innocence," an adaptation of the "Griffin and Sabine" trilogy) and many others -- along with an evening of live theater, a performance of Atchley's autobiographical "Next Exit" and a showing of the new documentary "Home Page."

Two big questions face the folks who are trying to make "digital storytelling" more of a household concept. One is how to get the technology industry to design software that makes storytelling easier for non-geeks. Today, software engineers focus primarily on making tools for organizing information in hierarchies and databases designed for archiving rather than for narrative. There are exceptions -- and festival curator Harry Marks showed off a few -- but the industry still has a long way to go.

The other, more complex question is how to handle an incipient wave of interest from the corporate world -- which is beginning to see narrative and storytelling as additional powerful tools in the marketing arsenal. In a business environment where "branding" has become a mantra of power, many companies are beginning to think of advertising as an opportunity to tell their corporate story to the world. And marketers are looking for ways to capture stories from customers about how they feel about a company's products and services. Storytelling isn't just for kids any more -- it's for CEOs, too.

There's nothing innately wrong with this. Companies have a right to tell stories, too. The danger is that an onslaught of grass-roots-style personal storytelling adapted for the corporate arena -- "Here's my tale of why I love my new VW bug/iMac/Nike sneakers!" -- will swamp and perhaps contaminate the sense of honesty and authenticity that makes personal storytelling valuable in the first place.

Such a development is inevitable, according to one school of thought -- articulated by management guru Tom Peters in a Fast Company magazine article last year, "The Brand Called You." Peters sees us all as "free agents in an economy of free agents" becoming custodians of our very own "personal brands." Aside from sounding exhausting, this vision represents the apotheosis of the ideology of marketing: It transfers promotional thinking from the company level to the personal level, forcing the most private relationships and transactions into a template shaped by the business world.

This course is seductive in some ways, and it may provide material advantage to those most able to exploit it. But it's not the only road. What keeps me returning to the Digital Storytelling Festival each year are the alternative possibilities it continues to map. Storytelling predates brand-building. Stories arise primarily from families and communities and nations, far more than from jobs and companies. We're lucky to live in a historical moment at which technology makes it easier to tell and share our stories without interference from middlemen of various stripes. Why think of ourselves as brands when we can be bards?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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