The entire history of human expression, slightly abridged
Fair warning: THIS IS A LONG, CRUNCHY POST.
There are two arguments—two main ones—in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, both of them concerning the reasons why people tell stories and the effects that storytelling have on our minds. Separating the motivators for storytelling from the effects that stories have on us would, according to Gottschall, cause us to miss the main advantage of storytelling, which is the evolutionary benefits that having and using a storytelling faculty provide. The benefits are evolutionary in the sense that this storytelling ability helps us to survive better than other early hominids and much better than the broad-face potoroo and the King Island emu, which told very few stories to each other, and, therefore, died.
The first argument Gottschall makes is that stories allow us to experience problems and problem-solving and, through repetition, to get better at negotiating trouble. In the same way that practicing piano for twenty minutes a day makes you a better piano player, experiencing stories—listening to anecdotes, watching movies, reading novels—makes you a better human, at least socially. Gottschall stresses that this doesn’t mean that people who read Tolstoy and Goethe are more socially adept than people who don’t read Tolstoy and Goethe, just that the people who read Tolstoy and Goethe are more socially adept than they would have been had they not spent last semester doing all of that reading for their 19th Century World Literature course.
Gottschall’s second argument suggests that the story impulse—especially as it concerns religious and sacred stories—organizes people usefully into groups, and allows those groups to prosper through shared effort (sometimes at the expense of other groups). It’s important to note that Gottschall isn’t arguing for or against this impulse and he isn’t arguing for or against religion (he is very careful with his wording throughout this section because, I’m guessing, he is worried that he will be misread). He isn’t interested in religious truth or virtue. Gotschall is saying that the story faculty of human beings allows them, maybe even encourages them, to organize themselves into groups and that people within those groups tend to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit, and that all of this helps them survive, and therefore the forces of evolution (Forces of Evolution?! I’ll play bass!) favor them over other, less story-savvy hominids.
Before I get to my gripes I want to say that this is a smart book, thoroughly researched and very well written, and it is an important entry in the discussion that is happening in the public sphere (The Public Spheres?!?! I’ll play keys!) about storytelling (which, if you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about). It’s great. It’s accessible, and compelling, well argued, go read it.
However. The final chapter of the book talks about the future of story, and Gottschall argues that we are moving in the direction of Brave New World’s Feelys, where people actually get to experience (or get the closest approximation of actual experiencing) stories which someone has recorded and produced for the purposes of keeping the population doped on media and quiescent regarding aesthetic torpor, spiritual decline, and political corruption. Gottschall compares it to the Holo-deck from Start Trek TNG but the description reminded me of the television walls from Fahrenheit 451, where everybody is saving up to get enough walls so that they can be surrounded by images and therefore feel like they are in the show, talking to the characters, affecting as much as possible the plot and world of the TV series (or whatever you want to call it).
Gottschall criticizes novelists for bemoaning the state of the novel, but he is reacting, I think, to the same type of panic-stricken voices, the ones that drone about how video games are bigger business than movies and what it says about our culture when Call of Duty: Black Ops makes more than Avatar. But, of course, there are all kinds of assumptions about video games required to make the jump from Super Mario Galaxy to the Feelys, not the least of which is that video games as they are played today are a more actively social event than movies are. Gottschall talks about World of Warcraft as an example of what is possible—with glowing praise for the fully realized world of World of Warcraft, which, since he also mentions LARP and Star Trek TNG, pretty much means that he’s got a Level 90 Troll Hunter (Beast Master Spec.) with a Hellboar pet and a boatload of alts in his stable—but Gotschall totally ignores what people are doing with technology and the internet with regard to their own stories and how that sector of our attention is expanding constantly.
This isn’t a small point, either. The internet is allowing us to tell our own stories, to communicate our lives, our truth(s), not just buy our way into pretty, new, elaborately designed dream machines.
The comparison shouldn’t be between movies and video games, it should be between social video games (more than just MMORPGs, right?) and social media outlets (Is “outlets” the word that I’m looking for? Affordances? Utilities?). Which of those sucks more of our daily hours, more of our precious attention? I don’t have the numbers, but I’ll go look for them, to see who is winning.
The problem is that a lot of social media stuff is, initially, free for a lot of users, and so the profit margins are different. Foursquare, for example, has “over a hundred” employees according to their website, but has 25 million users. World of Warcraft only has 10 million users, but Blizzard (which also makes Diablo and Starcraft) has 4,600 employees (Wikipedia!). Think of all the people on Facebook, on Youtube, on Flickr and Instagram, using all of those ostensibly free technologies to broadcast their own stories, voting with their attention, voting with their clicks, despite the proliferation of megawatt fabulous virtual reality systems created by armies of Blood Elfish (Blood Elven?) story writers and Gnomish (Gnomeregander?) code writers.
25 million users. And Foursquare isn’t even fun.