The role of reading in American society is changing. We need look no further for evidence than research studies aggregated in books such as The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that examine the Millennial generation who neither read nor understand the fundamental cognitive structures developed by reading.
It is terrifying to read studies about the negative views of both students and professors in regards to reading. It’s even more harrowing when combined with my own experience teaching writing and storytelling.
There are days, it seems, that literate Western Culture is destined for the scrap heap, replaced by a visual, interactive world that requires less cognitive interaction and creates less educated people. (I say this summarizing the research and not as an editorial statement.)
But what if the reading problem isn’t as simple as forcing students to read and write more (which we should also do)? What if the problem is that authorship has changed in the digital, interactive age and writers — the keeper of words — have failed to understand their role within this environment?
After all, we know that learning and memorabilty are enhanced when words, images, and audio are combined in very specific ways. Shouldn’t an author creating stories for digital, interactive environments (e.g. the Nook Color) have the skill set to tell a story native to that environment?
And if authors aren’t creating stories native to the reading environment, it seems disingenuous and a bit anti-intellectual to blame the reader who abandons the simplistic word for more potentially complex, interactive environments.
In other words, as a writer and a technologist I have to consider the increasingly illiterate-ness of our culture from another point of view: What does it mean to be an author in the digital age?
For Prof. Jennifer George-Palilonis and me, the answer to the question of what does it mean to be an author is more than “someone who tells a story” although that’s a pretty good place to start.
It turns out that figuring out what it means to author a story in a digital, interactive environment requires writers to think about writing in a very new way.
This past November at F+W’s StoryWorld conference in San Francisco, I moderated a conversation entitled “Look What Tech Can Do! How Will Technical Innovation Change the Business and Nature of Storytelling.” It was the kind of panel that angered traditionalist writers simply because of its name.
True to form, an audience member walked to the microphone and asked one of those leading questions (conveniently disguised as a statement) that writers in particular love to deploy as a form of pseudo-intellectualism.
“The story must come before the technology,” he said defiantly. “Without story,” he continued, “the technology is irrelevant.”
“Wrong”, I replied. “Look no further than the film or television industry.”
In the visual realm, story and technology are intricately tied together. Ask any screenplay writer about the story development process and they will tell you there are three stories: the one the writer creates, the one the director shoots, and the one the editor puts together. Each story is different and each is intimately changed by the technology used to tell that story.*
For writers in the digital, interactive world, technology and authorship are intricately tied together.
Of course, in the film or television industry, the three storytellers each have very defined roles with very specific skill sets:
- Writers create the written text of the story;
- Directors create the visuals of the story; and
- Editors create the pared down version of the story.
In the digital, interactive age, it’s less clear what skills are required and what the role is for authors.
It’s odd to say that it’s unclear what the role of an author is in the digital, interactive age. On the surface, in fact, that notion seems absurd. After all, somebody has to write the story and whoever that person is surely must be the author.
In many cases, the author will continue to be the single person who writes the story. But what happens when the technology becomes intertwined with the story process? What happens when constructing the story turns into collaboration between a writer and designer? And what happens when cinematic elements become primary to the story?
What is the role of the author when the story, the technology, and the design are intertwined?
Last week, and I spent three hours locked in a conference room discussing two ideas for our book Making Transmedia:
- What would the design framework and the interface look like for our interactive book, which included prototyping navigation, fly-ins, and a handful of other elements; and
- How would we create a functional index for a “book environment” that contains no pages, no particular linearity, and no simple way to display multiple forms of media without removing the reader from a particular point in the book?
In the analog, printed world, these two questions wouldn’t even warrant a face-to-face meeting. Any photographs would be given a label within the written text by an author (e.g. Picture1) and then digital copies would be labeled, zipped, and sent along to a designer who may never speak to the author; and the index would be auto-generated and then checked by the author and copy editor.
In the digital, interactive world, we spent hours developing design metaphors for understanding how the book’s layout might work and creating low-fi paper prototypes of the display screen and interactivity in the book.
We tweaked the narrative elements of our story, we replaced large chunks of written text with graphics or video, and we developed a series of interactive frameworks that have profoundly changed the way the story will be told.
In a traditional world, I would be called the writer and Jenn would be the designer. This, however, seems antiquated. My storytelling and media creation is profoundly influenced by her design, and her design and graphics are intricately tied to how I am telling the story.
In this world, we can’t operate without a functional knowledge of both interaction design and multi-media storytelling. The more we explore each other’s world, the better we get at understanding how the story should be told and how the story should be delivered.
And the less we understand arbitrary distinctions of authorship because neither the content nor the design can exist alone.
When writers start talking about writing it’s easy to get lost in academic-think, falling down the intellectual rabbit hole and never quite finding the way back. With that in mind, I want to circle back to questions I posed at the beginning of this essay: What does it mean to be an author, and how might that change the way we read?
As for the first question, what does it mean to be an author, the answer is that we’re not quite sure just yet.
In the world Jenn and I have constructed, technology and authorship are intricately tied together. Each of our processes contributes, changes, and shapes both the story we are telling and the way we are telling it.
(You can see our description of the Making Transmedia book here.)
But we aren’t just spending our time learning how to work together. We’re also exploring what the technology palette allows us to do because we will never be master authors if we don’t understand the tools of the trade. For us that means getting our hands dirty with prototypes and testing. It means creating really bad work so that we can create really good work.
To be an author in the digital, interactive age means more than simply understanding words. It means understanding story, design, and technology. When we do that, authors — however they are defined — will have the opportunity to create grand narratives delivered in ways never before available (a phrase I am normally loathe to throw around).
Once we begin to create grand narratives, then, we may start to address our second question: How that may change the way we read?
For now, we don’t have an answer. What we do know is that younger people read less these days (in some measure because of interactive environments), and as I wrote in my first post “How We May Read,” we know when people do read in digital, interactive environments engage more with content but don’t necessarily remember the content with which they engaged.
It’s much easier to lay the blame on the lazy reader whose attention span we can no longer keep because it’s very hard to master the trade skills necessary to become an author in a digital, interactive world.
Once we do master those skills, however, we will see just how profound the digital, interactive environment can be for both authors and readers.
That future is up to us.
* I excluded in my argument the Game Studies’ blood sport between narratologists and ludologists (Murray, 2005), who can’t even agree if stories exist within game environments even though companies now routinely hire writers to create stories.
Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press.
Bauerlein, M. (2008). The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Jeremy P. Tarcher.
Murray, J. H. (2005). The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies. DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing views of worlds in play.