The Art of Digital Storytelling

Leave the e-readers to Madison Avenue and their computer geeks. It’s time to start playing with the prose.

In a world  where new technology launches regularly make the news—and a development at Apple practically creates a news blackout—perhaps it’s no surprise that speculation about the future of books has been reduced to a dull faceoff between bound pages and “reading devices” like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. For many of us, framing a discussion about literature’s future around which gadget is cheapest, or most compact, or enjoys the longest battery life is as uninspiring as it is unimaginative.

If mainstream cultural commentators were talking about the projects I see covered in the alternative sources circulating through the Utne Reader library, however, devotees of print would perk right up: There are a number of start-ups that have the potential to turn conventional, commercial publishing upside down; free initiatives that dish up riveting prose in bite-size nuggets; and literary communities forming around the art (not the business) of storytelling. None of these models are out to replace ink and paper outright, nor do they rely on expensive devices whose rapid obsolescence is all but guaranteed. They’re simply designed to foster clear, compelling communication.


One of the most promising trends in digital delivery is a move toward building community around stories, including new ways to conceive of reading and writing as a social experience. One hyper-participatory reading project being explored by the Institute for the Future of the Book (IF) is discussed with contagious enthusiasm in Humanities magazine (July-Aug. 2009). Founded by Bob Stein, who launched the CD-ROM pioneering Voyager Company in 1984, IF is focused on an open-source tool called CommentPress, which allows users to make notes in the digital margins of a book or essay, as well as engage in discussions with other readers.

 You can peek at version 1.1 of Gamer Theory, a CommentPress-enabled “networked book” by McKenzie Wark, professor of media studies at New York’s Eugene Lang College, on IF’s website ( Wark teamed up with IF in 2006 to create a portal for his work in progress about gamers and gaming. Visitors tagged typographical errors, questioned citations, and expressed respectful differences of opinion and what appear, to my non-gamer’s eye, to be fundamental philosophical differences. “If we really disliked the inconsistency of real life,” writes one commenter alongside the second chapter, “gamers wouldn’t constantly be thirsting after more complex game engines that throw tricks like wind and other types of chaos into the fray.”

“But a game engine is still a game engine,” Wark responds the next day. “It’s not chaos.”

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