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Some of the Difficulties Facing Storytellers in a Time of Rapid Change
Jon Perry   Jan 22, 2014   Decline of Scarcity  

Times are changing fast, and new technologies appear in our lives with increasing regularity. Such an environment poses numerous challenges for storytellers. If you want to set your story in the present, you are in a particularly difficult position because the present is very much a moving target. Films and novels can take a rather long time to complete—four years and even longer is not unusual. With times changing so quickly, if you plan incorrectly, by the time your piece is done it may already show signs of being obsolete

(The following article is based on episode 9 of the Review the Future podcast, available via iTunes or your favorite feedreader.)

New technologies have a tendency to undermine old sources of drama. How many stories of the relatively recent past would make no sense in today’s world of ubiquitous cell phones, internet access, and GPS positioning? Many stories used to rely on characters being lost or separated from each other by time and space. It is a fun game to watch old movies from the pre-cellphone era and point out all the situations where a problem could have been easily solved with a simple cellphone call. In order to engineer this same sort of drama today, modern writers often have to employ excuses such as “the battery is dead” or the action is taking place “in a dead zone.”

For a recent example of this, one need look no further than Breaking Bad, in which the writers justify the plausibility of their train robbery sequence by first having a character explain that the robbery will be taking place in a specific part of the desert where cell phone service does not reach. This type of narrative contortion is minuscule when compared to the problems such crime stories will face in the future. I fully believe that five to ten years from now, due to the continued spread of surveillance technologies, the entire storyline of Breaking Bad will seem quaint and historical. And future writers of contemporary crime dramas will find that they have to work a lot harder to create similarly dramatic situations that audiences will accept.

​A lot of our daily lives now is spent staring at screens and looking at interfaces. Unfortunately interfaces go out of date rapidly, and showing too much of an interface is one of the surest ways to date your story. Movies have slowly learned this. Remember in the nineties when movies didn’t even photograph real interfaces? They would often show a simplified and cartoonish screen layout with awkwardly big typeface that said things like “hacking system…” and “error detected!”. Eventually movies got wise and started photographing real interfaces, but this option poses its own problems since OS updates come fast and frequent. The current trend (and best solution) seems to be to avoid showing interfaces completely. The new British show show Sherlock chooses to reveal the content of text messages by simply projecting a subtitle at the bottom of the screen.

So how does a storyteller combat the problem of staying relevant in a time of rapid change? There are three often-used solutions:

(1) Set your story in a specific time period in the past. Traditionally this would mean writing a historical period piece about some real event or person—such as the Kennedy assassination or Julius Caesar. But there’s no reason you can’t just set your story in 1998 simply because that happens to be the appropriate level of technology for your completely original work of fiction. By committing to a time period and making that choice clear to your audience, you are completely dodging the issue of rapid change. William Gibson took this idea to its logical extreme with several recent books. His critically acclaimed novel Pattern Recognition was set very specifically in 2002 and yet was published in 2003.

(2) Set your story “outside of time” in a fantasy or anachronistic environment where normal rules don’t apply. Typical swords and sorcery fantasy stories fall into this category as do Wes Anderson movies, which have a tendency to pick and choose their technologies for seemingly aesthetic reasons, thereby leaving the exact time period of the movie unclear. The key is to let your audience know that the story is operating outside of the scope of normal technological reality.

(3) Try to tell an actually speculative science fiction story set in the near future. This is not for the faint of heart. If you think you have a reasonable grapple on current trends, you can attempt to “over shoot” the mark. Although your story may eventually appear obsolete once time catches up to it, by setting your story some amount in the future you are at least buying yourself some number of years during which no one can definitively say your movie is “dated” or “not believable.”

Given the increasing pace of change we might expect to see an accompanying increase in the use of all three of the above methods. And indeed, subjectively I already feel like I am seeing more period, fantasy, and sci fi stories then I used to. These are natural and rational responses to a present moment that is increasingly hard to pin down.

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COMMENTS

Nice. I think there may be lessons here also with regard to Doug Rushkoff’s “Present Shock” worries. Or rather: it seems to me to be addressing a far more serious issue than Present Shock.

In other words, the problem is not (as Rushkoff seems to be saying) that there is too much going on in the present for us to be able to look ahead. As I said in response to Doug’s article, one really just has to go on an information diet, and practise mindfulness. The
problem is rather that the future seems ever more unpredictable, even on quite short timescales. And perhaps Perry’s suggestions for storytellers also apply to futurism more generally?

Let’s see.

Option 1 seems on the face of it to be basically giving up from a futurist perspective. However, accurately describing the near past can be extremely valuable as preparation for the future. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call this futurism, but it is certainly important to futurism.

Similar comments would also seem to apply to option 2. Constructing a fantasy outside time is not exactly futurism either, but it can certainly help us to understand the future. Increasingly, the issue is not how to predict the future, but to imagine different future-oriented scenarios. Elements of the future may turn out to resemble some of the “timeless” scenarios we have imagined, and this will help us to seize opportunities and manage risks for which we would otherwise be ill-prepared.

Option 3 most closely resembles futurism, of course, and the same remarks apply to analysis and prediction as much as they do to story-telling: courage is required, perhaps we need to focus on relatively short timescales, and while you will almost certainly be wrong, you might be lucky and get some things right.

At any rate it’s better than succumbing to Present Shock and walking into the future completely blindfold.

Ah, Peter, I really wish you would refrain from commenting on Present Shock before you read it,  Rushkoff’s argument is very nuanced and he described the problems above extensively with his idea of narrative collapse.

William Gibson’s response to these pressures from innovation on Science fiction has done something very interesting- in his Blue Ant Trilogy he relocated sci-fy in the RECENT PAST.
Bruce Sterling has tried to avoid just throwing gadgets at people but to think through all their uses, interactions and implications.
In addition, Design Fiction often tries to look only a few years ahead rather than decades which too often leads science-fiction authors into the realm of the ridiculous. And besides, most of any writing about the future is commentary on the present or meditation on the human condition and if authors get that commentary and meditation right we can forgive them for screwing up the gadgets.

Perhaps I’m being unfair on Present Shock, I just found Rushkoff’s recent article questionable for the reasons I explained in response to it, and that’s what I’m really arguing against here. If he has addressed these problems that’s great, but I found Perry’s article admirably succinct, clear, and solution-oriented.

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