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From Aristotle to AI: the evolution of storytelling [Digital Edge]

Stories are the organising principle of reality. That’s as true today as it was at the dawn of human consciousness. But the way we tell those stories has changed immeasurably and, as a consequence, so have we.

That was the message from NATIVE VML CEO at the opening of the Digital Edge Live event in Sandton, Johannesburg.

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As he pointed out, we’ve always told stories, but we’ve never told them in the way we do today.

“Technologies that we’ve only really been playing with for the past 20 years will change the shape of storytelling forever,” Xenopoulos told the thousand-strong audience.

The seasoned digital adman spoke about how how incredibly quickly things have changed in that time. The rise of the home computer, followed by the evolution of mobile, and virtual reality means that storytelling is interactive, non-linear, participative and location-based. The stuff game-makers and film-makers

“You really start to wonder where story ends and reality starts,” he said.

But just as technology has changed storytelling, so storytelling has changed technology. The two are inseperable. Without story technology has no meaning.

Think about every keynote Steve Jobs ever delivered. Their magic lay in the Apple co-founder’s ability to tell you a story. Jobs always kept numbers and specs to a minimum. Instead, he spoke about iMacs with colours so vivid you could lick them and how the iPad would allow you to surf the web and answer emails from the comfort of your couch.

Instead of talking about speed, and processing figures, he weaved in the genius of Jony Ive’s designs, drawing people in and convincing them that their lives really would better with the latest Apple product. So potent was the effect, that the term “reality distortion field” was coined for Jobs.

The products Apple launched had flaws, sure, but because of the narrative he weaved Jobs they didn’t matter. They sold in millions upon millions and laid the foundation for Apple to become the megalithic beast it is today.

As Xenopoulos pointed out at the event, “the greatest stories are not those that recount the facts of history”, but those that illuminate what it means to be human.

Read more: 6 lessons we can learn from Nelson Mandela about dynamic storytelling

That’s because humankind is all metaphor. The very notion of humanity is a story we tell ourselves. Yes fact and observable phenomena are an important part of that story, but it’s still a story.

“The stories you tell create the world around you,” the NATIVE VML said, pointing out that “our imagination is our true home. It’s not just the source of our creativity”.

“Technology is an extension of our minds and stories are the extensions of our thoughts,” he added.

Jobs understood that as surely as ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle did thousands of years ago. The technology might change, but the fundamentals of good storytelling remain the same.

No matter what technology we use, the primary purpose of storytelling must be to look beyond fact and into the mysteries of human nature. The virtual and augmented storytellers who understand that will be the ones who succeed, not the one who use the technology first.

Read more: The curious evolution of brand storytelling [infographic]

True as that may be, we have to think about what possible dangers we might encounter as storytelling continues to evolve.

“When we create alternate realities…we risk abstracting our perceptions of reality even further,” Xenopoulos said.

While that may sound like something you’d hear in a post-grad philosophy seminar, Xenopoulos’ point is valid.

What he’s really saying is if we allow technology to let us abstract those perceptions of reality too far, then we risk losing what it means to be human.

And that sense of of humanity is what we should always keep in mind when it comes to marrying technology and storytelling.

“It’s not outward that we should look but inward,” he said.

Image: Nedbank via Twitter.

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