From Aristotle to AI: the evolution of storytelling

Story is the organizing principle of reality. The world around us is made of atoms – protons, neutrons and electrons – but it is with story that we give them their shape and their meaning. Story is the primary tool of self-awareness and as such the basis of our humanity. From the creation myths that form the foundation of every civilization, to the rich mythologies that define our culture, story sits at the heart of what it means to be human.

Aristotle to Artificial Intelligence

Two and half thousand years ago, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle added structure to what had previously been a purely intuitive and primal form of self-expression. In his short treatise entitled Aristotle’s Poetics he outlined the principles upon which dramatic storytelling is based. Today, thousands of years later novelists, playwrights, screenwriters and even game designers still turn to Aristotle for the fundamentals of narrative structure. While many of these fundamentals have remained essentially the same, the tools with which we tell our stories have obviously changed.

The open air Theatrons (as they were referred to in ancient Greece) have been replaced by air-conditioned multiplexes, 3D television and IMAX. But these linear visual experiences aren’t really that different from the ancient Theatre of Delphi. Despite cinema’s ability to compress space and time, even the most sophisticated viewing experience closely resembles the dramas of ancient Greece. But that doesn’t mean that storytelling will remain the same forever. In fact we have now reached a critical inflection point in the evolution of storytelling. Disruptive technologies like the Internet, Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence (technologies that we have only been experimenting with for the past 20 years) will change the shape of narrative forever.

Think about this trajectory for a moment: After waiting more than 2000 years for live theatre to evolve into cinema, computers came along and changed the canvas completely. Back in the eighties, personal computers introduced a new level of interactivity to storytelling (and non-linear narratives became possible); then in the nineties the Internet added the potential of global connectivity to any canvas (and massive, multiplayer participation was born); over the past ten years the ubiquity of smartphones has added a level of mobility to storytelling (making location-based stories a reality).

Add to this interactive, non-linear, participatory, location-based storytelling the total sensory immersion that comes with virtual reality technologies like the Oculus Rift, as well as the literally infinite plot-generating potential of an AI story engine, and you start to wonder where fiction ends and reality begins.

Helen Papagiannis, a Virtual Reality expert, claims that “Our Word is a hologram”, and then she challenges us with a provocative question: “Are our simulated realities any less real than the universe we live in?” If story is indeed the organizing principle of reality then it is not just storytelling that is about to be overhauled by technology, but the very nature of reality itself.

Technology is an extension of us

Terence McKenna describes technology as “the real skin of our species.” “Humanity,” he says, “is an extruder of technological material.” If technology is indeed the extension of our minds, then story is the extension of our thoughts because Storytelling and Technology are inseparable. Laurie Anderson once described technology as, “the campfire around which we tell our stories”. Without technology stories cannot be told; and without story technology has no meaning. Not only are they inseparable from one another, they are inseparable from us because Storytelling and Technology are the most critical building blocks of humanity.

Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist and mythologist famous for writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces says, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” People love metaphors because we are metaphor. Humankind is made of metaphor. We are preoccupied with the physical reality that we experience through our senses – our so-called objective reality – but this objective reality is just a metaphor for the intangible realm of consciousness from which all life emerges.

According to the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” The purpose of storytelling is to reach beneath the surface of that physical experience so that we may shine a light on the more unknowable aspects of our humanity. The greatest stories are not those that recount the facts of history but those that reveal the mysteries of being human; that illuminate the inexplicable contours of love, and hate, and triumph and jealousy, the more obscure dimensions of our being. As Aristotle says, “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”

Is the universe expanding

The universe of the “knowable” is expanding. Technology has given us the ability to see further and deeper. Every day scientists discover new species and molecules and planets and every day the universe of the “unknowable” shrinks. But as the mysteries of human nature disappear, so too do the infinite dimensions of our potentiality. In ordering and naming and defining everything, we eliminate the fantastical possibilities of our imagination… and our imagination is our true home for it is not just the source of our creativity… but the source of all creation.

Regardless of what story you tell and what technology you use to tell it, the primary objective must be to look beneath the surface of observable fact and into the mysteries of human nature where the deepest and most profound truths about our existence reside. “The aim of art, is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”, says Aristotle.

And herein lies one of the potential risks inherent in these new technologies. When we create alternate realities, when we create immersive virtual realities, we risk abstracting our experience of reality even further from its original state of pure consciousness. Storytelling has always had the ability to reach beyond the physical, into the Jungian shadow world of the human sub-conscious, to explain the unexplainable. As we move towards increasing levels of technological mediation, we need to ensure that our storytelling still reaches into the core of what it means to be human rather than creating barriers that distance us and disconnect us from who and what we really are.

We spend so much time looking into the beyond, pushing the boundaries of technology, searching for life on other planets, when in fact it is not outward that we should look but inward; because the truth of what it means to be human does not exist in outer space or in ever-more complex realms of technological advancement but on the inside, closer to that originating point of pure consciousness.

As we hurtle headlong into the technological minefields of our future, we must use Story to journey deeper into the heart of who we are because we are not just the makers of our stories, we are made by our stories; and in telling our stories we bring ourselves into being.

Whether you follow the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics or are eager to test the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence, whether you are a marketer or a politician or a preacher or a poet, remember that the stories you tell create the world around you.



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