Literary Brain, Digital Universe

CultureLab: Storytelling 2.0: When new narratives meet old brains

If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we’ve come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative’s break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative – and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves – or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Psychological considerations support this point. Narratives, and the selves we construct through them, convey our individual perspectives of “self-in-world”. These perspectives include individuals’ understanding of how cause and effect works, and so require a temporal ordering of salient events that can be communicated to others. We often convey causal networks that make up our lives in ways that conform to one of the almost universally understood narrative prototypes, be it romantic love, heroic adventure or a sad tale of misfortune. Unbounded digital narratives, unconstrained by familiar temporal, causal ordering, seem psychologically implausible as sources for enduring, communicating selves.

Finally, there’s the neuro-evolutionary perspective. Gazzaniga suggests that the rise of the brain’s left hemisphere interpreter provides the evolutionary advantage of continued reinforcement of a new capacity for relentlessly hypothesising about possible causal patterns, combined with an older, right hemisphere capacity to make probability-based decisions. As Gazzaniga puts it, “Once mutational events in the history of our species brought the interpreter into existence, there was no getting rid of it.”


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