What happens to storytelling when the audience knows everything?


The opening of the classic science fiction conspiracy show The X-Files posed an evocative statement: “The Truth Is Out There.” Well, the truth is still out there and, thanks to the internet and mobile technology, humanity is well on its way to having continual access to any truth we want.

These days anyone with a mobile phone or tablet carries vastly more computing power than all the computers on Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in 1969. Add in online access to the ever-growing libraries and archives of human experience and it’s possible for many people to instantly learn the answer to nearly any question they have.

And we’re merely at the beginning of continual access to human information and knowledge. Wearable tech and its promise to embed online access into clothing and eyeglasses and more, is already appearing. Body tech will follow shortly after.

We’re already seeing major changes in society from people having access to information through mobile devices. Paper maps and guides, which existed for thousands of years, are nearly extinct in some countries as people use their phones and GPS to navigate. Printed encyclopedias and dictionaries have also mostly disappeared, replaced by Wikipedia and other online resources. And social movements like the Arab Spring owed much of their power to the instantaneous sending of information between people by social media.

Those are merely the start of the changes we’ll see when every human has instant access to any information they desire. And one intriguing question I’ve been pondering is what this continual access to information will do to storytelling.

Here’s the issue: the vast majority of stories deal with an information gap between that story’s characters. This gap between what is known and not known by different characters helps create a story’s drama.

For example, in Romeo and Juliet a main character commits suicide because he believes his lover is dead. But what happens to that story when the characters can instantly find out they’re both alive?

Or what about Liam Neeson’s film Taken, where a father hunts for the people who kidnapped his daughter? What happens to that story when the father can instantly know the address where his daughter is being kept? Or his daughter can access an online database to learn of her kidnapper’s true nature when she first meets him?

And what about the eternal horror story where a group of kids visit an isolated house containing a monster or killer? What does that story turn into when the characters not only know the monster is present but download the monster's profile and stay in continual touch with each other instead of splitting up to be killed?

Those are only three examples of stories where having instant access to information could kill much of the story’s drama and plot. And this doesn’t take into account certain literary genres like mysteries, which could face extinction if people expect anyone to solve a crime after researching for a few seconds on their smartphone.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it’s an issue today’s authors and story creators must address. Otherwise their stories will no longer be believable. Audiences accept and go along with stories because of suspension of disbelief — the term refers to how people accept fantastical aspects of stories as long as the story has a semblance of truth. And in a world where many audiences already have instant access to all the information they desire, not giving characters the same access will cause that audience to doubt other aspects of the story.

Authors are already dealing with this issue in their fiction. I’ve talked to many writers over the last decade who bemoan what cell phones have forced them to do with their stories. If a character in a story gets lost or needs to call for help, an author has to set up exactly why that character doesn’t pull out their phone and use Google Maps or contact the police.

Ever wonder why so many films and books these days are set in areas with bad cell phone coverage? Mystery solved.

Much of human history revolved around a scarcity of human knowledge. Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world of danger and strangeness, governed by scientific rules they didn’t understand. Even when civilizations began inventing written languages and record keeping, most people didn’t have access to that information. Instead, storytelling and oral traditions and religion and gossip and rumor were essential for the sharing of needed knowledge.

But things have changed significantly over the last few centuries as schooling and literacy expanded, and as the printing press and then radio and TV gave more and more people access to needed information. One way to look at human history is that greater and greater percentages of humanity are continually being given the tools to access the knowledge and information they desire.

And now we’re on the cusp of every human having access to all information all the time.

Despite all this, ready access to information and knowledge is unlikely to totally destroy stories because the biggest source of human drama in storytelling won’t disappear. For many years to come you still won’t know what the person next to you is thinking or planning to do. The individual worlds and thoughts which swirl in each and every human will still be mysterious realms. Great stories will continue to explore the drama and conflict arising from that.

And just because humans will have 24/7 access to all information, that doesn’t mean they’ll desire the correct information. Or understand the information. Or act on it properly. All of which provides even more fuel for great stories.

In many ways science fiction and fantasy stories are able to deal with this issue far better than other storytelling genres. After all, if you set your story in an epic fantasy world without cell phones, or in a future universe or time where information is severely controlled, audiences won’t expect your characters to have continual access to needed information. Basically, the SF/F genre has long used world building to address why characters can’t use magic or technology to access any information they might need.

I wish I knew exactly how our information revolution will eventually change stories. But that’s exactly the information I’m unable to access at this time.