Category: Communication

Story not understandable in itself

Walter Benjamin diagnosed information as the main mode of communication for modern capitalist society; one supplanting the battered craft of storytelling. Stories communicate incompletely, eliciting interpretations that draw from and integrate into one’s experiences. Their “compactness” makes them suitable for recalling and telling. It is this integration of experience enabled by narratives that imparts wisdom. It was the requirement of plausibility that made the story form inadequate for conveying knowledge.

Information, in contrast, “is understandable in itself,” capable of only an unequivocal, objective interpretation.  It is its lack of interpretation that renders information incapable of giving wisdom.

The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks. The Storyteller: (Benjamin, 89) Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (1936).

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only in the moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time (90).

In Benjamin’s time, news media and journalists was the predominant information industry. Journalists offered slim narratives to recount world events, replete with biases and perspective.

Facing diminishing revenue, mainstream journalism has seems to be moving away from creating narratives towards merely delivering facts, like uncut footage, in its full unfiltered rawness. Those familiar with the work of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis know this as “Oh Dearism.”

In our time the Internet’s data glut offers everyone a even less digested, more fragmented, polyvocal form of information than journalism – information that is not necessarily understandable in itself. The open question is just how to make sense of so many sources and perspectives discovered online.

As mainstream journalism transforms, new possibilities for independent voices become reputable platforms for debate and dialogue. Paradoxically though, the increase in voices and perspectives has also tended to produce a narrowing of information selection as consumers choose to read sources that suit their biases.

The superabundance of information has also produced a strange conflation of data and knowledge. Having so much data has in ways deformed the concept of knowledge in the oddly Humean notion that “correlation supersedes causation” as argued by Wired‘s Chris Anderson in his article The End of Theory. Why model human thought and behaviour when Google will tell us what it is exactly since “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.

Such is the fantastical dreams of techno-utopians such as Anderson – to see the end of theory (i.e. the end of human stories) as an solution to troubling debates about the nature of human behaviour, about ethical decisions, or explanations for why things have beauty or value. Information cannot impart wisdom, and wisdom is what is needed to make good use of, or evaluate anything. To loosely borrow from Kant: data without theory, without concepts, without wisdom, is blind.

And so Benjamin might be arguing that storytelling, and the integration of stories into our experience of the world, are more basic to us than information. Is it possible to even talk about data without stories?