(Non)Fiction In The Age Of Big Data: A Prediction

The aim of this post is to predict what mainstream narrative art, by which I mean TV and audio series and perhaps movies, will be like in 10–15 years. And my prediction is this: we will spend time watching or listening to people, everyday people who have happened to have dramatically or comedically interesting lives and who have recorded those lives. People will become a form of entertainment, and will push out the need for fictional narratives created by writers.

There are a few reasons taken together that make me think this prediction, although arguably suprising and implausible, is kind of irresistible. Here are the reasons:

(Aesthetic Reason) Among the billions of people alive, a decent number of them live lives more interesting than anything fiction can come up with, and narrative art about real people is more aesthetically compelling than such art about fictional characters.

(Surveillance Reason) Much of what we do is recorded, and there’s no reason to think that this will stop, furnishing the raw materials — pictures, sound files, movies — to form audio-visual narratives.

(Connectedness Reason) The communicative distance separating people from each other is closer than it has ever been before, enabling people’s everyday lives to get out there, be recognised, and get an audience.

So, think about this: some people live dramatically or comedically interesting lives. John B. McLemore, the central figure in the acclaimed podcast S-Town is, not to spoil anything, intrinsically a very interesting person: deep, multi-faceted, intelligent, funny, weird. If I think of the protagonists of the novels I’ve read in the past five years, very few match him in how compelling I find them, and at least a lot of this is because he’s real. I felt for John much more than the typical lit-fic protagonist because his experiences were real, and many seem to have felt the same way judging by the outpourings of affection for him easily findable on social media sites.

YMMV, of course, but I don’t need to rest my case of my experience: it’s simply a numbers game. The population of the world in May 2018, google tells me, was 7.6 billion. That’s a lot of people. I hope it strikes you that just as a matter of statistics lives are being led out there that rival in dramatic power the best that any writer can offer. This is the Aesthetic Reason for my claim: there are good true stories out there.

Of course, this has always been the case: truth, as the saying goes, has probably always been stranger than fiction. What differs is that it went unrecorded. The chance that someone living an interesting life could document it has historically speaking been very, very low. The chance that someone could audio-visually document their life has been until very recently essentially zero.

That’s changed, and this is the Surveillance Reason. We now all have devices capable of recording our every action; moreover, we use services one of the main aims of which is precisely to keep track of our every action in order the better to target advertising at us. This has been the subject of much dystopian speculation and fiction, but as far as I know the aesthetic consequences haven’t been recognised, namely that the interesting lives out there can now go recorded in minute detail, and these recordings can go to form of the matter of new works of narrative fiction.

So let’s grant both that there are lives out there dramatically more interesting than fictional lives and that there’s now a good chance that they’ll be recorded, and thus can form fictions.

That would still be no good if there were no way to get those stories out: to get those stories to receive the attention of the people who watch and who decide what others watch. But the Connectedness Reason secures this: again S-Town is a good example. John was able simply to email a producer at This American Life. It’s easy to forget this fact, but the chances of a poor, isolated country person getting the ear of an elite member of the media would have been, until recently, extremely low. But that’s changed, and that means that these stories can now spread among people, either by being sent to producers or, perhaps more likely, by being uploaded by their creators and found out by the crowd.

If you get this reference, think about what a great symbol it is — it would take a good artist to come up with it. That it forms the part of an actual person’s actual life just makes it all the more powerful

That’s the main claim of this essay done: in the future, for the reasons suggested above, we should expect that some of the many millions of interesting everyday lives that would previously been forgotten will be recorded for posterity and distributed, and consumed as entertainment. Indeed, it’s arguable we’re already seeing this, with the glut of acclaimed true crime documentaries like Making A Murderer, Serial, and The Staircase. We’ll just see this trend amplified and expanded beyond the crime genre, I think.

This will lead to lots of interesting ethical and philosophical questions. These are already pressing to the watcher or listener of the shows mentioned above. Is it ethical to present someone’s life as a matter of entertainment, perhaps especially when, as is frequently the case in crime shows, there is a dead person who doesn’t get to opt out? Do the producers mislead us when the dripfeed us bits of the story to lead to dramatically satisfying cliff-hangers, or are they simply partisan, having taken a side and wanting just to make the case that their subject is innocent or guilty or good or bad, as the case may be? I don’t know the answer of these questions, but if I’m right in the central point of this post, we will have to square up to them in the future.