Report: The Way Forward: What Does The Future of Culture and Storytelling Look Like?

Posted by Justine Solomons on 19 June 2019, in Event reports, News

Words by Chris Russell, photos by Craig Simmonds

Returning to the Groucho Club for its June event, sponsored by Frankfurter Buchmesse, Byte The Book asked the question: “What Does The Future of Culture and Storytelling Look Like?” Tortoise’s Michael Kowalski chaired the three-strong panel, which comprised Alex Holmes of Mostly Lit, Ines Bachor from the Frankfurt Book Fair and Pan Macmillan’s James Luscombe.

The Panel, from left to right: James Luscombe, Michael Kowalski, Alex Holmes and Ines Bachor.

“Humans are generally quite bad at thinking about the future,” began Michael. “For instance, if you’d asked people ten years ago to predict what would happen with audio, very few would have anticipated the extraordinary rise of podcasting.” So what, he wondered, were the panel’s thoughts about where storytelling is headed in the coming years? “Immersive storytelling is becoming a big thing,” replied Ines, and podcaster Alex agreed. “Stories are nothing new,” he said, “but nowadays people are looking for immersive stories, for ways to be engaged and entertained all the time. Many rarely leave the house without headphones on.”

Representatives of our sponsors, Frankfurter Buchmesse, Ines Bachor and Alex Hippisley-Cox.

James, meanwhile, shed some light on where Pan Macmillan have been focussing their efforts. “We’re always looking to innovate,” he explained, “and we’ve recently been playing around with chatbots. We’ve been working on a voice app too, although it turns out they’re incredibly hard to get right!” He also put his money on the ‘next big thing’ being AI and machine-learning, but added that “this does kind of terrify me, because it has no governance. At PM we’ve talked about the idea of an AI slushpile, but in reality, because of bias, it might end up missing lots of great writing”.

An attentive audience, packed in tight, listening to Alex Holmes.

The discussion then moved on to the concept of narrative itself. “It’s always been a huge problem with life that it has no plot,” joked Michael, “but are we now moving towards more storied lives?” Ines was unequivocal: “Everyone in this room is on some kind of social media,” she asserted, “and social media makes everyone a storyteller … so in that sense, we already live in a highly storified world.” The rest of the panel agreed with this, but expressed their concerns about the negative connotations of the trend. “We produce millions of stories every day via Instagram, Snapchat and so on, and I do worry about the quality of all this marketing ‘content’,” said James. “It’s important that there’s still a way to find the good stuff.” Similarly, Alex warned of the misleading nature of social media. “The wellbeing factor in the UK is very low because people are searching for human connections, and while they think they’re getting these through a screen, they’re actually not. In the future we need to find ways to turn these digital connections into real-life ones.”

Great networking, as always at Byte The Book.

The evening reached an interesting conclusion when author and Byte The Book member Rohan Quine asked the rest of the audience how many people were regularly using voice recognition technology, and only around a quarter raised their hand. “We’re in a bit of an in-between phase with AI,” commented James, “and it’s difficult to predict how things will pan out.” Even so, amidst the uncertainty, there was a consensus that the important traditions die hard; or, as Ines put it: “We live in a highly technical world, and yet more and more of us are being drawn back to oral storytelling … and that’s been around forever.”

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