Twitter, twits and the ‘death of narrative’.

13/11/2009

In a recent newspaper article, Ben Macintyre, regular columnist for The (London) Times, deplores the threat to narrative posed by the internet, in particular by social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook.  The article opens with a tautologous list of the ‘jargon of the digital age’: ‘click, tweet, e-mail, twitter, skim, browse, scan, blog, text.’  It is a list that, Macintyre writes, ‘reflect[s] the way that the very act of reading, and the nature of literacy itself, is changing.’  If it is reflective, it is a list like a curved carnival mirror that distorts the true image.  To click might be seen as an analogue to turning a page; ‘tweet’ and ‘twitter’ are, for argument’s sake, the same thing; skim, browse, scan – who hasn’t done at least one of these while leafing through a book (not to mention the synonymity of ‘skim’ and ‘browse’); and there is no reason why an e-mail or a blog can’t themselves be a medium for narrative.

‘The information we consume online comes ever faster, punchier

and more fleetingly.  Our attention rests only briefly on the internet

page before moving incontinently on to the next electronic canapé…

we are in a state of Continual Partial Attention, too bombarded by

snippets and gobbets of information to focus on anything for very long.’

Macintyre has trouble it seems in distinguishing between what is worth his time and what is not.  Am I the only one that is able, upon finding a larger text online, to close e-mail and Facebook and any other browsers (to use a term from the lexicon of digital jargon) like doors to noisy rooms, as one finds a quiet place to read a book?  Of course not.

Narrative is a creature of language and as any philologist will tell you, languages change, they evolve; so too must narrative move with them.  Basing the see-saw fall of narrative on the rise of internet social networking not only assumes their mutual exclusivity, but presupposes the death of older, more traditional forms of media such as cinema, theatre and books; it forgets that there are other pieces of equipment on which narrative might play.

But narrative is alive and well in this digital age.  My partner, a foreign student, reads whole Chinese novels on the internet and, as Macintyre himself makes note of in his article, the Japanese (and they are surely not alone) are reading entire novels on mobile phones.

We are also beginning to see the emergence of video games which, while traditionally a medium that had only the thinnest film of narrative to serve as a pretext for gameplay, are now growing more ambitious and sophisticated in terms of story-telling.  Where the focus in the past has been on the visual aspects of a game, development companies have begun to make games that invert the narrative-for-gameplay’s sake model, titles such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and Remedy’s Alan Wake.  It might be noted, too, that a syntactically unique language is needed for narrative to exist in this form – programming languages share more in common (at least superficially) with the TXT speak of mobile phone messages and internet chat forums than with any other written language.

Macintyre is of a long tradition of technophobic harbingers: there were similar fears with many technological innovations that have heralded a change in the way narrative is delivered.  More recently, Macintyre is one of an emerging trend of technophobic journalism and he shares with his fellows not only a stifling conservatism but the irony that it is the very technology he purports to harpoon that carries his voice the furthest.  Quite simply, these harbingers are becoming tedious.  History has shown their cries of doom to be unfounded time and time again.

Macintyre cuts his own throat at the end of the article when he writes, ‘Here is proof that the ancient need for narrative, hardwired into human nature, can sit comfortably with the wiring of the newest technology.’

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