By Gregory Betts
Back in 1984, in the original Ghostbusters movie, Harold Ramis (through his character Dr. Egon Spengler) announced, “Print is dead.” It was an off-handed barb, but yet it was no innocent comment. Indeed, read from a slant, the movie stages a battle between the book (the Biblical ur-text of the film) and experience-based science. It is more than just a contest of fantasy versus reality. The film debunks the religious metanarrative of mid-80s America with a new species of scientific triumphalism in which God isn’t just dead, he’s defeatable.
Like a giant marshmallow version of Marshall McLuhan’s theories, Ghostbusters heralds the emergence of a new immersive, technological environment. Literate-era mythologies and practices dissolve in the cross-streamed glare of electronic light and atomic connectivity. One of the consequences of the shift is the death of old forms of narrative that then persistently haunt the new world. The idea of plot changes in this shift. The Ghostbusters traverse the cityscape in search of the scattered remains of the past; defeating it becomes an entrepreneurial opportunity.
In the ancient world, narratives were essential tools for the instruction of the population. Epics contained all of the codes and rules of a society: they taught citizens how they were expected to greet and host visitors, who all of their Gods were, and where they came from. The knowledge of a people was packed into their stories, and taught by constant repetition. Heroes represented dramatically complicated codes of conduct. Plot served morality.
Stories changed with the invention of the modern era, with the printing press and the arrival of mass literacy. Narratives shifted to focus on the growth of individuals, rather than static societies. Character development highlighted the sudden taste for individual freedom amongst readers. Plots mapped out the transformation of characters, their moments or loss of personal liberty, and the potential for change. Shakespeare and Dickens mapped out in glorious detail the turmoil of the individual consciousness in the midst of a lifestory.
A friend asked me to explain the “story” of Pokemon Go the other day. It was a question characteristic of an old way of thinking of narrative. Pokemon Go is not a narrative in the Literate-era sense. It isn’t about people and their individual development, about class realizations or spiritual epiphanies. The story, in as much as there is one, is a series of repeated encounters and experiences that teaches its audience the rules of an imaginary society. It has augmented St. Catharines, as well as every other place in Google Maps, by populating this landscape with the unforgotten ghosts of ‘90s popular culture.
The game is to traverse the cityscape in search of the scattered remains of the past, using augmented technology to capture and harness these digital ghosts. Pokeballs and the Ghostbuster’s ghost trap are the same tool in a new post-Literate environment. Imagine if there were three Ghostbusting companies who could battle each other with the creatures they capture: that is, essentially, the scenario of Pokemon Go.
But because of its medium, Pokemon Go trains its audience to re-imagine the world outside of their cellphones as a space of absence. A familiar sidewalk without a Bulbasaur or Weedle is now somehow empty. In a way, Pokemon Go and new forms of narrative in the 21st century are much more akin to Classical epics than the modern novel. Characters have become, once again, functions in a cosmology, not fulminating souls struggling for grace. Unlike the Classical narrative, however, plot is not linked to morality but raw sensation. The old Popish function of art ‘to instruct and to delight’ has been replaced by ‘to experience and to delight.’ (One could argue that the new Ghostbusters movie, however, and the public debate around its representation of gender, highlights a reassertion of the link between morality and plot.)
As video games and augmented reality platforms capture the popular imagination, literature and the idea of narrative is being pulled into a new mode of storytelling. Linearity is an early casualty of the new mode. All aspects of literature are in the midst of being transformed. American art theorist Andrew Blauvelt predicts that “In the future, most designers will be creating reading experiences not book designs.” The Dutch designer Luna Maurer notes that reading has been replaced by information absorption in digital field where “it doesn’t really matter whether it is text or image.” Data isn’t linear. Plot is just one form of information visualization.
Half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan was already thinking through the problem of literature in the digital age. He was particularly interested in transforming the passive reader into an active participant, and reimagining the interface through which we encounter reality.
The spectacle playing out across St. Catharines today, where you can watch thousands of people burn calories in their engagement with this new form of narrative, seeing the world through a handheld interface, ghostbusting, confirms many of his boldest and most seemingly outlandish claims. We have entered into our narrative environments where the past is always the content of the present. We now read our landscapes for the fantastical markings of the imagination. The tremor of a vibrating cellphone is the message of our augmented reality.
If you are looking for change or dynamism in this plot, in this narrative, look to the citizen of the present. Rather than our characters, it is we who are changing. Reading is changing. No longer for isolated readers sitting quietly in private spaces with our books, narrative today is moving people into packs that wander cityscapes in imaginary collectivities. The new narratives are teaching us about our world and how to read and reimagine the ghosts of the past.