What happens when we stop telling stories?

When introducing the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs referred to it as a revolutionary product that would change everything. He was more right than he knew.

Before Jobs was even born, Harold Innis, the Canadian media and communication theorist, wrote about how the shift in our storytelling media causes disruptions in the power structures of society. Innis identified four temporal periods of civilizational impact: oral, scribal, print and electronic. The stories we told each other to pass on lessons changed drastically when they were written down by the religious institutions of the day, putting knowledge and power in the hands of those who could read and write. The balance of power that comes from having knowledge changed again when printed books replaced hand written scrolls, making knowledge more readily available, and again when mainstream broadcast media started to put the choices of what knowledge to provide in the hands of corporations with commercial interests.

And then came computers and the internet. To a computer all mediums are the same, all just digital information. A spoken story is the same as a written poem is the same as recorded music is the same as a filmed movie. All are just ones and zeros on a hard-disk. Kay and Goldberg, the progenitors of laptop computing in 1977, called the computer the first ‘metamedium’ because they recognised how computers would change how we handle digital media, just like Jobs did.

Once it was digital, all media could be databased. Stored, sorted, organised, filtered, and relationships established that might have never existed. The stories that we used to tell each other using books and films were replaced with tweets and TikTok videos. They went from being linear narratives told to maintain continuity to being out-of-context disconnected parts. They went from long and focused to quick and throw-away. And with digital media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and TikTok we see the power for controlling knowledge shifting to big tech companies.

The apps that display media in this way, as an infinite barrage of content we can’t possible keep up with, are designed to give our brains a dopamine hit and keep us coming back to give them more of our attention. It’s easy to think of ourselves as the consumers of media, but less comfortable to think of the platforms as the consumers of our attention. So, not only did digital media platforms shift power in the way Innis talked about, they also shifted their purpose away from providing knowledge to taking attention. And they didn’t tell us they were doing it.

With shorter attention spans and databased digital media we lose our ability to tell stories. Without stories we lose our knowledge of things past and we cannot tell our future.

Alex McDowell, the narrative designer and creative director, talks about worldbuilding as a design practice with a holistic and collaborative structure. It supports organic and fluid narratives that are embedded within and driven by the intricate world surrounding us. As the Production Designer on Spielberg’s Minority Report, McDowell began conceiving of the world in which the story would take place before the script was written. His imagined world allowed the story to evolve in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. Within the worlds we build we can explore societal, technological, economic and environmental changes.

We need stories. Stories let us build worlds. And worlds are containers for the narratives that allow us to connect and comprehend everything.