Culture Hacker

Bridging the gap between storytelling and technology. by Lance Weiler

Culture Hacker: Is Story Simply a Utility?

Ext: Night – Suburban Cul-De-Sac – In the not-so-distant future 

Welcome to the quintessential suburban neighborhood — manicured lawns, two cars in each driveway and a bluish hue flickering from each window. Inside, families watch screens in a state of entertainment bliss, enjoying vast catalogs of content as they shop to their hearts content inspired by what they see onscreen.

For well over a decade, this has been the dream of cable, telcos and satellite companies. The promise of merging the best of what the Internet and TV have to offer has been attempted by players big and small — as if awkward keyboards, bulky remotes and a seemingly never-ending stream of peripheral devices could conquer the living room. But in 2012, Google started a rollout — Google Fiber — that in less than five years has disrupted the industry. Gone are cable, telco and satellite’s stranglehold on the living room. Consumers appear to be the immediate winners with faster access, more options and better prices. Users bask in the glow of personalized entertainment shaped by their preferences, friends’ recommendations and purchasing habits. Google has harnessed the power of their data collection and analytics to efficiently create a personalized recommendation AI (artificial intelligence) that supports your viewing habits and needs. It is possible to build your own channels by stringing together content that mixes formats and running times. Media has become ubiquitous as consumers can easily share the content between their various devices, accessing it instantly anywhere.

Meanwhile the value of stories distributed through traditional film, publishing and music platforms has diminished. Content that was once owned is now only available via the “cloud,” where consumers pay for the privilege of vast catalogs on demand. And, by default, story is now disposable, having become merely a pathway to various transactions for related and unrelated goods and services. Traditional commercial breaks that once placed brand messages within programs have faded away and TV subscription bundles have been replaced. Now media is measured in bandwidth consumption, enabling consumers to only pay for what they watch, listen to or read across all the devices they own.

Numerous theater chains have shuttered as the windows of release have collapsed and studios have found new streams of revenue within the living room by flipping what they call the “convenience to cost” equation. Previously, consumers paid to travel to a theater to see first-run titles, but now they happily pay double for the convenience to watch them at home. In fact, it is possible to get a free large-screen smart TV with higher-tier Google Fiber plans thanks to their bundled personalized sets. For those willing to share additional data by taking surveys or joining virtual focus groups, it is possible to unlock additional goods, services and deals.

But all this “convenience” does not stop at home, as your personalized recommendation AI is constantly collecting data across all your devices. Make a purchase with your mobile phone or see something with your Google Glass (eyewear) and it is all captured and filed away. Or go into discovery mode and turn on the augmented layer (supported in most phones, tablets and glasses) and enable instant discovery based on your geolocation or perceived needs at the moment. Welcome to a world of convenience and consumption fueled by walled gardens of content and media/tech consolidation. The old Internet, with its browser-based promise of a direct channel to audience, has become a nomadic wasteland of billions of sites long made inefficient by the app-ification of goods, services and content across devices.

But there is a potential silver lining to this tale, as the future it describes has not been fully written.

Storytellers need not fall prey to a clichéd dystopian digital future where creativity is devalued by those who control the gateways. They need not be pushed aside and exploited by the commoditization of entertainment and the way content is delivered, personalized and monetized. By taking an active interest in the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design of emerging technologies, storytellers can not only educate themselves to 21st-century realities, they can also make themselves a valuable part of the process. Story has the potential to drive the next generation of mobile and social applications, but how that is done is currently an open opportunity. Data advocates are currently pushing back against the Faustian bargains that run rampant, enticing consumers to trade critical data in exchange for convenience. For instance, how many people read the iTunes 42-page Terms of Service agreement prior to clicking away their digital soul? “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read” is aiming to fix the biggest lie on the Internet by providing a rating system around TOS, making it human-friendly so a user understands fully what they are granting.

But if artists do not take further action, it is entirely possible that story could become simply a utility used to fuel discovery, personalization and social connections between consumers and brands. In this scenario, films, books and music would become nothing more than loss leaders within a series of financial transactions.

As the opportunities for creative sustainability continue to erode for artists of all stripes, it becomes critical that storytellers become involved in the shaping of their own collective future. There is currently an unprecedented window of opportunity for them to do this, but for how long it remains open, only time will tell.