Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why the Internet is Not Ruining Everything

Last Thursday, the Times online published an article called "The Internet is killing storytelling." The author, Ben Macintyre argues,
The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing...

If the culprit is obvious, so is the primary victim of this radically reduced attention span: the narrative, the long-form story, the tale. Like some endangered species, the story now needs defending from the threat of extinction in a radically changed and inhospitable digital environment.

Macintyre's arguments do not ring true to me for several reasons.

First, he is unable to prove that email, texting, twittering, blogging, etc cannot exist side-by-side with more traditional forms of story-telling. In this very article, Macintyre claims that America's rapt attention to the Obama narrative this past fall indicates our "hunger for narrative." One could just as easily argue that our ability to sustain interest in Obama's life story indicates that narrative story-telling is alive and well.

Second, a story does not have to be long to be a good story. I really didn't like how Macintyre was really criticizing damage to the long narrative, but did not make that distinction consistently in his article. One might argue that our attention span has shrunk to a ridiculously short amount, making even the most simple narrative impossible to digest, but hour long dramas on television would beg to differ. Perhaps television or a four page email from Mom, isn't what Macintyre has in mind, but it reeks of snobbery to pretend that something has to be printed and the length of Moby Dick to qualify as a narrative.

Third, even if we presume that narrative story telling is in trouble, I don't think that there is good evidence at all that the internet is the source of damage to the long narrative. In Claude Fisher's book, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, Fisher argues "telephone company management shifted advertising during the 1920's to reflect the demands of the private consumer. Prior to this shift, managers marketed the telephone as a practical, rather than social, tool. Once they realized more Americans were buying automobiles instead of telephones, the telephone companies changed their marketing strategies to reflect the predominant use of their product."

Consumers drive how content is developed and marketed. If internet technology is used to break communication down into smaller and smaller pieces, I don't think the technology that enables this is to blame. A better culprit would be societal forces that demand that people spend less and less time communicating and more and more time working or consuming.

Also, it's a little weird that a newspaper article is criticizing the loss of a long-form narrative. Pot calling kettle black, dude?