If we believe the press, which impending obsolescence has converted into a bunch of nostalgic cultural critics bemoaning the way things are, then storytelling is in a bad way.
The long-form narrative is out, the 140-character Tweet is in.
Permit me to download — in small, snack-sized chunks — a few examples from recent columns.
Ben Macintyre of London’s The Times, in “The Internet is Killing Storytelling”: “The Internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing.”
The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, in “The Vestigial Tale”: “Narrative these days competes against incrementalized information — data, chatter, noise.”
The Atlantic’s Nicholas Carr, in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Of course, I risk misrepresenting these fine writers by only excerpting parts of their pieces, but if what they say is true, our fried attention spans wouldn’t be able to handle much more (at least before checking our emails).
We need to step back. Is the Internet really rewiring our brains, to the point where we can’t read like we used to?
It’s a serious charge, certainly worth considering (more by neuroscientists than opinion columnists, I would think), but we should, before addressing it, also ask, when will the media let up on the Internet?
It seems the Internet is on a killing spree. Not only stories, but movies, music, print media and social interaction are all said to have been sacrificed, or at least wounded, by the Internet. It has become the scapegoat on which we comfortably place blame for every pop-cultural woe.
Lately, that woe has been the so-called death of the long-form narrative, perhaps the most serious charge of them all.
By narrative, I mean story — the very bedrock of culture. Students of USC’s venerable School of Cinematic Arts Professor Drew Casper might recall his frequent pontification on the importance of story to our spiritual well-being. Of course, he’s right.
“Life is all inclusion and confusion,” Casper said. “Story is discrimination and selection.”
Certain prophets in the media, however, believe we’re slowly losing our capacity to formulate stories. It’s the sound-bite syndrome. Give it to me in a sentence or less, or don’t give it to me at all.
Don’t buy it. Story-loving, as Achenbach puts it in “The Vestigial Tale,” is biology. Stories are the schemata into which we pour our experiences; in other words, we need them to make sense of the world. Culture would collapse if it weren’t built on some common foundation of storytelling.
Granted, the Internet is completely revamping the way things are, and as with every colossal step forward, there are steps back, repeatedly emphasized by a community of naysayers. The rest of us, far less vocal, see the Internet (quite correctly) as progress, opening up a world of possibilities.
History provides us with countless examples of people wondering whether the next big thing — the printing press or the radio — will irrevocably pervert human thought and ruin us all. Maybe some things have, maybe they haven’t, but we’re still here.
And we’re still reading.
The Internet isn’t narrative-killing. If anything, the Internet facilitates storytelling. In between Facebook updates, we might stumble upon a story of feral child in Plant City, or be alerted to the kidnapping and eventual rescue of a little girl in our neighborhood. These are stories with beginnings, middles and ends. We respond to them as we always have: with complete attention and deep emotion.
There is no substitute for the narrative. Twitter won’t replace it, and neither will Facebook nor the simplification of news into bite-sized tidbits. We instinctively know what makes a story, why some work and some don’t, and when we find a good one (whether it’s Harry Potter or a fine piece of journalism), we gobble it up whole. Because we crave them.
And that part of us cannot be tampered with.
Jason Kehe is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Small Wonder,” runs every other Wednesday.