The phrase “story-telling” raises my skeptical scalp wisps. I am a sucker for stories, whether of the Moth/ This American Life sort, or the literary art of, say, a Philip Roth or my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis. But “story-telling” also sometimes refers to a belief that even I consider naive about the power of stories to overcome differences, or to the commercial use of stories to manipulate us.

So, I went to the new “Future of Story Telling” conference with my skeptical hazmat suit on. But, it turned out to be an outstanding event. At the very least it helped me understand my skepticism better.

The event, put on by Charlie Melcher, attracted a great set of about 300 folks, including artists, lots of marketers and advertisers, software designers, scientists, and performers. And it used an interesting format that worked out well: Before the event, the conference made a 5-10 minute video for each of the presenters. (Mine is here.) Attendees were asked to choose three one-hour sessions based on those videos. The sessions began with a viewing of the vids, and then a 10-15 minute informal talk by the speaker. The rest was open discussion. Each speaker held her or his session three times.

I tuned mine after each go-through, of course. By the second time, I was setting up the discussion as follows:

Bill Casebeer was at the conference talking about research that shows that the brain releases empathy-producing chemicals when we hear a story that follows the classic arc. This reaction is universal, and when I had a chance to talk with Bill the night before (he’s a brilliant, enjoyable, and — most of all — patient person) I learned that chimpanzee brains also seem to work this way. So, I began my session by pointing to those findings.

But, there are plenty of natural brain reactions that we work against. For example, if the impulse for revenge were a natural impulse, we would try to thwart it in the name of civilization. Likewise if rape were a natural impulse. (This is the old sociobiology debate from the ‘Seventies.) So, I told my session I wanted to raise two questions, not as a devil’s advocate but because I’m genuinely uncertain. First, should we be resisting our brain’s impulse to see and react to story arcs on the grounds that the story arc often is a simplification to the point of falsification? Second, whether or not we reject the arc, does the Internet offer possibilities for telling radically more complex (and therefore more truthful) stories?

Then, I talked briefly about networked knowledge, because that’s what the organizers wanted me to talk about. Also, it’s a topic I like. So, I looked at Reddit (yes, again) as a place at which we see knowledge exhibited in its complexity, including the inevitable disagreements. My overall point was that our new medium is enabling knowledge to become more appropriately complex. If the Net is doing this to knowledge, perhaps it can and even should do this to story telling.

The groups at all three sessions focused on the question of whether story arcs falsify. I gave them the example of how your life is lived versus how it is retold in a biography. The bio finds an arc. But your life — or at least mine — is far more random and chaotic than that. One group usefully applied this to the concept of a “career,” a term that now we pretty much have to put in quotes. We don’t have careers so much as a series of hops, skips, and jumps. (“Career” has always carried class-implications, as did this discussion.) In fact, since (I’d hypothesized) everything is being reinterpreted as a network of the Internet sort, our path through jobs and among friends is itself beginning to look like a network. Small jobs loosely joined?

Some replied that even if your life does not consist of an heroic arc, every step of the way is a little arc. I’d agree that our experience is to a large degree characterized by intentionality (or, as Heidegger would say, by the fact that we care about what happens). But my understanding of the story arc is that it needs the intervention of an obstacle, but most of our plans go forward without a hitch, if only because we learn to be pretty good plan-makers. Further, I think the arc needs to contain a sense that it has more to say than what it literally says. “I went to a store for apples, but they were out, so I went to a different store” is not yet a story. It has to reveal something about the world or about myself: “I went to the store for apples, and the clerk was incredibly rude. Why can’t people be nice to each other? So, then…” Most of what we do has an intention, but not every intentional act is a story. That’s why I don’t see our lives as composed of little stories. And even if they were, putting those little stories together wouldn’t necessarily make the Big Stories we tell about ourselves true.

Some said that stories are not a matter of truth but of emotion. A woman from Odyssey Networks, a group that promotes interfaith understanding, told a story about hardened criminals tenderly caring for other prisoners. Quite moving. And I wouldn’t diminish the importance of stories for connecting us as creatures that feel, care, suffer, and rejoice. But I did want to raise the ethics of using a form of communication that appeals directly to our lizard brains. (Well, I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong portion of the brain. Lizards probably tell really cold-hearted stories.) I didn’t do a very effective job of raising this issue, but we could balance the prisoners’ story with a million propagandistic anecdotes from politicians (“I was in Phoenix when I met Josie Jones, a workin’ mom strugglin’ to make ends meet…”) and marketers. Maybe we should be really careful about using stories, since they can make us vulnerable to some very flawed thinking. And to be technical, I do worry also that the common ground that story-tellers find often may not be all that common after all. I have little confidence that we experience The Iliad the way the Greeks did.

It turned out that none of the three groups much wanted to talk much about the second question: the possibility of using the Net to tell more complex stories. That’s my fault. I couldn’t make the idea concrete enough because I don’t have a concrete-enough idea. In two of the sessions I did raise the possibility that some online multiplayer games are one place we might begin to look. I think there’s some value in that idea, for stories there are collaborative and emergent. But they also lack the coherence that a narrator brings to a story, and coherence may well be a requirement for a story. There are worthy experiments in having large groups collaborate on a single narrative, but that doesn’t scale stories so that they more accurately represent the chaotic and complex nature of life.

It may well be that stories need to be relatively simple and arced in the middle simply to be stories. And I would hate to lose the stories that come from artists, for great stories — or perhaps I should say truthful stories — transcend the simplicity the form imposes. But I continue to worry that story-telling outside of the aesthetic realm is a simplification that all too often falsifies. So, I wouldn’t want to give up stories. But I would be happier if we approached the form itself with a fundamental wariness.