Wednesday, January 4, 2012

#52 -- Digital Narratives For Humans

"In this case, organizing our media and newness has become a meta-game -- syncing playlists, charging devices, organizing and filtering newsfeeds. It's not part of what we would consider 'entertainment' or 'media,' but you cannot argue that it's a part of it. . . Our brains are playing extra games to compress all of this data."

Imagine a hay wagon on a dirt road alongside some train tracks. Now imagine a Japanese bullet-train speeds by.

They were right next to each other for half a moment. Not anymore though. The hay wagon's driver caught a glimpse of somebody on the train but he doesn't think much about it, he can barely tell them apart by now, all these trains come by here all the time, another is already cresting the horizon, in fact. Maybe the next one will be different, or important -- maybe he'll even be able notice. Nevertheless, these passing trains are sleek and beautiful and they at least break up the monotony of rolling down this dirt road.

Why can't we process every event that speeds by? Are they too fast or are we too slow? What story are we afraid of missing? How do we keep a narrative moving at the speed of human cognition?

Compensating to a storytelling format, bending its restrictions and disadvantages until they become net-positives, is an admirable ability, one that we don't give enough credit. It's a complex mixture compounded from understanding an audience, tempering their expectations, maintaining interest inside the narrative -- and outside the narrative if it's TV show on the air week by week in a universe where Internet message boards and Twitter exist -- all while remaining consistent and insistent that the story is worth it. There are plots in serialized TV shows that don't have a planned ending.

Stephen King would applaud that because he's a writer that enjoys scaring himself by what comes out of his own brain as he writes, be it robotic wolves dressed like Doctor Doom or a shapeshifter that can change between looking like a clown and a gargantuan sewer-scurrying spider. He was (is) a writer in it for the self-discovery. Imagine his surprise when he was putting the finishing touches on Wolves of the Calla and realized it was the weirdest version of the Seven Samurai story since A Bug's Life.

Christopher Nolan would not applaud that because he likes stories that are wound like Swiss watches, containing reflective, driving purpose in beginning, middle and end. If you asked him what his favorite book is, he would probably say that mankind has not yet written it yet. If you asked him again, he'd throw out the title From Russia With Love, and tell you to get the fuck out of his face in the most reserved, British way imaginable.

With free time, imagination, and maturation, it took us years to comprehend the layered meanings in an expansive chapter book, so many characters that we can't see visually, but feel vividly speeding and strutting around inside our heads, and now that the speed of personal imagination has become outdated, where the hell are we supposed to find correct pacing in our modern, digital, faster-than-brains society? How can we keep these things from just speeding by? How do we keep ourselves from missing it?

There are news stories that are better-paced serials than than a lot of TV shows, and they're easier and cheaper to produce, sickeningly. A person needs to understand how an audience takes in what's being put to paper or to stage or to screen or to controller because no story exists in a vacuum because they are written by people with lives and perspectives, and tastes in music, and bus routes home from work that repeatedly break down. We suppose this means that we subscribe to a modernist deconstruction theory on deriving meaning in stories. This means the playwright and the news-station producer have not only plans for the product being plonked up there for the masses to observe, but they also have their own personal motivations worming their way into the story, sometimes involuntarily, sometimes violently. Then again, one of them is meant to be entertaining, the other isn't. Not all written, dramatic stories actually mean anything and then that means the storyteller is either being pompous, or is in denial, or is being spiteful of their medium and ought to tread carefully in that post-modern swamp or they'll soon realize they've gotten their heads little too far up their collective ass.

We are striding right past a notable fulcrum, ironically or not, and we can now absorb media content faster than we care to acknowledge. We have smartphones and iPads and 4G LTE and DirecTV and NetFlix Instant. It's division. Finding focus is becoming less voluntary when shiny objects and limitless content are involved.

Not saying that NetFlix Instant isn't a gold-dipped God-gift, but when we're this spoiled for choice, where should we start?

We find it harder than ever to give time and to acknowledge that it can become an overwhelming sensation. We often don't have time to acknowledge it -- there's something new to do. There's something new to see or to hear or to contemplate, except if you move to Vermont and drive a snowplow for a living. These things might not be better, it might not even be good, but it is new. New makes money. New sustains art. New is regenerative, it's new skin and fresh coffee, and it needs to happen. New keeps us from dying a little bit every day.

The Speed of New has accelerated past the point where humans can safely comprehend it all. We cannot even spot all the new bits in the New as it blurs past us. New outruns Purpose. Anybody that's read a cyberpunk novel will tell you that if there is no memory of something, then it has lost meaning, and it has lost purpose. Information and media delivery has continued to speed up beyond -- we aren't biologically wired to move this quickly. It'll be hard to craft human memories from the hours and days that are filled with so much information fed into us at inhuman speed.

So is any of it worth it then? It must be. If we remember it, it is. Perhaps, amidst the overflow, if something can cling, then it must be powerful.

Again, it's the matter of choice and focus. Drawing human attention has become such a measured and calculated chemical exercise that we have become so familiar with that we've become less aware of its presence and more aware of its absence, like an amicable addiction. Fast has accelerated past Need. There's so much New that we need to find ways to cram it all in. This has created a meta-game. A meta-game is when formerly-rote organization within an activity becomes a chess-match in and unto itself. Calling time-outs and icing a kicker in a football game is a meta-game, for example -- it isn't technically part of the football "game," but it's another peripheral operation that's relevant while being seemingly-unrelated. In this case, organizing our media and newness has become a meta-game -- syncing playlists, charging devices, organizing and filtering newsfeeds. It's not part of what we would consider "entertainment" or "media," but you cannot argue that it's a part of it.

Our brains are playing extra games to compress all of this data. Who is the winner here?

In short, we suppose that our media intake is inconsistently-paced. We could miss the memory and we could lose the powerful. It's becoming dangerous and it's becoming scary the further you step away, realizing this thing is an impressionist work of art coming into disturbing focus.

Now is a time where the truth is more more omnipresent and untrustworthy than ever. A story moves faster than we can even process when it hits the Web and before it can become idolized myth, before it can become more than a shapeless mass, before it can become powerful, it becomes punctured and punctuated -- deflated and finite. A 24-hour news cycle is more curse than blessing, a network that shows only news is a business model that has overextended its grasp, violating moral truths in favor of erecting a sustainable financial construct. The private newsfeeds, let's take Reddit as an example, is even faster. A hulking biomass that eats human-interest pieces and shits nihilism, it is the vocal minority swaying in a liquid inertia. As entertainment, it's the Marxist dream realized, and it beautiful. Unbound by a desire and a necessity to make money, Reddit moves too quickly for its own good, letting a myth live for a week or so before being declared "Old."

Old < New, for obvious reasons. Old is done and gone. How forward thinking. Time is relative and websites like Reddit move out of sync with the human day-night-cycle. Reddit is the seed of a good thing and a scary thing. It's simultaneously juvenile and well-minded, like a young adventurer looking for trouble in all the wrong places. It's fascinated with New -- they even have guys to promote New content -- but how can we correctly learn from the past when New is the most important thing? How can we harness that ambition to serve humanity, an entity that moves so much slower than Newness?

Imagine cultural watershed moments like 9/11 in a 24-hour news cycle era. There's no argument that 9/11 invented the 24-hour news cycle, CNN was just a bunch of basic cable nerds with a solution in search of a problem before the attacks. Imagine the terabytes of high-definition cameraphone footage that would've hit -- its weight would have cracked YouTube in half.

Imagine a culture-altering person like Rosa Parks in a 24-hour news cycle era. How quickly would her actions' validity been questioned? How many hours before she was booked on talk shows, how many hours before the psychiatrist on retainer debunked her as a fraud, how many hours before her living face, flattened up on half a billion newsfeeds, became an icon associated with lazy whiners? Or even worse, there would be a few hundred cases just like Rosa Parks, and the Birmingham Bus Line would release a blanket statement about how they're addressing the issue. Or not.

It's unlikely that networks, be it Fox News or MSNBC, spin every single one of these things on purpose. A lot of it is a mixture of habit, Stockholm Syndrome, self-obsession, and hedgehoging -- curl into a ball, project your spines outward, and don't even let anybody close.

There are a great deal of people that command attention, and right fully so -- and then there are noisemakers that make a racket in the interim. They are equivalent to pouty, spherical children that if they didn't have their lunch made exactly as they specified, they'd have violent, verbal diarrhea, shouting at anybody with the politeness to not tell them to shut their shaking cruller-holes. These are people that are dissolving their right to speak -- their personae are soluble.

These are digital narratives for analog humans. A digital narrative has no speed limit. Analog humans will always be analog. If we cease to be analog, then we are no longer human.

Recommended related reading:

-- Alex Crumb
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF

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