“Future Fictions”

Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi, Mahma Kan Athaman (Whatever The Price) , 2010, a novella published by Bidoun.

Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi, Mahma Kan Athaman (Whatever The Price), 2010, a novella published by Bidoun.

In the June 2013 issue of Frieze, I contributed to “Future Fictions,” a survey on how stories will be told in the future, how narrative structures will change as technology advances. The other contributors were Ian Cheng, Timotheus Vermeulen, Fatima Al Qadiri, Christiane Paul, James Bridle, Orit Gat, Holly Willis, and Lev Manovich. See below for my contribution, and subscribe to Frieze (or wait a while) to read the entire survey.


Do we want a new form of narrative made in the crucible of Web 2.0? Or do we simply want narratives that capably represent the experience of life in the early 21st century?

If the former – if we want to ‘disrupt’ narrative – I have some suggestions. A company called Narrative Science promises to inaugurate ‘the new age of storytelling’ by employing algorithms to process big data into stories. The pitch: ‘With spreadsheets, you have to calculate. With visualizations, you have to interpret. But with stories, all you have to do is read.’ Meanwhile, the start-up Summly aims to condense all news into ‘algorithmically generated summaries’. As the company’s 17-year-old founder avers, thanks to Natural Language Processing, the world’s information will conform to ‘my generation and their style of content consumption; fast and to the point’. And then there are the ‘human curators’ – the best kind! – at Project Webster, who assemble Wikipedia entries and non-proprietary textual pap into print-on-demand books with Google-optimized titles like Classical Children’s Stories and Their Influence on the World’s Culture: Orbis Pictus.

If we want to do the latter, well, how about the novel? None of the new narrative formats that Ian proposes seem alien to the novel – if one considers the life of the novel over time, in relation to readers now and in 300 years, whether in New York or on colonized Mars. I resist the notion that a form as durable and capacious as the novel must be supplanted by some new narrative technology that seems bred by our particular – and patently exploitative – social, historical and technological configuration. (Statements about Web 2.0 and the blogosphere having ‘returned the people to the public sphere’ reek of Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.) Flash back to 1992, when novelist Robert Coover published a paean to hypertext entitled ‘The End of Books’. ‘With its webs of linked lexias, its networks of alternate routes (as opposed to print’s fixed unidirectional page-turning), hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favouring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author,’ Coover gushed. ‘Hypertext reader and writer are said to become co-learners or co-writers, as it were, fellow travellers in the mapping and remapping of textual (and visual, kinetic and aural) components, not all of which are provided by what used to be called the author.’

Epic fail. Hypertext may have enabled intriguing literary experiments and satisfying on-screen realizations of Poststructuralist theory, but have you ever tried reading GRAMMATRON, Mark Amerika’s putatively groundbreaking 1997 hypertext narrative? In 50 years, how many people will think of such works as anything but technological novelties?

Even in the age of industrialization, the novel must have seemed like an anachronism to some. But Victorian literature managed to register and respond to the new regime of production and the accompanying psychological conditioning. Authors like Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens – for whom the onset of factory time felt ‘as if the sun itself had given in’ – filled their novels with time-sensitive mechanical processes attended to by members of a nascent managerial class constantly checking their pocket watches; efficiency meant productivity, leisure was tantamount to revolt. Literature functioned to process – and often combat – the fragmentation wrought by industrialization, even while capturing some of its dynamism.

I don’t mean to argue for the supremacy of the novel, or to discount bleeding-edge aesthetics, but rather to assert that traditional narrative forms can represent contemporary experience just fine (depending on the author). We don’t need algorithmic literature or refresh-ready tweet-books. In fact, it seems important to maintain some distance from the world of apps, some tension between our hyper-mediated daily experiences and the forms we use to represent them, if we are to maintain some lucidity in the face of the onslaught. Which is to say: I don’t need my text-messaging proclivity relayed back to me in the form of a never-ending SMS epic written by a robot in China generating chapters in response to my online shopping habits and geolocation data. What we do need – and this is why I find Fatima’s contribution so compelling – is a way to process the spectral standards that buffet us; new languages, or at least styles of speaking, to describe the invisible infrastructures and technological protocols that order human interaction, so as to avoid submitting to their dictates.

Perhaps this means incorporating the networked chat-language described by Fatima and the corporate uncreative writing outputted by Narrative Science, Summly and Project Webster into a novel – an Arabix Bartleby set in a Natural Language Processing lab.

Alexander Provan lives in New York, USA, and is the editor of Triple Canopy.