Education Trends

How Digital Technology “Broke” Narrative and What it Means for Our Students

March 21, 2013
Photo credit: mirka23 via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Present Shock author Douglas Rushkoff presenting at South by Southwest in 2010.

I must confess that I don't read nearly as many books as I used to BC (Before Computers) and BK (Before Kids), but I have been stealing precious moments to savor the ideas and perspectives in Present Shock, the new book by Douglas Rushkoff.

Rushkoff is a media theorist who writes about society and our ongoing relationship with technology. (He has also guest blogged for Edutopia). In Present Shock – a play on Alvin Toffler's Future Shock -- he turns his lens to the human experience in a world that's always on, always connected, always in the now, now, now.

The result is contemplative guidebook for making sense of and responding more intelligently to the new world where digital technology and big data are overwhelming us, breaking down our cultural narratives, changing our relationship to time, and tricking our internal biological mechanisms into thinking that unreal things are real.

The book soars through time and space -- ancient history, pop culture, classical archetypes, arcane philosophy and mediated spaces -- with grace and intensity. As a writer, educator and a student of human agency, I am particularly drawn to the sections on the effects of the collapse of our cultural narratives. Indeed, here is an area in which teachers are uniquely qualified to do something!

When I received his long answers to my questions, my first instinct was to shorten them. This is 2013 -- nobody has time for long-form text! But by definition, the concepts in this book are about making time. Taking time back. Time isn't holding us, time is an act of us.

Edutopia: What do you mean by "narrative"?

Rushkoff: A narrative is really just the story we use to understand something. It's a pathway through time: this happened, then this happened, and then . . . It's a great way to convey meaning and values.

The narratives I'm most interested in are the ones used in TV shows and movies and, most insidiously, commercials. Narrative is a terrific tool of influence. Since Aristotle's day, we have understood how narrative can be used to make people feel certain ways and believe certain things. Create a character the audience can relate to, put that character in danger, and then -- when the audience can't take anymore -- give the character a way out. If the audience has followed the character up the inclined plane of tension, they will generally accept whatever solution the screenwriter or adman gives them to get out. If it's a Clint Eastwood movie, it might be a gun, or a "true" friend who fights with him. If it's an acne cream commercial, it will be a particular brand of benzoyl peroxide that rescues the girl from embarrassment at the prom.

We also use narrative to understand our place in history, our relationship to God and the cosmos. America is a narrative about making the world free -- or more American. Judaism (at least since Medieval times) has been a narrative about the coming of the messiah. Capitalism is a narrative about the infinite expansion of the economy.

Narratives work when you have time for them to play out.

How did digital technology "break" this narrative?

Well, initially, it was the remote control. Instead of having to sit through the acne cream commercial and accept the vicarious anxiety of the poor, zit-afflicted teenager, we can now scoot away to another channel without having to get up, turn a dial and adjust the rabbit ears. DVRs liberate us even more profoundly from the narrative trance. We can pause, go back and forward. The storyteller no longer calls all the shots.

On a deeper level, digital technology doesn't live in the same sort of timescale as analog reality. Think of the digital clock: it doesn't have a sweep second hand. It just flips a new number into place. The entirety of 3:23 PM is the same, until it suddenly flips into 3:24 PM. Time becomes a series of pulses, separate moments. It's a more disjointed way of living, with a different decision point seeming to come at every second. Do I answer this email, or respond to that Tweet?

What does this mean for how students understand information and make meaning?

The great part is access and authority. They are no longer required to submit to the official story in order to get the information they want. Data has been liberated, in that sense, from the stories that used to contain it. They are free to learn things out of context, which -- looked at positively -- means free of the values and judgments that a particular field of study's "keepers" may believe are necessary.

Of course, the awful part of this is the very same thing: they learn out of context. Factoids don't always add up to knowledge. There's a just-in-time bias to people educating in this way. Kids get what they want on a "need to know" basis, and have trouble understanding why they should bother to learn something now that they could always find out about later, when they feel they need it.

The other main difference is that kids who no longer appreciate narrative try to get the "gist" of things by looking at them rather than immersing in them. They will "take a look" at Hamlet on Sparknotes (an online summary service) and then attempt to get the gist of it by reading a couple of paragraphs or quotes. In some cases, I am almost embarrassed to say, they do seem to "get it." I spoke with a boy who seemed to have gotten the gist of Hamlet this way, and was able to explain how, amongst other things, "To be or not to be" encapsulated the essence of Hamlet -- a man who wasn't sure whether or not to take action. So this generation is actually really good at looking at things, getting a sense of them without ever moving through them in a sequential, narrative way. But the challenge then becomes interesting them in actually delving into something. Helping them see the value in immersion, and to realize that not all immersive experiences are to be avoided.

You’ve written that video games are the successors to books. How does that work out exactly?

Video games are more consonant with the digital experience. Instead of being conveyed through a story by a narrator (as in a book), the player directs his or her own experience through a world. In a massively networked game, like World of Warcraft, there's no beginning, middle or end. Players don't play to "win" -- there's no such thing. They play for the pure fun of it. The object of the game is to keep the game going.

This is also more consonant with the kinds of challenges we are currently facing as a society. The 20th century and the Industrial Age may have been about winning: wars, campaigns, economies and so on. We had a narrative to fulfill, and could do so by meeting clear goals such as sticking an American flag on the surface of the moon.

Today's challenges are not so very goal-oriented. Climate change is a steady state challenge. It's something we learn to deal with, live with, and influence slowly through our behavior. We don't set up a campaign and go win it. Or obesity, social injustice, human slavery, gun violence . . . These are not wars we "win," in the traditional narrative sense. We have to develop the patience to keep playing them.

Finally, video games are interesting to me for the way they invite deeper and deeper levels of interaction and authorship. Kids may begin playing the game normally. Then, when they get stuck, they go online and find the "cheat" codes so they can play outside the original rules. After they've finished the whole thing, they might go back online and get the construction kit for the game so they can create their own levels. They put their versions of the game online, and other kids download them. And the most successful of these game "authors" go on to become programmers of their own games.

Even books have taken on this quality of game culture, where fans of a certain series go to websites where they write their own "fan fiction" and add on to the universe of the original books. This, too, is more like a video game or a "fantasy role playing" game than it is like traditional narrative fiction. The original narrative may get broken, but everyone participates in a new kind of story.

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