Three Green Rats Circulatory. Volume 1, Issue 1

Media Review: From the 90's to Now

How Digital Technology Has Changed Storytelling

Casey J., June 2023

Out of over 30 years in the digital age, any number of stories could be selected as the most interesting turning points, but the stories chosen for this review represent a few major highlights that will bring us up to speed in 2023. Like any persistent technology, computers and digital spaces have steadily shifted in not only their physical capabilities, but their cultural significance. At first, it was awe: ‘How does that thing possibly work?’ The conceit of William Gibson’s 1992 poem, “Agrippa,” is still grounded in the physical. His newborn floppy drive hidden within an ancient book requires a specific computer to run, and the poem itself centers around the “mechanisms” that make various technologies work. And viewers were obsessed with breaking down the seemingly unstoppable mechanism of his scrolling, self-erasing code!

By 1988, Adam Cadre was intent on bringing the player (no longer just a viewer!) into the mechanism through interactive fiction. In “Photopia,” players type in whatever commands they can dream up, and the mechanism tries to follow through to the best of its ability. The mechanism is still front and center, but with the purpose of bringing readers closer to the human story, rather than as a meta deconstruction of the medium.

The 21st Century! Humans crush the mechanism of our accidentally-designed Y2K bug, and now we’re on to the iPhones and Wi-Fi and LCD screens that begin to center our online-human identities instead. And anywhere people go, so does culture. Sincere personas accumulate slowly on websites and blogs and niche forums, but the art of trolling bubbles up from underneath as the king of the playground. Lying is fun, and no one can prove you wrong online. Cue: thousands and thousands of lying fun-havers spend their 2007 storming the Amazon review section of the Three Wolf Moon Tee-Shirt, all just to make up some nonsense together. Physical people found a digital community around a physical object.

Now things start speeding up, compressing. Teju Cole writes and directs a separate-but-together play of Twitter users, tying up literary history with the current politics of 2013 in a social medium that emphasizes when things are happening. “Seven short stories about drones” is urgent. Patrick Roche’s “Siri: A Coping Mechanism” pokes at this separate-but-together idea again in 2014, where digital technologies comfort yet also isolate someone experiencing intensely human grief. 2023: more from Siri, and more about grief, through Karla Cordero’s keyboard. She leaves chasms between her phrases, her lack of knowledge abyssal compared to Siri’s unflappable, unjustified confidence. In our same current year, ChatGPT has taken another bound ahead of Siri’s question-answering into intentionally creative territory, intended to approach even closer to artificial human interaction.

Of course, the value of these stories as artifacts of their medium is only half the picture. Their other half lies in actual meaning and artistry, including how those qualities are enhanced by a digital medium. The following reviews take a deeper look into several of these stories.

* * *

'Photopia' by Adam Cadre (1998)

The opening screen of 'Photopia'

Photopia interweaves two stories, half sci-fi and half slice-of-life realism, and the digital medium enhances this duality in a fascinating way. Sections of prose fade in and out on a single screen, differentiated by text color, but collapsed into a single “space”. Space is literally an all-encompassing theme of Photopia, as it is the setting of its sci-fi plot and a topic of extended conversation in the realistic plot. Also, unlike a book or magazine, there is no table of contents and no physical size that the reader can use to estimate how far along in the story they are. Instead, Photopia twists and turns, spurred on by the player’s inputs, muddling time just as it does space. However , the inputs are really an illusory control, as entering commands always either advances or fails to advance the single pre-written story, rather than providing multiple branching pathways based on different choices. Even still, the need to puzzle-solve alongside reading the beautiful and creative prose creates a deeper sense of intimacy with the characters. Their struggles and decisions and words come from your own typing hands, and so the story belongs to you too.


'The Mountain Men's Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve Tee' (~2007)

Amazon's primary listing image of the tee shirt

The Mountain Men's Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve Tee is a delirious exercise in collective imagination, and the plain old Amazon interface it is embedded within only heightens the absurdity. As one of the attached “review videos” reveals, the whole mass-hallucination was sparked by one lone wolf reviewer who dared to doubt the intense aphrodisiacal powers of the T-shirt. Quickly, a battalion of Three Wolf Moon Truthers formed, which spiraled into a mass-hallucination of reviews reporting lupine effects each more magical than the last. And, to top it all off, dedicated Moon-Men can bring the Three Wolves into their real life wardrobe for only $35! Whether or not you doubt the powers of the shirt (I don’t), you have to admit that the memetic storytelling unleashed here is a shining example of how the online world invigorates our human desire to play as a pack.


'Reader Comments for The New York Times’ “Homestyle Spaghetti Carbonara” Recipe' by Todd Levin (2022)

An insufficient amount of garlic

This piece comes together so hysterically not because it has veered into complete absurdity, but because it doesn’t. Take ten minutes right now to read some poor food blogger’s comment section, and you’ll miraculously find each and every one of these caricatures’ likenesses. It’s a lawless microbiome populated by only the most Dazed and Confused keyboard-owners, because anyone else would have something better to do with their time (like cooking and eating, perhaps). Todd Levin has seen it all and emulates a descent into madness unlike any other. It begins with a prideful substitution here, an unsanitary recommendation there, and cooks down into a slurry of deceit, accusations, and a completely different recipe than we started with! But truly, I don’t pity the imaginary recipe-writer who invited this horde into their home kitchen. They knew what they were getting into, and they really should have included garlic.


'ChatGPT for Storytelling: The Weaver of Worlds' by Simone Garzia (2023)

"The Old man, the Doll and the Forest" by DALLE of OpenAI, generated by Garzia

The meat of this story is Garzia’s own background and analysis, which provides much-needed support for the ChatGPT-generated story she presents. That story, titled “The Old man, the Doll and the Forest” is a great feat of computer science, but I don’t quite agree with Garzia’s assertion that it is “moving and thought-provoking,” but it is certainly a blazing trail-marker pointing towards what computer programs may be able to better generate in the future. Besides the short prose narrative, there are several illustrations to accompany it, generated by the program DALLE. Each image is very well matched in art style and mood to each other and to the story itself. It begs the question: could this technology be used to fully illustrate a high-quality human-written story in this abstract style? For now, engaging with these types of generated stories is exciting just as an exercise in stretching the program’s potential. If Garzia has one point in favor of calling this story thought-provoking, it is in the thematic mirror it holds up to our present cultural exploration into the dark forest of “artificial intelligence” technology. Will ChatGPT end up being more of an old devil or a powerful mother in the future of human storytelling?

* * *

The 2020's and Beyond: How Will Digital Media Change Storytelling?

Whatever new forms of technology appear, I think humans have an intrinsic need to connect with other people through storytelling, and there will always be plenty of people pushing the art form forward with great creativity. Digital mediums in particular are beginning to complicate our notions of literature, authorship, and the boundaries of “truth.” However, this challenge goes along with a surge of global communication and equity of who is able to share. No one needs an editor, a publishing house, and there’s no printing cost when you tell stories online. With those traditional limitations dissolved, this explosion of digital creativity will hopefully continue to expand the number of styles and genres and voices shared in the coming years.

Computer-generated media is our cutting edge now, but it’s still so fresh that it's difficult to predict where it might go. And after that, what will be the next cutting-edge storytelling tool? It seems almost impossible to imagine. However, I think a lot of our future with any digital technology will be deeply tied to money. Many people are motivated to share stories online because it can net them advertising revenue. Others see the utility of story-generating programs as a cheaper alternative to paying human writers. Will there be a breaking point when people become exhausted with 'inauthentic' stories, and want to pull back from digital media altogether? It seems unlikely, but not impossible. Either way, I expect to see some fascinating new debates about what it means to be human within my lifetime, unlike anything that has been brought to the philosophical table before.

Digital storytelling is currently trending towards becoming more realistically immersive and requiring more audience agency. With movie and TV production gearing towards profits above all else, video games are the champion of these features, along with a huge variety of new, unique stories. Collaborative games are extremely popular when they run well, so I expect that genre to increase in popularity once player's technology can easily handle the gameplay requirements. My prediction is that games which are fully competetive rather than collaborative in how they advance a story will become an expanding genre! It's all still up in the air, so I'll have to set down this story for now until we put a few more years of the present behind us.

* * * * *