Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Storytelling sucks

It’s received wisdom in learning that storytelling and narrative are unquestionably good. But is it? Plato warned against filling young minds with fixed narratives and I’m coming round to a similar view, but with a twist. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and more recently of reality TV. Add to this computer games, virtual worlds, blogging, wikis, social networks, email, messenger and skype, and I find that most (not all) of what I really love is relatively unscripted, open, fluid, and often with more than a touch of ‘play’.

The top-down, command and control, baby-boomer culture is really starting to annoy me. The more I watch prescribed movies ad TV, with their fixed plot structure, and abandon the publishing hyped ‘modern’ novel, the more I enjoy life. There’s an obsession with ‘stories’ that borders on the manic in learning, the arts and media. They really do want us to open our mouths and swallow.

Big Brother - superb non-narrative learning
I recently met Nick Hewer, Sugar’s sidekick in The Apprentice, who made a good case for the programme being a learning experience for future managers and entrepreneurs. I agree but think Big Brother is better. I've said this before but I do think this is one of the most educational shows on TV because it doesn’t have a fixed narrative. It’s not entirely real, but there’s enough rope for people to hang themselves. It teaches us about how groups form, how conflict emerges and more importantly it teaches valuable lessons about acceptable social behaviour. The viewers are quick to condemn any aggressive, bullying, sneaky or scheming contestants. Young people are pretty sound in their judgments. They consistently vote for people who are helpful, socially adept, non-judgmental and generally all round good-eggs. Even more important has been the exposure given to people who generally have difficulties in life.

Look at the winners:
Craig Phillips (Ordinary bloke)
Brian Dowling (Gay)
Kate Lawler (Ordinary gal)
Cameron Stout (Scottish Churchgoer)
Nadia Almada (Transexual)
Anthony Hutton (Ordinary bloke)
Pete Bennett (Tourettes Syndrome)
Brian Beno (Black guy)

My bet this year is Mikey the blind Scotsman.

This show had done more for diversity than all the diversity courses put together, and it's fun!

It's interesting asking Boomers and Gen X/Y people about the show. To be fair, it isn't made for Boomers, they don't understand it, and they generally don't like it. Boomers like their TV polished and pre-packaged and if they're not being officially 'taught' it ain't real learning. Oh how they love those management training courses. They really can't take the chaos of real people. Bit of a cheek from a generation that seems to lap up antique, property, cooking and make-over programmes, reflecting avarice, greed, gluttony and narcissism. They’re always on about ‘celebrity culture’ yet fawn away at book festivals getting their narratives ‘signed’. On that note, literally millions used to turn out for 30s film stars (celebrities) when they arrived in London from the States. Baby Boomers are also obsessed with the Royal Family, basically a bunch of clapped-out celebrities.

With GenX/Y, it's different. They're more attuned to social observation and participation. They don't mind 'user-generated' content. It triggers endless conversation about who they like and don't like. More importantly, they discuss 'why'. Race, gender, sexual orientation, class differences, regional differences, bullying, cooperation, narcissism, styles of communication, friendship, leadership. This is genuinely informative and instructive. That’s why Big Brother works.

Sports- non-narrative learning
I love sport because of its unpredictability. The story is ever fixed and from this one can learn a lot through being a spectator or participation. My children have spent years learning Ta Kwon Do and it’s done wonders for their application, attention, sense of achievement and self-confidence, and that’s before we get to the more obvious mental and physical skills.

Computer games – non-narrative learning
Games do, sometimes, have a narrative arc, but it’s gameplay and participation that really matters. This is what makes them such powerful learning experiences. The unpredictability is what makes them challenging. When the narrative is too strong, or the challenges too narrow, the game suffers.

Wikis – non-narrative learning
Baby Boomers feel uncomfortable with Wikipedia, not because of the content but because it doesn’t fit their expected fixed-narrative expectations. They can’t abide the idea that ‘experts’ need to ‘author’ content into ‘fixed’ packages. This open, fluid and on-going debate around knowledge is epistemologically sophisticated, but they can’t live with the uncertainty. They crave certainty.

Blogs – non-narrative learning
There is a clear gradient now in ‘journalism, from comments to posts to blogs to online and print articles. Bloggers are, of course, despised as amateurs by so called professional journalists. Yet who are these journalists? I’d say the bloggers, as a group, are often a stronger in terms of their experience and knowledge. They can often be more objective, as journalists can be constrained by fear of upsetting advertisers. They also present a less fixed narrative, open to comment and debate.

Social networks - on-narrative learning
Every person’s a portal, every person’s a publisher. Online identities evolve and change within rich networks. There is no fixed biographical story here, only millions of people creating their autobiographies as they live their lives. Baby Boomers carp on about privacy but what they really don’t like is the erosion of identity as a fixed narrative. They need control. Young people are relaxed about identity. They don’t see it as fixed and immutable. It's also a great soccial lering space, where people learn about how to commuicate with each other.

Every Baby Boomer has a bad novel in them. Let them stick with their peripheral book groups. They seem only capable of feeding on what they’re served up, receivers rather than givers. And don’t tell me that this is a story I’ve just posted…..


thcrawford said...

Actually, I think your making an incorrect linkage between storytelling and pre-determined structure. Jim Gee, in his great book Why Video Games are Good for your Soul, does a great job of arguing that participants are creating their own story, that of the relationship between the player and the protagonist, even in games that don't have a narrative arc. So, it's not that the story doesn't exist or that the story is bad, it's that the participant (ala reality TV), the player (ala video games), or the professional storyteller (yes, they exist and even have conferences and competitions) create their own stories rather than those that the experts predetermine.

I think there's a place for both. Having a fixed story is sometimes necessary, but if you want to create deep learning, deep connection, or a personal identification with a character or topic, letting people create their own stories is a much more powerful approach.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, as always. However, I disagree with Sugar's Hewer: I don't think the Apprentice is about business. It is about psychology, and how to get by unnoticed.

Still, I am sure that there are lessons there - on how NOT organise teams, how NOT to interview people, and how NOT to manage projects.

Donald Clark said...

thecrawford - I agree. What I'm arguing against is narrative that is fixed and always told by the teller, teacher, trainer etc,

Patrick - you have a point - it does come cross as a sort of business as it was in the 1970s - all bullying and wide-boy posturing.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Baby Boomers have cornered the market on hypocrisy - Gen-X and Gen-Y has a bit too. But you make some good points. I am a baby boomer. There are some insights on this at

~ Nancy

Anamaria Camargo said...

Isn’t it blissful that we have Big Bother and The Apprentice in Brazil too? Such profound learning experiences… Believe me, even in this distant developing country, after being exposed to these “superb non-narrative learning”, young Brazilians too have acquired the necessary critical thinking skills to judge the “good eggs”. (Oddly enough we’re still struggling to vote for the good eggs. Perhaps there’s just not enough of them in politics. But that will change, I’m sure.)

Developing aesthetical pleasure, reasoning beyond superficiality, expanding the ability to empathize with other human beings at deeper levels—who needs those things when we can learn such life-changing skills with our local Donald Trump?

If you have never read it, and if you ever come across a copy of “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel” by Theodor Adorno, give it try. I promise it’s as unpredictable as an exciting game on TV. And PLEASE: tell me my English skills are not good enough to read the irony in your post. That must be it…

Anonymous said...

I write a boomer consumer blog called The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide at

I don't think you can lump boomers together and make sweeping statements about them. Boomers are a large demographic and contain many types of people. I don't think boomers created the current celebrity madness; we didn't have it in the 1960s and 70s.

Boomers don't use Wikipedia? You might want to check that out. I know a lot of boomers who use it.

I disagree with what you said about bloggers being better providers of information than journalists. I've read many blogs that are poorly thought out, poorly written, and not well done technically.

I think it would benefit many bloggers to take a beginning class in journalism.


Anonymous said...

I am thirty-five I don't know if I come under this category of' baby boomers' but I feel both approaches have their relevance. I want to share with you the thousands of yers old Ramayana. RecentlY,I took some interviews for an anthology related to this epic. Now, this epic is written by a sage called Valmiki and then as the tale spred(they say it's History, the versions increased.

The tribal have interprated it in their own way. The Indonesian Ramayan is different than the Indian one. So, this mutation happens, not a new phenomena. As old as History. The new thing is the opening up of this connectivity and through this I foresee the changing of the rigid patterns. The fluidity of thoughts and expression has always existed. It is just that society gave a lot of importance to people who'acted' stiff or unapproachable. These people used this acceptence that they got through their serious stiff act to promote all these dry stuff. Now that more open generations are getting connected all the walls and misconceptions are crumbling. This is one thing but to really feel contented I would rather read Robert Frost than my own silly poems. So I guess the artistically crafted literatutre has it's place. Here I want to mention that the 'modern' installation with the cadavers and blood that you have mentioned in the Arts blog is not art. In no way it qualiies as art. Art should be elevating, soothing, it should add on to life and not make you nausious.This kind of 'so called art or content' that flosts around is any day inferiour to the structured novels or stories from fine literature. So, there are many factors at play that kinda decide what fits in where. Some times the informal content is wonderful at other times it just dosen't make any sense. Finally, work is there but this made a relaxing read. So, thanks and have a great day!

Anonymous said...

I think you are wrong. I am a gen Xer who categorically hates unscritped television, fears the loss of my privacy, cannot abide facebook, and being classified as a gen Xer as I have never, ever fit that mold.

I find it insteresting that you point out how much Big Brother has done for diversity, yet still need to point out the "black guy" when you classify the winners. BTW what differentiates a black guy from an ordinary bloke?

Your post, if you follow your own logic, should be titled "Why storytelling sucks for me" as storytelling works quite well for many, regardless of their year of birth.

Tim said...

I've done impro for 20 years. I love the unexpected, the fluidity, the unpredictability, the group mind... but it's not non-narrative. For it to work, everyone has to agree that you're creating a story. Otherwise, you just get non-sequiturs.

It seems to me that what you're objecting to is not narrative per se, but narrative content being pushed down our throats by producers, media, experts. I think the key to the younger generation is not that they embrace non-narrative content, but that they are open to and crave forms and venues and tools to create their own media and content... including narrative.

Big Brother and reality shows aren't raw footage. The producers carefully edit what they've got to create... a story. Sure, it's more akin to sports, where the outcome is unpredicatable, but the show is far from non-narrative.

Donald Clark said...

Far from being ironic, I'm deadly serious. Adorno's critique of media such as TV ad Film clearly pointed to their role as controlling culture through fixed narratives. I'm not great fan of Adorno's work, but even he would have agreed that narratives are not good in themselves. This is why I would distinguish between fixed and self-created narratives. Much traditional media and education delivers fixed narratives, the alternatives I proposed have creative input by the participants. And don’t take theorizing about the ‘novel’ as being massively significant in terms of culture as a whole, as relatively few read them.

I don’t know much about Big Brother Brazil, but reading the reports, it gets massive viewing figures among young people. Remember that the point of the programme is not to watch people you ‘like’ but to observe group behaviour. This makes it very different from the standard four genres on TV – sitcoms, dramas, soap operas and ‘light’ entertainment,

I do know a fair bit about Big Brother in Mexico and the story is, I think, interesting. A catholic group called Asociation A Favor De La Major (The Silent Majority) tried to get Big Brother banned. One member, Don Lorenzo Servitje, who owned a huge business called Bimbo, an extreme conservative, got many businesses to withdraw their advertising. The culture clash was between old business and young management of Televisia. Televisia were brave enough to proceed and achieved their highest ever ratings for the show, a kick in the teeth of undemocratic big business lobbying. Nelson Mandela asked to meet the winner of the Pan-African Big Brother and there have been many other examples of its positive effect in many countries.

You’re English is superb!

Donald Clark said...

Anonymous Boomer
A demographic description doesn’t apply to all people of a generation; it’s a statistical idea, showing dispositions and trends. I know of many Gen X & Y minds in Boomer bodies and vice versa. These are general trends hence the disagreement about start dates.

Boomer celebrity culture, I believe was there all along. In the sixties, we had The Beatles, mindless models galore and hapless hairdressers. This was the era when celebrity culture dominated the swinging sixties and widened out beyond film stars to people who were famous just because they married or hung out with other famous people.

Neither did I claim that Boomers don’t use Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia has come under a great deal of fire from Boomers who object to its bottom-up, user-created approach to content production.

My point on bloggers was that the difference between bloggers and journalists is now a ‘gradient’ and no longer one of amateurs and professionals. This issue is covered well in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

Donald Clark said...

I’m not saying one is good, the other bad. It’s that there’s a new kid on the block that seems to be resented Boomers. In learning, the need for learners to build their own narratives is important. Restricting this by only serving us fixed narratives by others is too narrow an approach. This is the lesson that the internet and younger people are teaching us.

Donald Clark said...

Tightey whitey
You’re entitled to say I’m wrong but don’t patronize me with your objection to my use of the word ‘black’. Get off your high horse for a minute and consider the fact that may of your generation use Facebook, Myspace etc. they also play computer games and watch reality TV. You were clearly born after your time.

Mark Frank said...

Tim's comment hits the nail on the head. There is a need for learners to create their own ideas and outcomes - that's always been the case in many different types of learning institutions (what else is an essay in a humanities subject?). But there is also a need for structure to help people learn. If you watch an improvision programme such as "Whose Line is it Anyway?" you will get some enjoyable moments and great laughs. But it rapidly becomes becomes repetitive and shallow because it never builds towards anything interesting. You learn very little. It will never be as rich as taking Macbeth and performing it well.

Similarly with sporting events. There is certainly excitement because you don't know who is going to win. But they are incredibily sterotyped and repetitive. Just look at the current football - which my son has on all the time. The same scenes in different coloured shirts, even the same commentary, played out again and again. Maybe there are some things to be learned - but anything useful is extracted in one or two matches. After that it is pure light entertainment. Harmless but not educational.

I have never watched Big Brother :-)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald!

I’m quite definitely a Boomer. Yet I don’t like any of the TV programs you said Boomers enjoy. Neither do a dislike reading wikis or blogs, the proof of which is that I found this one and read it through from beginning to end – thank you.

It would appear from other commenters on this post that your generalisations don’t apply to everyone. That’s as expected. Generalisations seldom do.

My feeling is that opinion is a capricious entity - precious, but capricious. What’s more, opinion, when it exists, tends to migrate towards extreme positions on continuums.

As always, viewing the topic from an extreme position tends to give a narrow perspective. The more extreme the position, the narrower the perspective. So it is almost impossible without some determined effort to see how others see it from their perspective, in this case at the other end of a continuum.

You have made several statements in this post that suggest that you are sitting near one end of one of those continuums. Did your opinion migrate there?

Or did you just think intelligently about it and decide that it would be a good position to sit at and write a blog post?

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Donald Clark said...

People who disagree with the status quo are often described as extreme. If you criticize teaching as being too classroom dominated, you’re an extremist. If you criticize 50 year old psychological theories, you’re an extremist. If you criticize the incumbent generation’s habits, you’re an extremist. I post many more positive, recommendations than critiques, but it’s the critiques that draw most attention.

The point on continuums is interesting. I’d say that the ‘storytelling’ brigade often have fixed views about the awfulness of reality TV, the noisy blogosphere, the dodginess of Wikipedia, the need for classroom experiences and so on. I love books, films and drama but I don’t see fixed narrative ‘storytelling’ as being the only repositories of knowledge and ways of learning. I also believe in classrooms and lectures for certain specific purposes, and have posted many links to these excellent experiences. I’m all for contiuums but believe that the web and technology have created much wider continuums than existed before.

I just refuse to accept that the Boomers have got things right. At conferences I talk at almost every question is a veiled attack on modernity and young people by worried Boomers. They can’t believe that the methods they’ve been using for all those years may be dull and ineffective. They often lack the breadth and depth to even consider the nature of such continuums. Young people are generally more comfortable with this looser and wider world.

Today’s extremism is tomorrow’s status quo.

Donald Clark said...

I’m not arguing against structure. I’m arguing against the dominance of ‘fixed’ linear experiences in education, training, communication and entertainment. We need to accept that looser, less linear and less structured experiences have real value.

An aside. My kids recently sat a Key Stage 3 English exam on a Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. It didn’t occur to the teachers that it may have bee useful to actually go and see the play (a brilliant production was playing in London). They had to endure endless text analysis which has destroyed their interest in the play. So at times the fixed experience, if that’s the target, is necessary.

On sport, some of my richest experiences have been playing or spectating, whether it’s tennis (I’m getting older!), football, basketball or the Olympics. It has enriched my life and taught me so much. My kids have spent years doing Tae Kwon Do, and I can’t tell you how useful this has been in terms of their confidence, assertiveness, psychological attention, discipline, sense of achievement, focus, fitness, as well as their ability to defend themselves and others. I have hugely enjoyed the many conversations with fellow sports fans on topics such as leadership (Ferguson versus Weneger and so on), coaching (visioning, the need for metal rehearsal and practice), teamwork (sophisticated methods in sport, often primitive in work) and so on. I don’t buy this dismissive attitude towards something which stimulates so many people in so many cultures across the globe. We, as a species, are Homo Ludens.

And why are people so proud of never having watched Big Brother?

Unknown said...

Donald, re BB of course broadly you're right - but don't you think the recent removal of Alexandra from the house shows that it's staring to become the opposite of a learning experience? Endemol recruits these obviously socially challenged characters to cause maximum friction and then gets all censorious when they turn out to be bullies/racists/flakes/gangstas. Surely the whole point of learning is that you don't make the same mistake twice? Maybe we've learned all we can from that particular narrative ;)

Mark Frank said...

I’m arguing against the dominance of ‘fixed’ linear experiences in education, training, communication and entertainment. We need to accept that looser, less linear and less structured experiences have real value.

By "fixed" I guess you mean the plot is decided in advance. So, this would include documentaries but exclude the News and current affairs discussions? Such fixed experiences may be dominant in education and training but how can you argue that they dominate communication and entertainment? Have you looked at the TV schedules recently? What is the proportion of fixed programmes to unfixed?

Having said that - scripted experiences may be fixed in some respects but they can be surprising (even when you know the script well) and unscripted events can be utterly predictable in all but the details of the plot. Which is more predictable in its vocabulary, tone, visual effects, emotions etc - a football match or a Stephen Poliakoff play? Which one is the more likely to stop you in your tracks and make a new connection? Which one will continue to surprise when you watch it the second time?

I am not pround of having avoided Big Brother - but it is a reasonable choice. It is on a par with avoiding smoking. I have seen some reality TV programmes and, unless it is something radically different, I think there are more rewarding things to do with my time. Like sweets or a soap opera there is a danger it might hook me into wasting my time and feeling dissatisfied afterwards. So it is best not to get started.

"Linear" is different from fixed. If it means anything it presumably means the viewer cannot change the order in which things happen. In this respect sport and reality TV are both linear for all practical purposes.

Donald Clark said...

That's maybe to assume the 'fixed' narrative view from the start. I think it's the unpredictability of the programme that makes it so interesting and instructive. You don't really know, absolutely in advance, how people will play out. Brian, the previous winner, was an adopted black kid with low educational achievement, and wasn't that articulate, but tured out to be a damn fine, sensitive, funny and lovely human being. That's why he won - he broke the back of the stereotype.

The Alex sitation, I believe, was also a learing experience for the millions who have watched the dozen or so episodes so far. Her inner city, faux gangster attitudes were repulsive and the audience, and housemates, saw her for what she was - a crude bully. This does more to combat bullying than all of those 'fixed' narrative government ads, school programmes and adolescent novels (which the bullies ever read). What was really interesting were the quite sophisticated discussions I had with my kids over the different types of bullying she applied over the two weeks. It started with the 'having a go' at weaker housemates over trivial issues, with the usual not listening to the other person. She raised the stakes by claiming that people were not telling her 'to her face' what they thought, while, at the same time speaking endlessly behind their backs. This was the point that her 'mates' saw her for what she was - a hypocrite, and abandoned her. She raised the stakes again by literally threatening other housemates with retribution, outside of the house - at this point she was removed. My kids really did see the differeces between, angry outbursts, being two-faced and being unacceptably threatening. What was more interesting was their need to watch the programmes, "because everyone discusses it the next morning at school". This is the way to get to this generation, encouraging constructive 'peer-discussion' not preaching at, and down, to them.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Mark
By 'fixed narrative' I'd include news and most current affairs programmes. TV and film are largely a sit back and watch experiences 'scripted and structured content'. This is the whole basis of that horrible, Reithian, BBC view of the world - to entertain and educate the great unwashed masses. This is why the BBC rejected Big Brother when it was offered to them, handing one of TVs great successes on a plate to Channel 4. Peter Bazalgette knew that the BBC would kill the programme stone dead with its preachy moralising.

I'm not saying that 'scripted' content is bad, only that there's far too mcuh of the stuff around and that there's a pendulum swing among the youg towards looser, user-generated content. Great fixed narrative content is great but so is great unscripted genres like reality TV.

In my experience, Gen X/Yers accept both - they love movies and Big Brother. Baby Boomers (not all) often have a knee-jerk reaction to reality TV, dismissing it without even trying it out. They climb on some sort of moral high-horse because this new world is unfamiliar and breaks some of their cosy, existing beliefs. TV is their medium and they cherish scripted 'drama'. That's fine, but why condemn new genres becuase they don't conform to the old models.

I highly recommend Peter Bazalgette's Billio Dollar Game, where these issues are explored in some detail by a real expert in a fixed narrative format!

Andy Tedd said...

Donald I think you are saying narrative when you mean didactic narrative/storytelling.

A blog is an authored narrative, and if you dont think the producers at Big Brother are constructing a narrative - then what are they doing?

The difference is that there is a bit of space for the audience in the construction of these narratives in the new genre, unlike a 1000 page novel.

I agree with your general thesis that baby boomers are responsible for everything that is wrong in the world :)


Donald Clark said...

Exactly. There's no doubt that this blog and BB have narrative elements, but both allow others to contribute. BB sets off with a bunch of housemates/contestants, the plays with them through tasks, interventions. Narrative is then introduced through the edited highlights. However, huge amounts of time are also broadcast live ad there's the web, voting etc. I still think that Boomers hate it because they don't get it.

Boomers are obsessed with the 'novel'. They'd tie kids down and force feed them novels if they could. Don't they just love their book clubs. I got tired of working with people who were 'working on their novel'. As they say, every Boomer has a bad novel in them.

Mark Frank said...

There's no doubt that this blog and BB have narrative elements, but both allow others to contribute.

I get the point about blogs and wikipedia. They are new, interesting, media which are hugely popular among all ages. That's why I am writing now (I am 57).

But I cannot see why you approve Big Brother, while you condemn the News. The only room for the audience to contribute to Big Brother is to be one of millions who vote (a voting system that is so meaningless its proponents don't even realise when it has been rigged). The only substantial contributors other than the producers are a few carefully chosen participants. Meanwhile the News will include contributions from just about anyone in the world and their contribution will only be decided hours or even minutes before it is seen.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Frank
Never intended to 'condemn' the news. For me, it's not an either/or. I suppose the news is a series of short reports that have to stick pretty much to what happened in the real world. In some ways the 'news' can pretend to be objective, when it really is a politically driven narrative or narrow and national. When I'm in the US, I find it difficult getting 'world news' and flee to the internet. On TV I find Fox News nothing more than bile.

My comparison is really between 'storytelling' through scripted TV and film (soap operas, sitcoms, drama etc) and BB. I also think that millions voting is not insignificant. They have thought about the issues and spent their ow money to take action - it's participative and fun. What makes it a fascinating new genre is the way the participants drive the narrative through their own interactions, under the pressure of the 'game'. This is pretty radical - hundreds of millions have watched and it has changed the mix of TV genres forever.

Wife Swap's my other favourite (I'm covering my head as I type!)

Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny how we all see the world so differently? I rarely watch sport on TV because the narratives seem formulaic and predictable to me.

re the educational use of stories: as with any educational medium or resource, it's how we use it that counts. So storytelling is not intrinsically good or bad.

re the generations: I don't believe that all people of a certain age are open to user-generated content and certain other ages are not. The generation X/Y/Z thing always seems a bit like astrology to me.

Dan Sutch said...

"It is only in the narrative mode that one can construct an identity and find a place in one's culture. Schools must cultivate it, nurture it, cease taking it for granted."

This is a fascinating book that argues that placing yourself in, or creating your own narrative is central to learning and understanding the world around you.