(Note: This is a re-write of a post from January, 2010. The re-write is a contribution to an upcoming seminar on “Quantum Physics and Storytelling’ at the University of Bath, which came to my attention via the Storyhood site belonging to PhD candidate, Mike de Kreek, whose work focuses on the relationship between neighborhoods and stories.)
I. Â Story
We create and share stories as a way of interpreting our experiences and making sense of the world. Stories turn chaos into cosmos. Our ‘story sense’ guides us through life. Stories are the basis of community. They energize our relationships. Shape our careers. Filter our music. Impact everything from our spiritual beliefs, to the schools we attend, to the products we patronize.
It is through stories that we assign meaning to objects and events.
DNA, for example, became meaningful on a global scale in 1953, in a story told by scientist-storytellers Watson and Crick in a brand-new, double-helixed protein-based language. Before 1953, scientists knew the DNA story existed, but they didn’t have the tools to see it, the language to describe it, or the storytellers to make it mean something to the masses.
The discovery of DNAâ€”as with any kind of breakthrough in human consciousnessâ€”poses an interesting â€˜tree falls in the woodsâ€™ question. Before we tell a story about something, does it have meaning?
Was DNA â€˜meaningfulâ€™ before 1953? Definitely. Had to be. Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid was doing its thing before we had the words to describe what the thing was. So if we werenâ€™t telling stories about DNA, how was its â€˜invisible meaningâ€™ expressed?
Here is my theory: Before it gets expressed as a story (and after, too) meaning resides in narratives.
A narrative is a flow of events connected to a theme.
A story is the conscious structuring of events to elicit meaning.
Before anybody ever put the letters DNA into a meaningful sequence, there was this theme, call it, â€˜What Are We Made Of?â€™â€”a theme as old as the first time a mother wondered what made her babies look different from one another.Â Any and all events connected to this theme comprise its narrative.
Before DNA came into being, its meaning was already present in the â€˜What Are We Made Of?â€™ narrative.
Before 1953 and the birth of the DNA story, this potent narrative produced such meaningful artifacts as Mendelâ€™s genetics experiments with pea plants, Shakespeareâ€™s Hamlet, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmingsâ€™ offspring, X-rays, ancient Egyptian seeds that had been placed in fermenting yeast to alter their growing traitsâ€”and the musings of every mother who ever wondered what made her babies look different from one another.
A narrative connected to a meaningful theme like â€˜What Are We Made Of?â€™ has transformative potential.
We need this distinction between story and narrative because thanks to the internet, we have the tools to experience and the language to express meaning as never before. Things that meant something before the internet donâ€™t mean as much now. And things that didnâ€™t exist two years ago mean a lot today. We live an an Age of Meaning, and narratives, as the ultimate source of meaning, are ultra-important to our understanding of the networked world.
How narratives live in networks will a huge factor in how we connect and engage with one another, how we make sense of, and transform, the world in the 21st century.
In addition to stories, narratives deliver meaning in all kinds of other mediaâ€”memes for example. Memes are not stories, but are important to how we connect with one another in networks. A hamster eating popcorn and a dancing baby are not stories. A rumor is not a story. A headline is not a story. A link isnâ€™t. A tweet isnâ€™t. A status isn’t. A sales transaction, in and of itself, isnâ€™t. Yet these forms and many others can, like stories, hold meaning and therefore they have value. We call stories and all the other meaningful media generated by narratives â€˜artifacts.â€™
Artifacts are memorable, shareable expressions of narratives.
The popular meme of a hamster eating popcorn is an expression of a narrative with a theme we could call â€˜Loveable Pets.â€™ We smile at a dancing baby because itâ€™s a quick glimpse of a narrative with the theme â€˜Precocious Children.â€™
All narratives contain enough meaning to generate a practically limitless quantity of artifacts. What hangs in the balance is the quality of the narrative. Does it inspire or repress? Is it productive or reductive?
Our ability to store and experience narratives in networks has opened a new era in the â€˜narrative sciencesâ€™â€“filmmaking, journalism, theater, business communication, publishing, branding, education, gaming, etc.â€”that mirrors what happened to the science of physics in the early part of the previous century.
â€˜Narratologistsâ€™ today are discovering, like Einsteinâ€™s community of physicist friends did, that stuff is connected in ways we had not previously had the ability to imagine. Networks abound with invisible and non-linear (the U.S. military calls them â€˜asymmetricalâ€™) relationships that have the potential to mushroom in a heartbeat into massive manifestations of energy with the power to create and destroy worlds. Â Conceptual worlds. Virtual worlds. Physical worlds.
The distinction between story and narrative is also important because in a networked environment, it is increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible, for any one individual, organization or agency to script, and control stories and other artifacts efficiently. That is how business used to get done. When the number of communication channels were finite, â€˜script-and-controlâ€™ models were optimal. This is no longer true. Your networkâ€™s appetite is bigger than what you can feed it purely in the form of scripted-and-controlled content.
Continual co-creation is essential.
V. Script-and-Control vs. Continual Co-Creation
With an infinite number of channels available to us, narratologists can put new, more flexible story strategies into play. In this environment, â€˜co-creationâ€™ models are optimal. Continual improvisation and collaboration are required. In the new narrative-focused models, the emphasis is not on authorship, but on participation. Communication is not a matter of control, but of liberation. Â Only a co-creation model can generate enough meaning to satisfy a robust networkâ€™s appetite.
A big reason Walt Disney decided to give up filmmaking to focus on his new theme park in Anaheim (coincidentally right around the time of Watson and Crickâ€™s DNA discovery in 1953) was that, unlike his films (“Snow White” had a jiggy couple of frames in it that bothered him the rest of his life), the theme park would, in Walt’s words, â€˜always be in a state of becoming.â€™ With the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney got into the co-creation business.Â Together, Disney and the guests at his theme park explored a narrative you could call â€˜The American Dream.â€™
Since its opening in 1953, Disneyland has hosted over 600 million visitors, and itâ€™s safe to say that most of those guests have generated artifacts in one form or another that depict ‘the American Dream.’ It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. It it’s a Small World after all.Â It’s an actorâ€™s life for Me!Â And a pirateâ€™s life! And a Bugâ€™s Life!
Over the past 56 years, the content Disneyland paid forâ€”in the form of photo shoots, television programming, cast performances, etc.â€”is Dwarfed by co-created content. Google lists â€˜about 58,000,000â€™ search results for â€˜Disneyland.â€™ How much of that do you think Disney paid to produce?
As Viola Spolin (coincidentally born in Chicago just like Walt Disney), said of improvisation, advice Disneyland and its guests have taken to heart, â€œAct on environment, and environment will act on you.â€
How much meaning can we liberate from a narrative in the form of stories and other artifacts? is a question we should ask ourselves, in one way or another, at the beginning of every working day.
V. Characteristics of Stories and Other Artifacts
They unfold in linear time, with a beginning, middle and end.
They are made for sharing.
They are repeatable.
They are authored.
They have texts.
They tend toward genres and formulas.
They are inhabited by a finite number of players.
They are iterative.
The provide context and structure.
They are mappable in conceptual, physical and/or virtual geography.
They are hierarchical. Characters and objects in them gravitate toward high or low status, events toward high or low importance.
They are â€˜causativeâ€™ in two ways:
1) Â Everything in a story happens because of something else;
2) They can cause predictable emotions and reactions.
In the sense that they are causative, artifacts are Newtonian.
VI. Characteristics of Narratives
They have no beginning, middle or end.
They have infinite beginnings, middles and ends.
They are not bound by time, space or geography.
What is observed of them changes depending on the observer.
They can occupy two or more places in space at the same time–they happen here at the same time theyâ€™re happening across the room or the planet.
They are generative.
Themes are the â€˜glueâ€™ that hold them together.
They resemble the playing of a game by a vast number of players (think of the artifacts generated by a popular MMORPG and you get the idea) more than they do the dynamic between author and audience.
A narrative is non-causative, that is, everything is related, but how and why things relate depends on the environment and the players.
They emphasize thematic consistency over literalness. Â There is no â€˜rightâ€™ or â€˜wrongâ€™ way to explore a narrative.
Narratives are quantum phenomena.
VII. Whatâ€™s the future of narrative?
In a complex communication environment, narrative, and the artifacts it generates, are the best way to resolve complexity, and in fact, this is what Gen Why? kids do extraordinarily well.Â Their sense of narrative is unprecedented, and their personal narratives are the stars they steer their ships by.
In an interesting post on filtering, Tim Kastelle and John Steen explain that there are five kinds of filtering: NaÃ¯ve, Expert, Network, Heuristic and Algorithmic, and, further group these five genres of filtering into two categories, Mechanical and Judgment-Based. Thatâ€™s How we filter. Narrative is What we filter. Most people give no more thought to how they filter than Grandma gives to the air filter in her car. What they think about and act on, the way Grandma steered her Cadillac to a particular destination, is narrative.
The science around all this is still in its infancy. You can see glimmers of it in transmedia, massive multiplayer games, distributed production models, theme parks, social media, alternate reality games, activist brands, smart badges, business in China, remixes and mashups, augmented reality, micro-loans and the video of your dance in the musical, Hair.
As to what the future of narrative is, itâ€™s a trick question, because there is no future to narrative.Â Narrative happens in the Now. It is the world as we experience it in this second. This heartbeat. This breath.
The Future and the Past belong to stories. The Now belongs to narratives.
Like Disneyland, narrative is always in a state of becoming.
VIII. Â Ze Zen
We are spider-like, connecting our webs and heeding their vibrations.
We are dowsers, feeling for the tug of an invisible stream.
Everything is a coincidence. This is not a coincidence.
When the story is ready, the storyteller will appear.