BROOKE: From cave drawings to Homer’s Odyssey to Orphan Black, the one constant of every society in every age is storytelling. What isn’t constant is the form, which changes with culture, with time and especially with technology. Recently Bob checked out a museum exhibit about the biggest change in storytelling since the moving image.
BOB: That is the sound of a six-sided movie on something called the Google Cube. It’s from an exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York – an exhibit titled Sensory Stories, which re-imagines storytelling in the digital age. And it certainly is a feast for the senses.
BOB: There’s Birdly, a magical Virtual Reality experience that allows you to soar over the streets of New York City….
BOB: Ohhhh, flap, I’m a bird, in order to get some altitude, I have to flap like an idiot….
I’m soaring over Manhattan, and headed for the Met Life Building…This is nuts….
BOB: There’s an interactive movie called Possibilia, which lets the viewer dictate the trajectory of a lovers quarrel.
[tape of Possibilia]
BOB: And there’s an installation called Dark-Room Sex Game, which propels rhythmic synchrony using just sound and vibration until…well, just use your imagination.
[sound up and under]
BOB: So these are people tasting my spaghetti bolognese.
MELCHER: Yes [laughing]
BOB: The exhibit is the brainchild of Charlie Melcher, founder of the non-profit called Future of Storytelling. He was a book packager who could see his ink-on-paper profession being gradually digital-revolutionized out of existence, but was skeptical of technology’s ability to satisfy the primal need for narrative. That is, until he published the app version of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and suddenly saw past analog.
MELCHER: I believe it’s just that we can’t see the benefits of this digital age. We’re just not imagining well enough right now all the great things that are going to come from this and so I decided to shift from someone who was a little threatened by the changes taking place to getting totally on board and becoming an evangelist for them.
BOB; Sort of Billy Graham meets that guy from Geek Squad. Here’s Melcher explaining that Google Cube, which projects a different scene from a movie depending on which face of the cube the viewer turns upright.
MELCHER: There are six threads to this story that all play simultaneously each reflected on one of the faces of the cube. In that cube is a cell phone and this uses the gyroscope of the cell phone to control through Bluetooth a computer that’s in that box that controls a projector.
BOB: I feel like I’m in some futuristic movie made in 1976 imagining how we experience entertainment, right? That it’s like Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 or Sleeper. I should be wearing some white overalls and a funny helmet, should I not?
BOB: OK, maybe that was argumentative, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. It isn’t even my first rodeo in Queens, where 51 years ago, I also got a peek into technology’s vast promise.
FUTURAMA: Welcome to a journey into the future, a journey for everyone today into the everywhere of tomorrow.
That was from the 1964 World’s Fair, where I glimpsed moon colonies, lasers felling trees through the rainforest and the vast promise of the briny deep.
FUTURAMA: Now we can farm and harvest a drifting swimming never ending nourishment, food enough to feed seven times the population of the earth.
BOB: Sometimes the future seems so close at hand you can almost taste it. Or at least smell it. At the museum I sampled the exhibit called Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version, which adds the long-absent olfactory dimension to children's literature. Really? Read ‘n’ sniff? This is what we have to look forward to?
MELCHER: We have no idea what this is gonna look like in 2020. I’m hoping, though, that these are just the beginnings of what's really coming. The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.
BOB: A pretty good line. And no sooner had he uttered it that I put on a set of Oculus Rift goggles and took in the documentary titled “Clouds over Sidra,” a virtual reality film narrated by a young Syrian girl in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp.
SIDRA: My name is Sidra, I am twelve years old. I am in the fifth grade. I am from Syria...
BOB: Directed by documentarian Chris Milk, it is a breathtaking, altogether immersive, experience with a 360 view of the surroundings. Grim barracks in a dusty desert, grinding poverty, palpable hopelessness.
BOB: 11 or 12 year olds with headscarves, on a blacktop, playing soccer about…next to me.
SIDRA: We have to play football quickly, because there are so many kids waiting to play.
BOB: And just outside the fences of the blacktop, endless rows of metal barracks. And now I’m in one of those houses.
SIDRA: my mother makes sure we are all together for dinner.
BOB: A family of eight, sitting on a rug, Eating dinner.
SIDRA: My teacher says the clouds moving over us also came here from Syria. Someday, the clouds and me are going to turn around and go back home.
BOB: That’s where I got a little choked up. Yet just as I surrender to the raw emotion engendered by the virtual proximity, Melcher told me my experience is still rooted in storytelling’s past.
MELCHER: That's an incredibly moving piece. But fundamentally what are we doing? We're sitting watching a film. We’re approaching that in the same way that when they invented the motion picture camera, and they put it on a tripod and filmed a play. What I’m really interested in is not just the recording, but being able to place somebody in a position where they have the opportunity to have action. And I think you will learn so much more when you’re faced with moral dilemmas, when you’re faced with making decisions in that space. There’s another level of learning that comes from being able to actually be in that experience. That’s a really powerful next generation of storytelling.
BOB: Like video games, or police shoot-don’t-shoot drills. Or, for that matter, Birdly over Manhattan.
BOB: So in exactly an analog to my dreams…whooooaaaaa… I’m about to hit a building. Ooooooh. Ouch… Boom...I just crashed into some skyscraper.
BOB: True enough, there is nothing in the physical world that approximates that sensation, and I speak as a man who has twice parasailed drunk. But there is, of course, a comparable playground of the imagination. It’s called: the imagination, as triggered by, for one thing, reading. And so I confronted Melcher, positing that…
BOB: ...the words coming off the printed page still are deeper and richer and in their way more experiential than anything that you can feel, and see and hear and touch, in this please-see-hear-touch-and-feel museum.
BOB: That’s when he compared me to Socrates. Although, you know, not in a good way.
MELCHER: And it’s in the Phaedrus where Socrates argues that this new-fangled technology of the alphabet and papyrus are undermining our ability to memorize and without the ability to memorize we wouldn’t know things well enough to be able to discuss them, to be able to debate them, and without that we would never get to the truth of anything. And so he argued that this would lead to the end of human intelligence.
BOB: Okay, so Socrates, if you believe Plato, guessed wrong. And to Melcher’s point, it’s clear that clinging to the status quo is a losing proposition. Like it or not, future-of-storytelling-wise, the times they are a-changin’, And with those changes perhaps the most impactful journalism ever created -- along with, of course, cheap entertainment, demagoguery, propaganda, and certainly porn. After all, pick an age. Pick a medium. Isn’t that always the story?
FUTURAMA: Technology can point the way to a future of limitless promise, but man must chart his own course into tomorrow – a course that frees the mind and the spirit as it improves the well-being of mankind.
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Kasia Mychajlowycz, and Sam Dingman. We had more help from Jenna Kagel. And our show was edited... by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.