Thursday, June 1, 2023

Synthetic storytelling, the end of shared stories?

This text leads into an observation about synthetic storytelling, how synthetic storytelling may be defined and what synthetic storytelling might lead to. To get to that point I put forward a storyline, a story told to prepare you and align our contexts, so please “keep reading”.

(And no, this text is not a synthetic story, according to the definition I bring forward further down in the text)


One of the records (as in 33 rpm vinyl LP) that I frequently listened to before the digital era (pre-internet..) contained these text lines in one of the songs:

"If you'd come today you could have reached the whole nation/Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication"

This phrase stuck in my mind, and I can still relate to it when I think of storytelling and communication.

Fast forward to the last decade. I read Sapiens by Yuval Harari. It is a great story about the evolution of humanity and society. (I use the word “story”...) To me the book outlines some possible ways the growth and evolution of the world we know can be explained. The big picture explanations are to some extent perhaps over-simplified, but also very useful as a way to frame the broad dynamics.

Harari ties together a number of emergent innovations (that sometimes can be attributed to a single individual, but often are made possible by the context, and not seldom the same “innovation” occurs in many places independently).

One of the broad stories centers on the emergence of cities. A number of innovations,  emerging collective knowledge and behaviors, was needed for cities to spring into existence. Agriculture made production of food efficient enough to supply cities with food. However food is produced outside cities, and needs infrastructure and transportation. Hence roads, both on land and sea roads, are a needed condition for cities to be possible. For the same reason vehicles to transport the food are needed. Once cities emerged another problem needed a solution, humanity has evolved in a context where strangers can be a danger. Dunbar's number is an indication of how large a community we can have a relation across, and a city has more inhabitants than that number (150). In order to hack this limitation religion, more specific one-God religions, evolved. We are less suspicious to friends of friends than to a complete stranger, and as everyone within the same religion has a relationship with God we are all only two relationships away from each other. Religion is an innovation that enables trust between strangers. (Religion also enables other capabilities and behaviors, and not all are as positive as “trust”.) A religion is a joint story, a joint belief, that glues society together. A religion is an intersubjective reality.

Another storyline follows the role of language, and some evolutionary steps in how we use language, and related tooling. Language, or rather the storytelling language enables, has been an evolutionary advantage for humanity. It has propelled the advancement of society over time. Language is the enabler and engine for other major evolutions. Language enables joint stories. Language is an enabler for us to make sense out of reality, which applies to all types of realities including  intersubjective realities.

One of the first evolutionary steps of language was the evolution of spoken language. Sometime way back in our history we started to evolve a spoken language. Spoken language was, and still is, a very effective way to evolve joint stories. Joint stories, told by older generations at the campfire, creates a joint context which bonds a tribe together, and the stories told also transfers knowledge between individuals and generations. Spoken language makes it easier for us to learn from others, and relieves us from some of the burden to learn from our own mistakes, compared to the pre-language era.

Spoken language next evolves into written language. This evolves the stories to reach longer, both in spread and in time. A written story remains after the storyteller is gone, and is told over and over again to the reader, without any new effort from the storyteller. The storage of  stories and knowledge is no longer dependent on the memory inside our brains, we can hoard knowledge in collections of written stories. And of course the written word does not replace the spoken storytelling, the spoken word also evolves.

A next evolutionary step is the printed word, the innovation of the printing press. Over time this enabled mass-distribution of the printed word. More copies of every story written, more reach. More collections of knowledge (libraries). Shorter time to publish, and the emergence of newspapers with fresh stories at scale. And one important indirect impact was that “print” enabled a broader base of reading and writing ability.

We then see the emergence of broadcast media. Radio, movies, records, television. The possibility of storytelling at scale, with other media than the written/printed word. ("If you'd come today you could have reached the whole nation/Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication".)

The next era in storytelling evolution is the era of the Internet. Suddenly the spread of stories, both written and told using other media, is instant. The Internet era also brings two other components to the mix.

  • The distribution of stories starts to get influenced by other mechanisms than the earlier dominated “market forces”. Internet enables bespoke content streams, tailored to individuals and groups of individuals. Algorithms enter at scale, and machine learning (ML, sort of “AI”) begins to shape the algorithms.

  • Not only does the distribution of stories meet a significant lower marginal cost. Also the supply side of stories finds a lower barrier of entry, and a lower marginal cost. Internet has made it easier to contribute with stories to the storytelling arena. The emergence of user generated content and how it evolved into social media are effects of this. On one hand democratizing storytelling, which is not bad. On the other hand this abundance of stories has mixed with recommendation and filtering algorithms in a way that seems to create bubbles and polarization.

In the story on language I leave out the small scale, peer to peer, interaction. Individual interactions are coupled with the storytelling and knowledge exchange capabilities, but I want to put the spotlight on the collective characteristics of storytelling and knowledge collection.

I think the next major step in the storytelling story is what we see today. The past has evolved the way stories have been distributed, the story diffusion. The distribution channels for stories have become more and more efficient.  The supply side of stories has all the time been an artisan work, each story needed to be told and developed by someone. Now this is about to change.

You have probably heard of, and even played with, chatGPT. Perhaps you have dug even deeper in the landscape of generative AI. As the term, “generative”, implies it can generate content. It can generate stories. Easily, at scale, with low marginal cost.

Let’s frame this as synthetic storytelling. Stories that are generated in a synthetic way.

Some might argue that “we control and direct the storytelling, with the prompts, the instructions we give the generative AI”. Look closer. In most cases the prompts a short, and the output the stories are long. Synthetically generated.

This change in dynamics has several likely implications on our storytelling evolution:

  • We will be able to generate personal stories. Stories that are tailored to individual readers, either by the sender, but also increasingly by the reader herself. Bespoke stories. The only one that will read the story is you. End of shared stories.

  • There will also be an abundance of stories. The floodgates of storytelling just opened. How will we be able to filter out the good stories, the useful stories?

  • The corollary to the “abundance of stories”-situation is likely that most stories will not be consumed by humans. The stories will be primarily read by another AI, which in “best case” makes a summary for a human. Most stories will perhaps not be read at all, not even by an AI.

The last two scenarios merge together into one, where an abundance of stories are produced and consumed, with no human interaction.

The first scenario is however the most worrying to me. Up to now stories have been a shared experience for humanity. Not only “a shared experience”, but “the shared experience”. Joint stories are an integral part of the history and evolution of humanity and society. Shared stories fuels innovation. Shared stories are the glue that keeps societies together. Within and across generations we have joint stories we can jointly relate to. Over history these stories have propagated around campfires, via oral storytelling, in written text and printed books.

Now we might enter the era of bespoke stories, An era without shared stories.

Every story you read is only read by you. Every book you read is only read by you. Every picture you see is only viewed by you. Every movie you see is only seen by you.

This is the reality of bespoke stories. A scenario generated by the availability of synthetic storytelling.

Of course this is not an “either-or” scenario, or rather - it does not need to be an either-or-scenario. Will synthetic stories blend with shared stories? I do believe that the attention-market dynamics will favor synthetic stories and push away shared stories. We need to actively find a balance, and find mechanisms that ensure a balance.

What is a good balance? In one way it is of course a personal preference, and it needs to be. But it is also a joint preference, as in “what type of society might have good enough chances to continue to thrive”.

But that’s another story. And let’s make that a shared story!