Fact: the rate at which our access to and handling of information is speeding up exponentially.
Of course, right?
And Fact: The previous, if accepted as fact can be seen as having changed the way we consume and process the aforementioned information, particularly the information we call ‘stories’.
Bear with me here, it might get rocky but I think these are important things to think about as we surf the web and head out to the book store.
Stories (and all of our art in general) are information – bits of fact, prejudice, experience and insight distilled and processed through the individual cultural focal lenses of their authors, linked with characters and, in good cases, plot. Stories are the product of those authors and the lives they’ve lived. Now think about those authors, and their readers, and how they have adapted to the Internet and you will begin to see what I’m talking about. We’re in an accelerated time and the storytellers we look to for knowledge, experience and entertainment have also accelerated. I’m not talking about the way hack big names crank out four times as many books a year as before, I’m talking about the way tv went from being a consumer-schmooze nothing to a viable alternative to cinema for real storytelling capacity, arguably starting with The Sopranos (or realistically OZ) and picking up speed with almost every other network imaginable. Lost is the perfect example, a massive, sprawling philosophical story that hit big at first but then dawdled and almost died within the standard television ‘season’ format. Lost needed to shed the 22 episode-until-bust format for something more fitting for its particular story or it would have died a terrible death. And since almost being canceled it of course found its optimum format and blatantly hit its stride, finally able to become what it should have been all along* – an episodic continuing storyline that can captivate viewers and drive rating from week to week but is essentially optimally consumed in dvd set mega-bites.
But I’m not just talking about tv here. Part of it is the cultural ADD I see in myself and everyone around me but I’ve witnessed changes in how we read comics, listen to music and watch movies.
For instance, I’ve read monthly comics my entire life and never had a problem remembering from one month to the next the major nodes of the story – hell, I read Stray Bullets in it’s sporadically evolving periodical phases and I never missed a beat when a new ish came out, regardless of whether it was four months or a year between issues**. These days however I get titles like Garth Ennis’ The Boys or Stephen King’s various Dark Tower series on a monthly basis and I tend to have to wait for a story arc to finish before reading them, otherwise I don’t quite remember all the pluses and minuses of the story. Of course this could quite simply be explained as all those brain cells I killed in High School coming back to haunt me, or it could be the shot glass theory – if our brains are shot glasses we previously filled them from shallow-mouthed bottles of information and entertainment. With the exponential growth of information and processing speed we are now essentially leveraging punch bowls at them. The tiny organs catch what they can and watch helplessly as the rest spills over the side, only to stain the rug and become a half-remembered fragment to maybe echo back at a later time, teasing us with half-remembered glimpses and approximations of what Alzheimer’s no doubts holds for some of us in the future.
Just like the television networks the comic book industry has changed because of this exponential growth. Everyone in funny books has become centrally geared around the Trade Paperback (essentially the ‘DVD box set’ of the comic world). Are the storytellers catering to cultural laziness or is this just an exceptionally cool way to tell stories? I for one cannot argue that I’d always rather read a trade, but I would be afraid to abandon the twenty+ years of tradition I’ve settled into reading monthlies. And I’m not alone – many of the comic fans I know (and I know many) would tell you if you asked that they will probably always retain a nostalgic reflex for a weekly jaunt to the local shop. It’s interactive, social and community-ish in a way that facebook and discussion threads have all but made extinct in us today. Not to mention it would be potentially pretty damaging for the industry to go simply to a trade format-schedule – the comics companies themselves would no doubt survive, but the local comic shops, already in peril within this economic Frankenstein, would flounder and die rather quickly. And I for one would not want to live in an world without comic shops***.
But the trade is now many of our preferred way to read those stories. Part of this is the work of Brian Michael Bendis and his ‘generation’ as they have made the jump from the indie arena to controlling the major Universes, just under ten years ago. Bendis, Millar, Morrison (especially) always wrote the big picture stories and this philosophy has taken over the once ‘An-Adventure-A-Month’ realms of the big companies. With this generation the idea of ‘writing for the trade’ is very much in place as the working philosophy for all major titles. Six issue story arcs fit nicely into corresponding collections, and whether you’re waiting for the trade or not it seems a lot of us find this is how we read them anyway, i.e. my previous confession that when reading a story arc in The Boys I usually get frustrated month to month and just wait for the arc to finish.
Now tie this back to the advent of the the HBO-started series-as-a-long-film format. Even Lost can get hazy from week to week, because of course here to we are getting more and more used to consuming this stuff in the aforementioned ‘chunk’ formats. When you get into a series while it is airing is a totally different experience than when you sit and scarf it down in DVD boxset format. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily but herein we get to the ‘New Media’ argument, because the old ‘periodical’ way of doing things is probably going to die with those of us who are in our late twenties/ early thirties now and the younger generations are not only going to equate media of all kinds with bite-sized, easily digestible formats they are also going to quite possibly move away from stories all together. We are in the age that Frank Miller and William Gibson (among others) predicted -the age of infotainment, i.e. – youtube. As a friend of mine who teaches journalism recently said to me ‘why should I spend two hours watching a movie about things blowing up in Iraq when I can just go to youtube on my phone and watch an actual Hummer get blown up?‘ I for one do not feel this way, cannot even imagine a world without stories, but is that no different than the sixty-year old Foghat fan who still doesn’t own a CD player because vinyl is better****? Stories probably won’t disappear completely but who knows how our technology is going to continue to mutate the social mores and conventions we once considered permanent?
Does any of this matter? I think it does. Is this information-accelerator good or bad? Are we getting stupider even as we are exposed to more and more stimulus, all of it ready to go in a moment’s notice, right there at our fingertips (or perhaps more conveniently and colloquially said on our iPhones at a moments notice?)
Only time will tell, so tune in next month for the next chapter. Or just wait and buy the trade.
* My good friend Mr. Brown told me recently that he has pledged to re-watch the show from the beginning as soon as it ends next month. My wife and are are excited to follow suit but terribly afraid of just how infuriatingly slow those first two and a half seasons are going to move. Thus is the bane of the network-think that Lost may have rescued both creators and viewers from – when a show is good the exec’s want it to be fleshed out to last forever, which is essentially an unsustainable format for close-ended storyline. This manifests, as in The Sopranos where the creators were offered enough money to milk it along for an extra season or two with antsy viewers and in many cases alienated fans. Then everyone wonders, ‘what happened to ___? It was such a good show.’
** Of course that could also be because Stray Bullets was better than damn near anything else since, with the exception of Preacher and The Walking Dead. Dear David Lapham, none of this is criticism, I love you and want You to continue to work for the big guys and make money to better provide for Your family BUT I NEED CLOSURE!!! In Your own time, but please…
*** Even if I wouldn’t be able to find a good one in Southern Cal to save my life.
**** And make no mistake, it is better!!! Analogue signal vs. one’s and zero’s? No competition.