Technology and the Stories We Tell

It is sometimes suggested that human beings may be characterized as tool-using animals. Some, for example Katherine Hayles, have alternatively ventured to define human beings as meaning-making animals:

“… the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals …”

To put this point another way, we might say that human beings are story-telling animals.

Interestingly, Hayles suggests a link between technology and narrative by defining narrative as a kind of technology. In Technology Matters, historian David E. Nye also links narrative and technology in a slightly different, but likewise intriguing manner:

“Consider the similarity between what is involved in creating and using a tool and the sequence of a narrative …. Composing a narrative and using a tool are not identical processes, but they have affinities. Each requires the imagination of altered circumstances, and in each case beings must see themselves to be living in time. Making a tool immediately implies a succession of events in which one exercises some control over outcomes. Either to tell a story or to make a tool is to adopt an imaginary position outside immediate sensory experience. In each case, one imagines how present circumstances might be made different.”

A little later on Nye adds, “To improvise with tools or to tell stories requires the ability to imagine not just one outcome but several. To link technology and narrative does not yoke two disparate subjects; rather, it recalls an ancient relationship.”

And further on still, “A tool always implies at least one small story. There is a situation; something needs doing.”

All told, Nye is arguing that tools and narratives emerged symbiotically, seemingly as byproducts of a capacity to imagine that was not temporally encased in the present, and that human culture depended on their emergence. Nye is hesitant to enter into debates about the chronological priority or primacy of either tools or narrative and this strikes me as a rather sensible position to take.

It is interesting, however, to entertain the problem if just momentarily. In one respect, seeking to discern the primary partner in the relationship is a variation of the debate over technological determinism. Let us agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, always told stories and always made tools. But what frames what? This may be the critical question. Do our stories define our tools or do our tools shape our stories? (Of course, I admit at the outset that this is most likely a misleading question in that the best response is of a both/and rather than either/or nature.)

Narrative is essentially geared toward the production of meaning. We tell stories to make sense out of experience. To understand our relationship to technology, then, it is worth asking what stories we tell about our tools.

Immediately, I am reminded of the grand narratives of progress told by Western societies — and perhaps American society most enthusiastically — in which technology has been a central character, if not indeed, the central character. These stories have framed the place of technology within society; they have given a certain meaning to the presence and evolution of technology. As Leo Marx, among others, has noted, as the grand narrative of progress mutated over the course of the nineteenth century, technology assumed a dominant role, eventually making the story of progress coterminous with the story of technology. This was a powerful story and it influenced the nature of technology’s relationship to society as long as the story was widely affirmed.

The conventional wisdom is that postmodernity has fatally undermined all such grand (or, meta-) narratives. I’m not so sure. I think there is certainly something to the claim, no doubt. Certain kinds of totalizing grand narratives seem intuitively implausible, or what amount to the same thing, unpalatable. Yet, even though varieties of technological pessimism seem more widespread, the myth of the machine, to borrow Mumford’s phrasing, seems alive and well. The transhumanist project and its quite grand narrative is just one example. On a less grandiose scale we may perceive a survival of the grand narrative of progress in the popular insistence (or hope) that the answer to the problems introduced by technology is simply more technology. And, of course, the myth of the machine/progress still infuses a good bit of advertising.

Moreover, if we are indeed meaning-making, story-telling animals, then it is unlikely that the lure of grand narratives will ever permanently fade away. Certain types of grand narratives will undoubtedly pass from the scene, and all grand narratives may for a time leave a bad taste in our mouth, particularly if we have binged on one of them, but in time, I suspect, our taste for them will return and we’ll go looking once again to make sense of it all.

Returning specifically to the narrative of technological progress, it was undoubtedly challenged more recently by the dystopian stories of the twentieth century, particularly postwar science fiction, which framed technology within darker, more ambiguous narratives. These stories, many of which are quite popular, elicit a more reserved and chastened posture toward technology. But, more to the point, they are narratives and as narratives they frame technology in a meaningful way.

Along with these macro-narratives that order a society’s relationship to technology, we should also note the micro-narratives we weave around our own personal tools and devices. These micro-narratives may tell the story of how we came to possess the technology, they may instruct others in using the technology, they may explicitly tell of the technology’s significance to us; in all of these ways and more, they constitute our meaning making activity with regards to technology in our lives. These micro-narratives, in conversation with the macro-narratives, go a long way toward ordering our own personal relationship with technology, or at least they are symptoms of that ordering (or dis-ordering as the case may be).

Additionally, at a level between the micro- and the macro-, we might also consider the stories of particular technologies and the way these stories intersect with larger grand narratives and more personal accounts. One might take the story of the car, for example. The story of the automobile has a privileged place in narratives about the character of American society in the twentieth century. It is intimately woven into local histories such as that of Detroit, and it may even feature prominently in our personal histories. Who, after all, doesn’t remember their first car? The story of the automobile also attracts other prominent thematic elements that comprise the larger stories we tell about our culture including freedom, motion, autonomy, and restlessness. At this level we might also include the role accorded the printing press in the larger story of the Protestant Reformation or that accorded the cotton gin the story of the American Civil War. These stories may not always be entirely truthful, but they are believed and so secure their influence.

Altogether, we may distinguish at least the following kinds of technologically related stories:

a. Narratives about a particular technology

b. Small vignettes about our personal experience with technology

c. Large scale narratives in which technology figures prominently

d. Grand narratives that frames cultural attitudes toward technology

Technologies, we might then conclude, elicit a multiplicity of narratives. They invite meaning and encourage its construction.

Finally, I’m inclined to add that while it is true that narrative preceded literacy, literacy reshaped narrative. We have always told stories, but the shape and form of those stories have shifted in response to the appearance of new communication technologies, be it the stylus, the printing press, the radio, or the motion picture, to name but a few. And so again we are left with a reciprocal relationship. Narratives shape the way we use our tools and our tools shape the way we construct our narratives.

A. Leydenfrost, "Science on the March" (1952)

One thought on “Technology and the Stories We Tell

  1. Reblogged this on Overthinking Games and commented:
    I got up early (or what amounts to early for me, at present) to beat a deadline on some freelance work, and found myself gifted with that singularly early-morning mindset, asking big questions. Being a tool-using ape, I elected to type one such Big Question into the search engine of record, and found myself at this blog post. Which got me thinking about slightly more focused Questions Of Unusual Size, such as: The preeminence of storytelling in the work that I’m doing at present (interaction design), What That Means For Civilization, and similar. It also prompted to think about the seeming modern ascendancy of digital gaming in context with the scope of the author’s thoughts on narrative.

    Sure, digital games are perhaps often particularly married to invoking narratives (whereas hop-scotch, tic-tac-toe, scrabble, etc. are content to remain primal in the abstract), but maybe there’s something of the tool to them, as well. Or, perhaps they are tools we are using to tell stories about our conflicted relationship with the broader range of modern tools — many being of a digital genus — and it’s all a little bit much for me at this hour, still, I’m afraid.

    What do you remarkable brandishers-of-tools think? Woven any good “micro-narratives” lately?

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