The Network and the Storyteller

On storytelling and network culture. This was originally written for a show organized by Harry Burke, Net Narrative.

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While prostitutes may have the oldest profession tied up, I'd lay good odds that storytellers are older than many traditional candidates for number two.  (Gamblers come somewhere rather further down the list.) There is deep, old magic in stories.  Magic that gets into your head and rewrites the meat.  Magic that changes who you are and can be in the world.

That same storytelling lives on in the network and in the age of network culture.  Storytelling is more comfortable in the network than anywhere it's had to live since the enlightenment, since we locked up the wandering bard in the cathedral, the university, and the television studio.

Networks are made of stories.  A network is a bunch of people who share a story about how to interact.  Protocols are really just stories.  (And, as often as not, just so stories.) The converse isn't true, of coursethere's far more to a story than just a protocol, but it means that networks intrinsically hold open a space for the story.

An institution has its gravitas, its presence, a history and a body written in stone.  A tribe has blood ties and (one hopes, still) land, a way-of-living with accreted pastness.  A market has its money, its labor and alienation, but a network only has its stories, and only those stories that are being lived, told, right now.  Networks don't remember, they only act, so they must continually tell themselves those stories that they'd like to see remain.

“All of this has happened before.  All of this will happen again.”

Networks do not tell all stories equally.  Networks, like all entities with stories, tell most readily those stories in whose reflection they see themselves.

There are no heroes in networks.  This, even, is one of their defining characteristics.  There is no center.  Some nodes see more traffic today, but tomorrow they may be gone.  Networks kill heroes when they appear, because the represent a weakness and an inequality in their fabric. There's a reason most hackers who understand the world around them are at least a little reticent to claim that (loaded) title.

The death of the romantic hero, if it stays properly dead this time, is and will be one of the great gifts of the network.  Modernism tried, but in the end only replaced the hero with the architect.  Post-modern media culture turned that into the celebrity simulacrum, a cultural hangover that we're still deep in the midst of.

The name of celebrity is written on the wall of the server room in blood, a harbinger of things to come.

The stories that the network tells have a materially different quality, existing all at once from all the perspectives of the multitude, without a single privileged view.  It's not that any individual voice is wrong, it's just incompletethe stories networks tell can only be perceived in full in collective simultaneity, and those collectives have no room for heroes.

Stories do have tellers, however, and while the teller of the story of a network may be distributed, there's something else as wellnot quite a curator; more a facilitator.  The storyteller un-leashed by institutionality fell into ill repute because they were profoundly dangerous to established orders, even as they were critical in their establishment.  To be a storyteller is to be a Tricksterto be Raven or Coyote or any of a hundred other names.  The Devil tells stories, or, more accurately, he weaves them from the cloth of lives, quietly and invisibly.

This structural illegibility, the quiet little nudges that push the collective authorship into a frame only slightly more narrative than the background noise of the every-day, just enough to give pronoia something to get its teeth into, this is to be the trickster of story networks, to act without acting.

Structural illegibility doesn't necessarily mean interacting secretly, just in a manner that doesn't afford reading by the dominant paradigms. Networks make a virtue of illegibility because the only structure that matters is the functional oneadding more superfluous bits just to be externally legible adds weight without value.  Beyond that, to be illegible is a strategic advantage when doing work that is hostile (or even merely neutral) toward existing structuresa tactic from time immemorial for subcultures, for the creation of any libratory space, however transient.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the market is an existing structure. Market illegibility is freeing, but it also frees you from things like the ability to make rent, problematic as traditional solutions for illegible extra-market living fall under heavy attack.  One of the challenges of this decade (and likely the next) will be figuring out how to make illegible network storytelling if not economically viable than at least socially functionalwe must see that the Devil gets her due.

Eleanor Saitta
10 September, 2012
London, UK