Narrative in the information society

Spring 2000


Theorists attempting to identify salient features of a putative "Information Society" argue about whether our current technological environment constitutes a break with the past or a continuation of existing processes (Webster, 1995). Those who see continuities focus on social forces, and argue against technological determinism. Their opponents view technology as a linchpin of culture. At stake is the definition of daily life in the Western world: if we are indeed in a new, "information" culture (whatever that finally comes to mean) then we should — must — see and do things differently.

I will argue, based on an analysis of the history of media change, that we are in fact in a qualitatively different society, one which has profound implications, particularly, for how we talk about whether we are in a different society. In short, I’ll attempt to link the postmodern condition to the emergence of electronic media, and offer suggestions about why our language has become confused, and how we begin to talk about our world from within an authentically digital framework.


Media theorists have identified three paradigm technologies in the history of communications: orality, literacy, and digitality. Each technology influences the epistemologies, rhetorics, and social structures of the cultures which employ them (Ong, 1982, Eisenstein,1979, Postman, 1985, 1988, Baudrillard, 1983). While the imputed effects of orality and literacy are fairly well understood (if still subject to debate), when theorists have looked at the digital, their focus has usually been on its sequellae: surveillance, (Webster, p.72) economic restructuring, (Webster, p.85) information management, (Webster, p.125) postmodernism (Webster, p.175) or information flow (Webster, p.199).

While all these are worthwhile subjects for investigation on their own, study of these pheneomena by themselves is risky on three counts. First, despite ad hominem arguments that technological determinists are merely "techno boosters," (Webster, p. 218) a substantial body of — highly critical — literature exists on the impacts of the digital. (Postman, 1999, Joyce, 1995, Moulthrop, 1989)

Second, the truly "digital" world has existed for less than fifty years. To assess the impact of such a technology — even, or perhaps especially, if one wishes to dismiss the technological contribution to change — one needs to insure sufficient timescale in the analysis to allow the effects to surface or to conclusively demonstrate that there are no such effects.

Third, McLuhan (1964) cautions us about what he calls "rear mirrorism." Since we are completely bound up in a culture in which technology is at the very least implicated, we are inhibited in teasing out its impacts. Rather, we find ourselves looking backward, always noticing the world behind us which is passing away and hence becoming visible. He points out that Plato (one of the first written philosophers) is highly critical of writing, and looks back with fondness to the oral. The reactions of many critics of the digital (cf. Birkirts, 1994, passim) displays just such rear-mirror tendencies.

And there may be other confounding factors here. One of the very effects of the digital revolution may be to engender the confusion in language which theorists like Webster and the postmodernists encounter in their attempts to define the information society. But to understand what the character of the digital really is, we need first to take a conscious look in the rear-view mirror.


Orality describes the state of cultures whose predominant form of communication is the spoken word. Language is of extreme antiquity, probably deeply implicated in the rise of organized human endeavor many tens of thousands of years ago, but it is important to remember that language is a technology. The characteristics of oral cultures are linked to the features of spoken language: its evanescence (Ong, 1982), its origin in the human lifeworld (Ong, 1982), and its involvement of hearing, a sense modality which is inclusive rather than detached (McLuhan, 1964).The following charts (McDaid, 1991) representing correlation among media and their social impacts are derived from the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979), Eric Havelock (1976), Harold Innis (1951) Marshall McLuhan (1988, 1964, 1962), Walter J. Ong (1982, 1977), and Neil Postman (1999,1988, 1985).

Table 1
Characteristics of Orality




physically present


physically present

capable of response


contextually related

culturally enabled

recursively shaped

by context

forced to track text in time

Note. Orality gives rise to texts which are formulaic and repetitive.

Orality is the base upon which other communication technologies build. Written language, which Denise Schmandt-Besserat (1994) traces back to ~4,000 BCE in Sumer, emerges against the ground of underlying oral culture — in fact, the cultural shape of orality creates the need for further technological extension. While Jacques Ellul's (1964) strong determinist view that technology shapes culture to its own ends may not be warranted, there is evidence that factors in the ancient Near East mitigated against a solely oral culture. Orality's inability to innovate, its ineffectiveness as a durable and transportable code, and its inability to adequately homogenize an expansive empire served as the springboard for literacy (McLuhan, 1964).

Table 2
Characteristics of Oral Cultures


















eternal Now



Note. Oral texts lead to a formulaic pattern of information management, and oral cultures inherit this predisposition.


Denise Schmandt-Besserat (1994, p. 267) has argued that written text was "the byproduct of abstract counting." The linearity of text, which we take as primary, is for Schmandt-Besserat, a side-effect of the fixed sequence of mark-making in the recording of numerical transactions. Marxist critics and folks like Webster would find this a most congenial fact, if they could bring themselves to believe that technology shaped culture: writing was invented to facilitate business.

What began as a series of clay tokens, each representing a unit of some good, was gradually abstracted. First, the tokens were gathered up in an envelope. Then, years later, someone had the idea of marking the envelope with images of the tokens, encoding the contents. Finally, in what Baudrillard (1983) would glibly dismiss as "precession of the simulacra," the tokens became unecessary, and the marking on the envelope acquired truly symbolic status.

When you can no longer break open the envelope and physically count the number of objects, you must have rules about position and direction: "the linear and hierarchical sign order continued the way that accountants had formerly manipulated tokens." (Schmandt-Besserat, 1996, p. 318) The directionality and linear connectedness of written language can thus be seen as an epiphenomenal manifestation of its origin. Not that oral language didn't have these traits, but rather that print adopted them without thinking.

Table 3
Characteristics of Literacy




physically absent


physically absent

incapable of response


contextually dislocated

culturally disabled

shaped at the point of "utterance"

recursively constructs text w/ multiple readings

Note. Written texts achieve innovation through analysis and hierachy, enabling absent readers to "reconstruct" meaning.

Writing was a powerful tool, but it came, like all technological re-encodings, with inherent biases, which made some things easier for cultures and some things harder. Human beings, fundamentally lazy critters that they are, usually tend to do the things that are easier, and the cultures that arise in the presence of print betray some of the aspects of print’s character. Case in point: law. In oral cultures, laws are summed up in memorable, portable phrases (the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments come to mind.) Once we invent writing, we find the Code of Hammurabi (try memorizing that big basalt tablet) and the Uniform Commercial Code (don’t even try).

Table 4
Characteristics of Literate Cultures
















consumer capitalism





Note. Written texts support hierarchical patterns of organization, both in information and culture.


As effective a technology as written language is, it is a Faustian bargain. As in all extensions of one sense, (in this case, vision) it pushes us further from the balance of pretechnological sensory experience, what McLuhan calls the Unified Sensorium. He argues (1964, pp.88-90) that the alphabet freed us from the "tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship" and through the power of letters as "agents of aggressive order and precision" gave us "empires and military bureaucracies" where individuals were alienated from their "imaginative, emotional and sense" lives.

Speech may have been linear, but at least speech vanished; its sequentiality was a result of our predicament as time-bound listeners, rather than something deliberately designed in. In computer jargon, the linearity of oral culture was a bug rather than a feature.


The analytic world of print has crumbled under the weight of its overdetermined, linear information overload. Paper-based consciousness struggles to forge the connections necessary to comprehend eleven-dimensional superstring theory, non-zero-sum geopolitics, or the implications of nanotech and genetic manipulation.(Joy, 2000) None of us can know anything, except Derrida, who knows that we can't know anything, something E.O. Wilson (1998) calls the "Derrida paradox." Well, again, so what. All this seems to be saying is that written language inevitably problematizes itself, leading us to Jean Baudrillard and Marilyn Manson, and the "gibberish" (Postman, 1999 p.81) of the postmodern worldview.

But Wilson, in his book Consilience, (1998) is not content to simply lament incoherence. Rather, he argues passionately for a vision of the intellectual enterprise, grounded ultimately in our scientific knowledge of the external world. And theorists who shrink from technological determinism will flee in terror when they encounter Wilson, who drives the search for meaning-making all the way back to — dare one say it? — genes.

Wilson takes as a given that "our brain and sensory system evolved as a biological apparatus to preserve and multiply human genes. But they enable us to navigate only through a tiny segment of the physical world whose mastery serves that primal need." (1998, p.52) What Wilson is arguing for here is not "seeing everything reduced to biology," but rather understanding the character of any epigenetic (by which we mean interacting genetic and cultural) biases which may be operating. Physics tells us that light exists as a spectrum and that sound is a flux of frequencies and harmonics; the evolution of the eye and brain limit our perception to highly determined bands of color and perceptible phonemes.

Wilson does not believe that higher functions in thought are controlled by such low-level biases, but that they are influenced. "Rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules. It is these rules and this hierarchy of their relative strengths by which human beings have successfully survived and reproduced for hundreds of millennia." (1998, p.180)

I would argue, following Wilson, that our ur-narrative constructs (selected for by evolution) suffer from similar gaps as color and sound. To come back to Schmandt-Besserat: linear narrative, like accounting, is all about successorship. This happened and then this happened. The king died and then the queen died of grief. The notions of narrative which we are epigenetically predisposed to create are self-limiting, circular, and tautological. A million years of experience in the macroscopic human lifeworld engendered a reification of cause and effect, of actors and agency, of stories that "add up."

We like linear narrative because it codes up these deep theories about experience, verified, time and again, by tests within the constraints of the system that produced them. Only as the boundaries of experience have been instrumentally expanded have such tacit theories been problematized. Ernst Cassirer (1923) called relativity "the shattering of the highest law of motion taught us by experience." Troubling notions like quantum tunneling and non-local causality threaten the core ideas of narrative. If things are neither here nor there, and information can travel faster than light, linear storytelling may be facing a challenge it cannot solve from within its circular system.


Linear thinking will always engender either the telic fallacy (end determines means) or the myth of some supernatural controlling agency.

— Gregory Bateson

Paranoia, as novelist Thomas Pynchon said in Gravity’s Rainbow, is nothing more or less than the search for other orders behind the visible. For the digital age, this is a search for significance in a universe inherently without meaning, where the everyday does not yield signs of the gods’s intent (as in Sumer or the monastery) but only one thing after another.

The digital world is rife with symptoms of the failures of linear text: rear mirrorism in the frantic managed narratives of Hollywood, the rise of the "story" against postmodernism, the relentless death-march of games (Karmageddon and Postal and Quake) the incessant chatter about the loss of "literacy," the popularity of soft (headed) science fiction stories about alterneity (alternate histories, Sliders, X-File paranoia) all illustrating the disconnect between the "laws of motion taught us by experience" coded up in writing, and the discontinuous digital world that beats in at us from every screen.

Good or bad? Well, the answer is both yes and no. We live in a culture — agree with the French theorists or not — of postmodernity; we have no choice but choice. We are all, each, finally, totally, and inescapably free, and this freedom is what drives us back into the waiting arms of linearity. We want simple stories, Grisham and King and Judith Krantz. We want heroes and villans. What we are cathecting to in the linear text is the explication of the tragedy of existence, the making-meaningfulness that we invented stories for.

Linear narrative is the last gasp of Newtonian reductionism against the force of 20th Century chaos. Print storytelling is ultimately driven by the belief — to circle back to epigenetics — that by analyzing the world, procedurally, into chunks and relations among them, that the universe can be understood and predicted. As if there were no emergent properties.

Of course, this is bogus; a wasted paradigm. Driven to its fullest implementation, what you end up with is multiple skeins of descriptors, the floating signifiers which the postmodernists are all too happy to point out. Postmodern philosophical discourse is the prose version of Finnegans Wake. Take this sample of Alan Sokal’s infamous nonsense article, unwittingly published by Social Text:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation G=8p GT under non-linear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic)…In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the p of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered…

— Sokal and Bricmont, 1998, p.224

What is perceived as the "irreducible relativity" of perception and language is nothing more than French philosophers discovering the characteristics of the digital age they inhabit.

Table 5
Characteristics of Digitality




implicated in text


virtual presence

limited response

flexible, active

contextually prompted

Cultural potentially (somewhat)


recursively created in the "reading"

actualize idiosyncratic texts from the virtual

Note. Truly digital "texts" are created through interaction, and yield new opportunities on each reading. The terms "author" and "audience" lose meaning as the roles become more symmetric.


In the same way that the sequential, linear printing press gave rise to sequential, linear systems, we have begun to see, in a variety of disciplines, the importance of recursion (our models of the human mind), of holistic thinking (global ecology, virtual corporations), and integrative rather than mass-market culture (click tracking, targeted advertising). (See Table 6) The technologies underpinning the digital offer insight: rather than the command and control hierarchies of print, new object oriented languages (C++, Java), nanomechanics, and genetic manipulation all create systems of "entities," each with some degrees of autonomy, which "work together" to accomplish a task. "Making something happen" in this model is not as much like punching keys on a calculator as it is like conducting an orchestra or managing a keiretsu.

Table 6
Characteristics of Digital Cultures










parallel processing






Object Oriented Languages




Global Village

Ubiquitous web

Note. Hypertexts suggest ways of organizing information and culture which are active, decentralized, and non-linear.



Postmodernism, to loosely paraphrase Camille Paglia, is the world-culture's post-traumatic stress disorder induced by WWII. Text itself has managed to sidestep total catastrophe, buoyed up by the incessant linearity of late consumer capitalist media; it took less than five years for business to turn the internet into the rear-mirror image of television. Hypertext narrative is still largely a solution in search of a problem.

Most existing hypertext (i.e., almost all of the Web) is what Michael Joyce has characterized as exploratory (1988, p.11). In such works, the hypertextual component is limited to navigational devices which facilitate exploration of an information space.(Think about how pervasive "nav bars" are on web sites, and how few links we now see in text itself.) The user remains in "audience" mode, and reader and author remain different jobs. While such hypertexts represent a step in the direction of digitality, they fall short of the goal Joyce sets out, texts which fully engage the reader, what he calls constructive hypertext:

Constructive hypertexts...require a capability to act: to create, to change, and to recover particular encounters within the developing body of knowledge....These encounters, like those in exploratory hypertexts, are maintained as versions, i.e. trails, paths, webs, notebooks, etc.; but they are versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist.

—Joyce, 1988 p.11 (Italics mine)

In other words, knowledge "in" constructive hypertexts exists not a preconceived truth waiting impatiently to be discovered, but rather as a potential, lurking in a Heisenbergian way. Until we create it, link it, write it, recover it —"it" does not exist. We create this knowledge contextually and share it electronically not by convincing someone that we are right, (the appeal to the "author"-ity characteristic of print) but by following their exploration of our links and exploring theirs in order to map our shared and disparate spaces, to build common ground. This is neither the mindless authoritarianism of Print, nor the hand-washing abrogation of responsibility of the postmodern.

Michael Joyce, in discussing the differences between the linear text and the hypertext, has invoked the image of Disney: "Print culture is as discretely defined and transparently maintained as the grounds of Disney World. There is no danger that new paths will be trod into the manicured lawns." (1995, p.179) He goes on to talk about, by extension, "disney texts," which, even though they may be enacted digitally, retain their control of the reading experience, and continue to provide the safe, stable experience of the printed word. In contradistinction, he offers the "wonka" text -- a name drawn from Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Joyce notes the distinction between disney order and wonka chaos, between expectations deliberately shaped and met, and expectations deliberately violated.

Disneytext — linear narrative — is a self-reinforcing, circular system. To jump out of the narrative system, the mind must be allowed to escape out of the frame, back into a world of things and processes experienced now with a wider set of perceptual possibilities, in order that new, non-linear notions of narrative — and hence of the world such narratives describe -- may emerge.

It very well might look, quite simply, like the everyday world. Not the pale, poly-agonal recreations of texture-mapped VR, but rather authentic, engaged interaction with artifacts and people whose Given-ness presents to us in the way that occasions a story. Think about how one actually discovers information on the web: a search, a few starting points, a trail of links, all leading to the discovery of images, sounds, short pieces of text which one assembles — in one’s mind — into a coherent "story" or "explanation."

For the hypertext author, this presents quite a simple and yet challenging task, of which there are relatively few examples. One must create exactly "what would be" then turn the co-creating reader loose. Bill Bly's We Descend , an elaborate parody of a newly discovered text, the journal of its decipherer, and his developing academic paper ( is a terrific example. As are the archives of the Casaba Melon Institute, a fictitious future excavation of NY’s Public Library ( Also significant are the works of the Tank20 collaborative in Chicago, and the exciting rumors about a forthcoming parody by some Media Lab folks of the Clinton scandals called the Ed Report (

The demands — creating a new kind of coherence by deliberately assembling and integrating alternatives — are high. It makes the reader an active participant in constructing meaning, and offers a purposeful antidote to postmodernism. It is also an authentic expression of the underlying technology’s tendencies, just as oral poetry and the novel were the true expressions of their media. Can such reading and writing be satisfying? Would it be possible to create philosophical discourse which embraced alternatives without dissolving into pure relativism?

Depends on how much time people are willing to commit to active participation rather than passive reception. There are hopeful signs. But the fundamental character of these types of texts is that they do not contain the story in the same sense that a novel's plot is, really and truly, contained within its covers. Rather, these texts are guided into being by the co-creating reader. And, as Neil Postman would probably like us to remember, the appropriate latin phrase for such "guiding out" would be educere, the root of our word education.

So maybe there is hope for denizens of the information society after all…



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