Stories In Logosphere

As championed by a brave writer, should we see the Web as a crib for born again narratives, or as a crypt for redundant texts.

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Crib or Crypt (Melik Ohanian)

Once Upon A Time

Borrowing from Einstein, “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” That befits narratives: whatever the tale or the way it is conveyed, stories take time. Even if nothing happens, a story must be spelt in tempo and can only be listened to or read one step at a time.

In So Many Words

Stories have been told before being written, which is why their fabric is made of words, and their motifs weaved by natural languages. So, even if illustrations may adorn printed narratives, the magic of stories comes from the music of their words.

A Will To Believe

To enjoy a story, listeners or readers are to detach their mind from what they believe about reality, replacing dependable and well-worn representations with new and untested ones, however shaky or preposterous they may be; and that has to be done through an act of will.

Stories are make-beliefs: as with art in general, their magic depends on the suspension of disbelief. But suspension is not abolition; while deeply submerged in stories, listeners and readers maintain some inward track to the beliefs they left before diving; wandering a cognitive fold between surface truths and submarine untruths, they seem to rely on a secure if invisible tether to the reality they know. On that account, the possibility of an alternative reality is to transform a comforting fold into a menacing abyss, dissolving their lifeline to beliefs. That could happen to stories told through the web.

Stories & Medium

Assuming time rendering, stories were not supposed to be affected by medium; that is, until McLuhan’s suggestion of medium taking over messages. Half a century later internet and the Web are bringing that foreboding in earnest by melting texts into multimedia documents.

Tweets and Short Message Services (SMS) offer a perfect illustration of the fading of text-driven communication, evolving from concise (160 characters) text-messaging  to video-sharing.

That didn’t happen by chance but reflects the intrinsic visual nature of web contents, with dire consequence for texts: once lording it over entourages of media, they are being overthrown and reduced to simple attachments, just a peg above fac-simile. But then, demoting texts to strings of characters makes natural languages redundant, to be replaced by a web Esperanto.

Web Semantic Silos

With medium taking over messages, and texts downgraded to attachments, natural languages may lose their primacy for stories conveyed through the web, soon to be replaced by the so-called “semantic web”, supposedly a lingua franca encompassing the whole of internet contents.

As epitomized by the Web Ontology Language (OWL), the semantic web is based on a representation scheme made of two kinds of nodes respectively for concepts (squares) and conceptual relations (circles).

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Semantic graphs (aka conceptual networks) combine knowledge representation (blue, left) and domain specific semantics (green, center & right)

Concept nodes are meant to represent categories specific to domains (green, right); that tallies with the lexical level of natural languages.

Connection nodes are used to define two types of associations:

  • Semantically neutral constructs to be applied uniformly across domains; that tallies with the syntactic level of natural languages (blue, left).
  • Domain specific relationships between concepts; that tallies with the semantic level of natural languages (green, center).

The mingle of generic (syntactic) and specific (semantic) connectors induces a redundant complexity which grows exponentially when different domains are to be combined, due to overlapping semantics. Natural languages typically use pragmatics to deal with the issue, but since pragmatics scale poorly with exponential complexity, they are of limited use for semantic web; that confines its effectiveness to silos of domain specific knowledge.

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Natural Language Pragmatics As Bridges Across Domain Specific Silos

But semantic silos are probably not the best nurturing ground for stories.

Stories In Cobwebs

Taking for granted that text, time, and suspension of disbelief are the pillars of stories, their future on the web looks gloomy:

  • Texts have no status of their own on the web, but only appear as part of documents, a media among others.
  • Stories can bypass web practice by being retrieved before being read as texts or viewed as movies; but whenever they are “browsed” their intrinsic time-frame and tempo are shattered, and so is their music.
  • If lying can be seen as an inborn human cognitive ability, it cannot be separated from its role in direct social communication; such interactive background should also account for the transient beliefs in fictional stories. But lies detached from a live context and planted on the web are different beasts, standing on their own and bereft of any truth currency that could separate actual lies from fictional ones.

That depressing perspective is borne out by the tools supposed to give a new edge to text processing:

Hyper-links are part and parcel of internet original text processing. But as far and long as stories go, introducing links (hardwired or generated) is to hand narrative threads over to readers, and by so transforming them into “entertextment” consumers.

Machine learning can do wonders mining explicit and implicit meanings from the whole of past and present written and even spoken discourses. But digging stories out is more about anthropology or literary criticism than about creative writing.

As for the semantic web, it may work as a cobweb: by getting rid of pragmatics, deliberately or otherwise, it disables narratives by disengaging them from their contexts, cutting them out in one stroke from their original meaning, tempo, and social currency.

The Deconstruction of Stories

Curiously, what the web may do to stories seems to reenact a philosophical project which gained some favor in Europe during the second half of the last century. To begin with, the  deconstruction  philosophy was rooted in literary criticism, and its objective was to break the apparent homogeneity of narratives in order to examine the political, social, or ideological factors at play behind. Soon enough, a core of upholders took aim at broader philosophical ambitions, using deconstruction to deny even the possibility of a truth currency.

With the hindsight on initial and ultimate purposes of the deconstruction project, the web and its semantic cobweb may be seen as the stories nemesis.

Further Reading

External Links

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