TED2008: Narratives and questions

Historian Walter Isaacson, the president of Aspen Institute, wonders what the future of narrative will bring. He points out that narrative has gotten the short end of the stick lately – people complain that narratives are “imposed” on facts. He likes to believe that we weave a narrative instead.

History is chronology, ahd chronologic time is linear, which tends to work better in an analog world. Isaacson points out that storytelling used to be significantly more collaborative. When Homer wrote his masterworks, they were told aloud, and could be augmented and extended by hs listeners. In the middle ages, it was common for scribes to add to the tales they told. And when actors took the stage at The Globe Theatre in London, they would elaborate and improvise around the Bard’s prose.

“The printing press makes narrative less collaborative and less iterative. It’s carved in lead, if not in stone.” The same thing happens in cinema – we’re set in celluloid, and performance is no longer participatory.

Digital media isn’t much different, Isaacson believes – “it’s old wine in new skins.” Much online writing is just old forms moved online – blogs are not that different from opeds, and Youtube isn’t much more than video.

Collaborative narratives like Wikipedia are different. Isaacson approves of the Wikipedia biography of Einstein, as he’s written his own biography, and he’s impressed by the ability of groups to create new novels and narratives in a collective way. He promises that his new book – on Louis Armstron – will be written specifically for an electronic reader. Not only will it have embedded multimedia, but it will allow for footnoting and opinion added to the text. He admits he’s not sure of the model for making money from these new texts. He’s also optimistic about vitual reality games and second life, where users control the narrative.


Ze Frank isn’t very collaborative, but he’s certainly entertaining. He tells us that Chris Anderson asked him whether to call the conference ” Big Questions” or “Big Answers”. He points out that “Big Answers” has a lot fewer hits on Google, because many people don’t what to hear the answers to big questions. “Schrodinger’s wife: ‘Honey, where’s the cat?'”

“A question is a complicated way of announcing your stupidity.” He invites us to consider different versions of the question mark. including the hanging question mark. You’re not supposed to answer it, and pretend you never heard it: “Does this blank make my blank look blank?”

His mother asked, “Are you really that much of an idiot?” The answer – “Yes I am. And if you ever start thinking differently, start asking more questions.”

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