Once upon a Future Time: Storytelling towards Change

Research Paper: Anna Nolda Nagele

The very individualised western culture has given room for capitalism to grow. Reality is highly individual and narrowed intellectually. Grand narratives and ideologies were thought to not be “necessary anymore because our society reached the point of ultimate reflection.” (Maksimov, 2015, p.5) They have been replaced by stories that are small and local and shape identities. These cultural developments have led to the idealisation of globalised market economics as the regulator for all social activities. Technological development constantly offers new solutions to personal, societal or philosophical problems. If changes are happening ever faster, the gap between reality and what we believe to be true is growing and we run the risk of failing to adapt (Toffler, 1970). Anxieties manifest in various aspects of contemporary life such as the fear of social breakdown, identity loss, unease with diet and health, as paradoxically the urgency to “[…] imitate whatever lifestyle is currently being offered […] and hence revisiting one’s own identity is perceived not as an outside pressure but as a manifestation of personal freedom.” (Bauman to Haffner, 2015, p.13

The recent financial crisis, geopolitical instabilities and climatological uncertainties trigger doubt and inspire reflection on present-day realities. Utopian desires reappear in contemporary culture, evoking a new sense of empathy, return to craftsmanship and appreciation of stories. This new utopianism can be understood as a search engine for alternative solutions. Eventually it could lead to the the acceptance of new grand narratives explaining past, present and future as a whole, functioning as a guide for those who struggle with their lives and therefore long for a utopia (Vermeulen & van den Akker, 2010, pp.65-66). New narratives are formulated on a “yes-we-can” belief for the possibility of a better future that has long been forgotten. “The current generation’s attitude […] can be conceived as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.” (Vermeulen & van den Akker, 2010, pp.1-5)

As the images of reality are changing fast and new words are streaming into our language, new symbols in poetry, painting, film and other arts emerge. The reconstructed reality brings new lifestyles, subcultures, religions and cults, as well as new perceptions, sensations and sensitivities (Toffler, 1970, pp.175-177). Fast fragmentation of societal values and lifestyles needs new basis of reconstitution (p.293). In The Medium is the Massage McLuhan and Fiore (1967, p.26) point out that to understand social and cultural change it is important to know how media works as environment and extension of human faculty. A medium is not only the technology that enables communication but involves a set of social and cultural practices that evolved around this technology, altering the intellectual environment (Jenkins, 2006, pp.13-14; McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). It mediates information and is in itself fundamentally involved in the message, in structuring the way it is received (Barker, 2012, p.267). McLuhan (1967, p.68) suggests the possibility to arrange the whole human environment as a work of art, a teaching machine that maximises perception and allows us to live with new inventions (p.124).

Similarly, Toffler (1970, pp.421-423) suggests that we need to construct a collective utopianism, embodied in many forms of art rather than an individual piece of fiction; collaboration between art, social science and futurism educates consumers about the costs and benefits of the various proposed utopian futures.

[…] by making imaginative use of change to channel change, we can not only spare ourselves the trauma of future shock, we can reach out and humanize distant tomorrows. (Toffler, 1970, p.440)

Personal narratives and perceptions are no longer formed by public narratives or external influences. Digital media and networks allow individuals to communicate and create new collective narratives that build valuable elements of new futures, informed but not restrained by the past (Jenkins, 2006). Culture and human behaviour are evermore permeating the internet and social networks. Network technologies are unfolding new opportunities to blend multiple realities, extend individual realities or create new ones. As realities are neither restricted by time and space anymore, nor bound to humans, they become ever more fragmented.
A new heuristic for human experience now blends physical and virtual space in personal, asynchronous time and physical and virtual space in group oriented, synchronous time. (Applin & Fischer, 2011, p.1)

Time has become more personalised and is perceived differently by each person, as a sense of ubiquity has begun to function as an extension of the self. New, reality extending technology and any form of online communication allow information exchange and communication in a way that permits the individual to be in a specific physical space through their physical presence, yet simultaneously everywhere in networked space. Realities can be simultaneous and create conditions in which “x” equals “not x”. It enhances the overlapping of realities and gives people the capacity to substantially change the world by supporting new behaviour. (Applin & Fischer, 2011)

In augmented and virtual realities immersive storyworlds can be created in which the future and the anxieties related to it are active and present. The immersive experience prepares its audience with the emotional and mental capacity for the future and thus establishes new narratives about the future, as well as a mindset in which a “better” future can be created. Experiences and actions taken in the designed storyworld with visible impact support the creation of a desired future reality by allowing consumers to take informed decisions that eventually alter their behaviour in real life.

Given a clearer grasp of the problems and more intelligent control of certain key processes, we can turn crisis into opportunity, helping people not merely to survive, but to crest the waves of change, to grow, and to gain a new sense of mastery over their own destiny. (Toffler, 1970, p.338)

User participation, collaborative storytelling and creation of future visions throughout various levels in virtual and real spaces makes an oscillation from individual to organisational to social levels within a well designed framework of research insights and guidelines possible. The storyworld serves as a safe place for experimentation and critical reflection as reality is abstracted through story elements as well as the employed media. Even though one feels emotionally in another time and space, one is still aware that it’s not reality and thus confronts change with less resistance. The learnings can then nevertheless be taken away, outside the safe storyworld, and inform reality.

As all knowledge was believed to be culturally constructed, grand narratives were destructed in the light of ultimate reflection and narratives and storytelling moved to local and individual levels. Alvin Toffler (1970) predicted confusion and anxieties coming with the socio cultural change driven by technological advancements. Many issues we are facing today are overwhelming, leaving many unable to cope with new, ever faster changing conditions. A quest for new utopias in contemporary culture is becoming visible. Hope for a better future for all spreads. Metamodernism, as Vermeulen and van den Akker (2010) call the new sensibilities, is on the quest for reconstructing grand narratives, searching for a truth while accepting that it can never be found. We come to an acceptance that the future is uncertain and unpredictable but the new-romantic hopes provide a fertile ground for big ideas and better futures for all.

Giving organisations the tools to gain power over consumers with the creation of new needs and fast changing trends has worked well as a business model with the rise of capitalism and fast consumer culture. Now, with new hopes for the future rising, is the time to take a chance in playing an active role in creating the future by telling stories that inspire change. To foster resilient development and innovation it is necessary to start conversations not only on organisational level, but to translate between private and public and thus support the development of new grand narratives or anchors in society.

This essay was also published at the London College of Communication exhibition “2025 – Forecasting Futures” from 13-21 May 2016. It’s content has emerged from Anna’s master thesis for the course MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins.

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Applin S. A. & Fischer M. (2011) A Cultural Perspective on Mixed, Dual and Blended Reality. Workshop on Location Awareness for Mixed and Dual Reality LAMDaʼ11, 13. February 2011, Palo Alto, California, USA.

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Jenkins H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York and London: New York University Press.

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McLuhan M. & Fiore Q. (1967) The Medium is the Massage. London: Penguin Books.

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Vermeulen T. & van den Akker R. (2010) Notes on metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 2, pp.1-14.