On Cyber-realism

Some critics are having trouble with my idea that there’s a new kind of non-linear storytelling in television and the cinema – what I call cyber-realism. Take Michael Pye in The Scotsman, for example:

“It’s easy to assume the information avalanche has changed the arts, but Harkin should know that cut-up novels, randomised theatre that works like a funhouse and nonlinear movies are downright old-fashioned: consider William Burroughs, Dr Caligari, John dos Passos, Ariane Mnouchkine.”

That, however, isn’t what I say at all. I make very clear in the book that non-linearity isn’t at all new to high-brow authors or avant-garde film-makers and has been around for over a century. After all, as Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped, a story should have a beginning, middle and end – but not necessarily in that order. What I argue is something much more specific – that a wholly new variant of this non-linearity has arrived in mainstream cinemas and our television screens over the last twenty years at the same time that we’ve been spending less time reading traditional “one thing after another” stories in books and more time involved on a continuous loop of electronic instruction and feedback on video games, the internet, mobile phones etc. What has emerged, I argue, is a new and very sophisticated kind of storytelling evident in TV shows like The Wire and films like Memento, 21 Grams and Vantage Point.

Some of these stories are rubbish, but others are smart and interesting. None of these stories are at all “interactive” in the sense that they cede power of the story to the viewer – in fact, they’re all very deeply controlled. The promise of cyber-realist storytelling, I argue, is that viewers are tired of formulaic “one thing after another” narratives fed to them on screen and are looking instead for richer stories which appear to allow them much greater freedom of manoeuvre in following paths within that story. My follow-up argument is that the debate about our new communication technologies has been so hijacked by hype about the medium of “web 2.0” that we’ve forgotten to take a step back and focus a delicate change in our cultural sensibilities. This change in our sensibilities can be used by anyone who has something interesting to say. As a self-organising system, however, Web 2.0 has nothing whatever to say, which is why its enthusiasts spend so much time talking up the medium rather than their message.