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What can stories do for technology?

In the second monthly essay by Professor David Trotter, Cambridge University’s Screen Media and Naturalism expert examines the way that stories can bring meaning to technology. Last month he addressed the inverse question for us here.

The first weekend in October witnessed, among other things, an ‘industry and social media first’ in the shape of #YOUDRIVE, an interactive advertising campaign for the new Mercedes A-Class shown in three parts during ITV’s X Factor. At the end of each part, viewers voted via Twitter to determine what the protagonists did next, the majority choice ‘steering’ (get it?) the action. In this case, story has been reduced to an adjunct of technology: the interest lies in who wins the vote, rather than in what happens next. That’s the problem with current doctrines of interactivity: whim masquerading as agency. Get involved – never mind in what (OK, OK, it’s a car ad).

‘You drive the story’ (and then the car) was #YOUDRIVE’s big idea. Stories, however, even stories about technology, even stories about technology which use technology, may be at their best when they drive you.

Stories tell us what technology means. They remind us that it has a meaning before it has a use. If we want to alter the use to which a technology has been put, we must first alter the meanings which authorize that use.

Stories, which are nothing but meaning, know what it means to mean. Hence, perhaps, the powerful attraction they appear to feel to the moment of the emergence of a new medium: the moment when the meanings out of which that medium arose are still raw, still diverse – not yet naturalized into a single predominant use. Stories are the stuff of fantasy, as is any medium at the time of its inauguration.

But when do media ‘begin’? Did television, for example, begin in 1884, when the first patents for a workable system were filed? The ‘Nipkow disk’, a mechanical scanning system which transmitted live images over a short distance, was to shape the development of television into the 1930s. Even then, it didn’t work. But the reason for its failure to become a medium was less its technical deficiency than the fact that nobody yet had any idea what it meant. There was no pressing need for it to be made to work better than it had hitherto.

Did television in the UK begin on September 30th, 1929, when John Logie Baird’s Television Development Company first broadcast experimentally on behalf of the BBC, transmitting sound and pictures alternately in two-minute bursts to a grand total of around thirty viewers? The ‘picture’, on this occasion, was a kind of pale, fizzing, glutinous silhouette approximately the size of a saucer. Or did it begin on November 2nd, 1936, when the BBC began to broadcast regular programmes? By that time cathode-ray technology was producing a higher-definition image than anything mechanical systems could achieve.

Television became television when it started to mean broadcast news and entertainment. The fact that viewers could now actually see what they were looking at mattered less than the fact that they now knew what it meant: which, with sharp variations in content and format, and a massive surge in additional providers, is more or less what it means today. But it wasn’t always so.

Baird first marketed his ‘televisor’ sets in September 1928, when nobody knew what they were for. Earlier that year, visitors to the Ideal Homes Exhibition at Olympia had been able to inspect a house containing a similar device positioned not in the living-room, as we might now expect, but in the study, where it keeps company with the electronic regalia appropriate to a titan of finance: wireless transmitter and receiver, tele-text machine, and so on. To the designer of this particular Ideal Home, television meant business rather than pleasure. It meant narrow-cast (one-to-one) rather than broad-cast (one-to-many) communication. And it meant purposeful interactivity, rather than couch-potato indolence.

Baird hedged his bets. The televisor was a window on the world. It showed actual events at the moment of their occurrence. But it also provided the kind of intimate contact at a distance which had hitherto been the preserve of the telephone, the first fully accessible, interactive, real-time telecommunications medium. Get involved, never mind in what, could still have been the message.

That interval of uncertainty, when the new medium had arrived, but nobody yet knew what it meant, saw the publication of a story which makes its rawness palpable. The Television Girl (1928), by Gertie de S. Wentworth-James, the veteran author of smirking bodice-rippers with titles like Pink Purity and Crimson Caresses, features a fabulously authoritative and up-to-date osteopath who in best Ideal Homes style has installed all the latest gadgets in his spacious bachelor apartment, including a ‘Blair’ (that is, Baird) televisor. This device is a telephone with a screen.

A wrong number fortuitously connects the osteopath to his ‘television girl’, and it’s love at first sight. But this is not love at first sight as it might have been imagined in a medieval romance or a troubadour song. For a relationship begun by television is thereafter for quite a while conducted solely by that means. The lovers develop a ‘televisor playfulness’ which takes them and their feelings for each other in unexpected directions. Online works better for romance than offline, is the message. Except that Wentworth-James doesn’t in the end have the courage of her own playfulness. For the key which unlocks all this sexual chemistry is not television, but narcissism. Dispiritingly, the television girl turns out to be an osteopath in disguise: though of course, being a woman, she’ll have to give that sort of thing up when she marries her mirror-image.

The Television Girl was a story about what television might have meant, in 1928, before it became something else altogether. For us, it’s a story about what television would still like to become, as it struggles to compete with the interactive, many-to-many capabilities of new social media. Its ultimate significance, however, may be that it’s not a very good story. The interactive version would be easy enough to imagine. What does the osteopath drive? A Mercedes A-Class, evidently.

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