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The internet is killing storytelling...

...or so Ben Macintrye says in this article in The Guardian. This decline is, he charges, due to our inability to either produce or consume sustained narratives longer than 140 characters, or at best a blog post.

"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."

I'm not sure I agree with all of what he says -- other studies counter this by claiming to demonstrate that, for example, online searching improves certain higher brain functions like decision-making and even staves off dementia -- but his point that it's stories that fascinate us, teach us, make us human is a good one. He says, for example, that Obama won the election in no small part because of his story: the poor upbringing, the struggle for identity, etc. And clearly we're fascinated with all kinds of people's stories, as witness by the plethora of reality television. But I'm not sure that qualifies as a "sustained narrative" since we consume it in dribs and drabs.

And besides it's such a fake narrative. Now a novel is a completely fake narrative in that it's made up, but somehow it seems more real than reality shows (and how weird is THAT?). I mean, how much do I really have in common with the Bridezillas or those strange sad people on Hoarders? I have a lot more in common with Bridget Jones or Elizabeth Bennet, or even Scarlett O'Hara, for that matter.

The attention span criticism may be a valid one; I know from personal time-wasting experience how easy it is to flit from one article to another, from blog entry to news article to photo collection to funny-animal-video to LJ to email and then back around again; in twenty minutes I can end up with as many tabs open in Firefox and no idea how I got to any of them (now there's a missing narrative for you: how do you get from the tragedy in Haiti to "Oh hai -- I can haz cookie?" in six clicks or less?). Maybe it's a sign of my own lack of self-control but I have a very tough time reading a lengthy article online.

Stories give us context, history, a knowledge of where we came from and perhaps where we might choose to go (or serve as cautionary tales about where not to go!). Without them, he seems to suggest, we are at risk of becoming indifferent and ignorant little mayflies that flutter about happily and indiscriminately in the ever-changing Now of cyberspace while Santayana weeps into his Rioja.

And yet Stephen King still publishes behemoths like Under the Dome and thousands of people buy it! So it seems we're not in imminent danger just yet. Rest easy, Ben.

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