Has anyone seen Duplicity? The film stars Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as two former spies who can’t help bumping into one other. The film jumps back and forth so much, the time frame is so scrambled, that it’s impossible to tell not only who is being duplicitous with who but what the hell is going on. In a recent interview with the New Yorker , its director Tony Gilroy was admirably succinct about his film-making technique. “What the fuck”, he told the journalist. “I hope the audience thinks the film is broken.” Now compare that with the work of Punchdrunk, the site-specific London-based theatre company which specialises in taking over whole buildings and teases the audience with the prospect of navigating their own path through the story as they walk around. Their most recent piece, Tunnel 228, took place in a dank netherworld deep in the bowels of Waterloo Train Station and invited its audience to don surgical masks and make their way around a series of vignettes to do with the drudgery of industrial society.
What do these very different stories have in common? The answer is that both chop up stories into bits and then challenge the audience to rearrange them so as to keep that audience on the edge of their seats. They function as intricate puzzles, and puzzles are an important ingredient in a new kind of storytelling that I’d call cyber-realism. In an era defined by an intense involvement with electronic information, I argue in my book Cyburbia, in which many of us have grown up relentlessly pressing buttons and responding to feedback on computer games, mobile phones and the net, the greater freedom for manoeuvre afforded us by its relentless cycle of sending out messages and rapidly responding to feedback seems to be changing the kind of stories that we want to hear, making many of us far too restless to cope with the traditional one-thing-after-another plot lines that they’re used to getting in mainstream culture. Look carefully at mainstream culture and you can see evidence of a new kind of storytelling under your nose. Stories which to allow the audience more freedom for manoeuvre to adjust and zigzag their way through the story – not by giving away some physical control of the narrative – but by adjusting themselves to a sensibility that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time sending out messages and batting back feedback on an electronic information loop.
All of this matters, and for a number of reasons. Stories are still a hugely important part of everyday life. Everyone from advertisers to public institutions to newspapers are in the storytelling business. When we opened up a traditional newspaper, as the media guru Marshall McLuhan pointed out half a century ago, we opened ourselves up to the implicit categories and rankings within which it arranged its news stories – the story which frames its stories, if you like. At the moment, many of our mainstream public institutions are flailing, and not a few of them are in thrall to a new breed of internet evangelists who talk a lot about “interactivity”, “internet-based collaboration”, “user-generated content” and the apparently limitless possibilities which open up when all of our are hooked up all of the time to a relentless electronic information loop on things like Twitter. The terrible secret of the TV industry is that only middle-aged men talk about “mash ups”, and only desperate media executives think that teenagers sending each other pictures counts as “content.” Most importantly, however, all this fascination with the shiny new medium does a great disservice to the product itself. It is very likely that people who have grown pressing frantically pressing buttons on computer games, jousting with texts on mobile phones and hopping their way through the net with great alacrity will demand to hear new kinds of stories – stories which appear to offer them greater freedom for manoeuvre, which sprinkle stories around in fragments and tantalise them with the possibility that they are forging their own path through them. The best of these new kinds of stories, however, have nothing in common with the brain-dead megaphones of Web 2.0 which understand only the medium. The best of them are tightly controlled stories which don’t surrender the power of the storyteller under the rubric of “interactivity”, but which tell rich and sophisticated new tales by arranging back the fragments in fascinating new ways.
Access to electronic information is important, but in all this talk about the medium we have forgotten what we want to do with it. Now we need to spend some time thinking about the message. Gutenberg’s book took off not because its early evangelists went around waving them in people’s faces or attesting to their incredible power but because talented authors took the trouble to master this new way of working and to write great books. What we need now are new storytellers capable of awakening our interest with new and richer stories capable of soaking up all of our attention. The real possibilities opened up by our relentless button-pressing lie not at all in staring at each other on Facebook or Twitter, but in the properly immersive new stories opened up by storytellers like Punchdrunk. It beats sitting at a computer, which is how the prophets of the net seem to want us to spend all our spare time.
This will appear in The Guardian Comment is Free tomorrow. I will be presenting an illustrated lecture on storytelling in the age of the net at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Friday 19th June at 230pm, and at ScreenLit, a film and TV writing festival at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema on Sat 4th July at 615pm.