I was on the sidelines with the soccer dads Saturday talking about the future of various digital media. Since we don’t live far from MIT, Harvard and about a gross of other colleges and universities it isn’t unusual to have wildly informed discussions about media that are still in development. The the one thing I was able to say that pretty much everyone else agreed with was that books aren’t going anywhere, they’re here for the long haul. What happens with publishing and storytelling, that’s a whole different kettle of chips.
Basically, my argument is that television was heralded as the death of movies, but fifty years on we are still enjoying both as similar but different visual storytelling media. Granted, where television picked up in quality, movies have dropped a bit, but both are thriving, popular, financially viable, and equally accepted without any of the rancor one would have anticipated back when Hollywood was quaking in its boots over the upstart.
What’s really interesting to me is that radio never really died either. Because much of the serialized radio programs migrated to television and are the basis for the way shows are programmed and sold to viewers. With the rise of television, radio became more of a music entertainment (and selling) platform, but technologically radios continued to grow and develop – or rather shrink in development – so that by the time television was putting a serious dent in movie attendance in the 60’s transistor radios had become as ubiquitous as iPods today.
And if I really wanted to get everything-old-is-new-again I could draw a line from modern sitcoms back through radio comedy, through vaudeville, all the way back to the comedia delle arte of 17th century Italy. The way in which stories get told changes, but the need for these stories, and the stories themselves, keep finding ways of getting told and retold with each evolution.
All of this come about with my discovery of a new app for the iPhone called R.L. Stine’s Haunted House of Sound. Originally mentioned over at Wired Magazine’s GeekDad blog, what we have is, I believe, a new wrinkle in the same old evolution of storytelling entertainment. A mash-up of a radio drama and a MadLib, on a device smaller than a transistor radio you can select a collection of sounds and then play back one of five stories written by the author of a bajillion horror books for kids with your selected sounds dropped in at the appropriate moment. The stories themselves don’t change, only the sounds that the characters react to do, and there are plenty of opportunities for juvenile humor in the mix.
I’ve seen improv theatre do similar things with audience participation, and, of course, MadLibs are nothing new to anyone born after 1960. So really, as far as technological advances, we’re just looking at a new design for the wheel. It’s not unwelcome, and I can see where this kind of application could be expanded and developed to work down the road with, say, an e-reader that allowed for personalization. It could only be a mater of time before someone cracks the 36 dramatic situations in Western storytelling and finds a way to allow “readers” to customize full novels for themselves, as rich as anything currently available.
But I doubt it. It is something deep within us that craves stories and storytelling. We want the unexpected and we want the magic and we want the surprise and all the emotions we can stand. We want Punch battling with Old Scratch, and the Hero on a Quest in new forms, delivered any and every way possible. Artists will always put paint to canvas, whether it’s a cave wall or a LCD screen, and storytellers will always find their audience hungry for their words.
Words. The magic of deciphering, the code of language. The power of containing the key to understanding what these symbols mean, all in our heads, waiting for us to decrypt the message. Our brains and bodies reject the passive, we desire the active engagement that words bring. Like a djinn released from its bottle, the book will always be with us.
“Make it new,” Ezra Pound said. I don’t think he was talking about the delivery device.