In the first of a series of monthly essays on The Literary Platform, Professor David Trotter ponders the question of what technology can do for stories. A lot of people seem to fall into the trap of considering “interactivity” to be the holy grail of the technological enhancement of stories (even otherwise visionary author Vernor Vinge famously thought hypertext was going to be the wave of the future), but Trotter isn’t quite so convinced. He discusses some “dazzling projects” that have brought interactivity to fiction, though admits he does not believe interactivity is either the be-all and end-all of technology for fiction or even all that technology can do for fiction.
I think that we need to find a way to put the vertigo back into the original question about what technology can do for stories. That will involve a history of the uses to which electronic communications media have been put. How, and why, did interactivity emerge from more than a century’s worth of innovation as the (technological, social, moral, political) principle to which we now so widely subscribe? There was interactivity before digitalisation, not just in life (where would the species be without it?), but in some forms of mediation, and, to a degree, in literature.
Over the last couple decades, I’ve watched technology do a lot for storytelling both in the world, and in my personal everyday life. In my opinion, “interactivity” is really only the tip of the iceberg, and not even a necessarily very interesting one at that.
There are really lots of ways technology is changing stories. For just one example, John Scalzi posted on his blog today about the experience of writing fiction on his iPad. (I’ve been doing some of that myself lately—scribbling story chapters with pen and paper while I work, then typing them into my iPad via a Bluetooth keyboard clamshell case and copying and pasting into Google Docs via my MiFi. Dig me, the wireless writer of the future!) And recently Charlie Stross wrote about how the new story processing program Scrivener (which I also use myself) has changed his writing process. (Stross also once composed an entire novel on a smartphone as a writing stunt.) Those are examples of technology affecting the way stories are told, aren’t they?
Perhaps my first encounter with technology changing storytelling came when I got to college in ‘91 and found some amusing story files collected from the Internet on a local BBS. They were early posts by creative college students to a mailing list called Superguy, where writers wrote and posted stories involving humorous and parodic takes on super heroes. And every so often, they’d get together for crossover events in which characters from several stories would meet up and work together.
And these people were from all over the country, and in many cases had never even met in real life—but here they were, working together on stories that got written and posted to an audience of hundreds, possibly even thousands of readers at their height—using nothing more than e-mail and maybe the occasional long distance phone call.
As my college years went on, I ran into more and more shared writing universes, and participated in a lot of them. And Internet writers weren’t the only ones who found benefits in collaborating. Shared universe anthologies like Thieves’ World, Wild Cards, and Liavek all sprang up around this time, though they were forged mostly from old-fashioned pre-Internet communication media.
Perhaps the next great advance in technological benefits to storytelling came with the invention of Hydra, which was renamed to SubEthaEdit, a shared editing space on OS X computers in which multiple people could have their own cursors and write on the same document at the same time. I’d never seen anything like this before. Not too much later, someone else came up with a fairly primitive but still functional Windows/Linux implementation of the same basic idea, called MoonEdit, which I used to great effect in writing with a great bunch of writers including professional fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey.
Later on, EtherPad developed a web-based version of the same tech before being bought by Google, whose Google Wave subsequently fizzled but now Google Docs offers much the same flexibility and a lot more reliability in real-time updating. And it’s amazing the globe-spanning reach the Internet has brought to this instant collaboration. The other day, I realized I was sitting in a Google Document with people from three other time zones (California, New Brunswick, and Britain, with me in Missouri) watching a Briton write on a story. I remember when I couldn’t even have afforded the long distance phone bills to talk to them all, but now I could Skype them very easily if I wanted sound or even video—but why bother when we can communicate well enough in text without?
If you want to talk about “interactivity” in stories, well, reading a story interactively is really pretty pointless, because no matter what you do all the choices you’re allowed to make are already plotted out for you. If you’re given the options only to turn left or right at a fork in the road, you can’t choose to go back the way you came—the choice isn’t there. But there are few thrills to compare with writing a story interactively, with your friends. It’s like playing a game where there are few rules, or a form of roleplaying where you have the ability to jump into each other’s characters and even go back and redo things if they didn’t come out right the first time. What a rush!
And shared text editors aren’t the only form of interaction in writing the ‘net brought about, either. An AoL employee founded Ficlets, to great fanfare and five minutes of attention from Internet celebrities John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton, then re-launched it as Ficly after AoL killed it. This site let people write collaborative stories round-robin style in chunks of 1024 or fewer characters, and was likewise a blast when you managed to get into a storytelling chain with other fun writers.
Fan and Internet writers aren’t the only ones to have discovered the benefit of Internet technology for collaboration, of course. In recent years there have been several groups of professional writers involved in doing this either as a hobby or professionally. Mercedes Lackey’s City of Heroes fanfic grew into a new shared-universe superhero novel series, Secret World Chronicle. Neil Stephenson and Greg Bear came up with their Mongoliad. Elizabeth Bear (no relation to Greg) had her Shadow Unit. So Amazon’s doing serials? Writers on the Internet have been doing serials for decades.
It’s also made it possible for more specialized types of stories to find their niches. For example, if you look for almost any minor fandom, fetish, or following, chances are you can find a fiction repository for it somewhere on the Internet. Interests so rare or obscure that it simply wouldn’t have paid to try to publish works involving them can suddenly build entire village-sized communities where people post and read stories for free just by putting everyone in the entire world who shares those interests together in one virtual place. It’s sort of the flip side of the way Amazon made making a living in self-publishing more feasible by creating a single storefront to sell your self-published books or e-books to anyone anywhere.
As I write this on the right-hand monitor on my desktop, I can look across to the left and see in my main Google Docs window two other writers in a shared setting in which I work discussing background material for one of the continents on a distant-future colony planet. I might never even have met these people without technology—and, indeed, I still haven’t met either one of them in person. But we’re writing hundreds of thousands of words of story together—not for professional publication at the moment, but who can say where things will go in the future? If a Twilight fanfic can become the next best-selling novel, anything can happen.
So, what can technology do for stories? Make it possible to create them, collaborate in them, and find them in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of before we had it, for one thing. But I’ll be interested to see what Trotter’s series of monthly essays comes up with.