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Maybe you can handle the truth: How tech has dulled our taste for tall tales

Digital culture seems up in arms about the ways the new Steve Jobs movie diverges from factual history. Unlike the film, nothing ever failed in an Apple demo, Jobs didn’t get into fights with people before going on stage, Wozniak never said any of the things his character does in the movie, and engineers simply don’t work and speak the way they do in the movie.

For people who knew Jobs or Apple well – or have even read Walter Isaacson’s book – the poetic license taken by the film feels like an inaccuracy being entered into the historical record. In that sense, it’s worse than a time-travel inconsistency in the Star Trek universe.

But is that really why people are so disturbed? Biopics have always taken liberties with real lives of their subjects; the dismay over this fictional take on the Jobs legend rivals the hoopla over a lustful Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ.  Something else is going on: We’re dissatisfied with how movies work, because digital media has rendered them – or at least the way they tell stories — obsolete.

Bedtime tales

Aaron Sorkin is probably our best living cinematic storyteller. In full disclosure, I grew up with the guy, directed him in high school musicals like Pippin and Charlie Brown, and sat next to him in the American History class where he got the idea for A Few Good Men. I really do love him and respect his work.

Digital media has rendered movies – or at least the way they tell stories — obsolete.

But there’s something about his writing that has always struck me as, well, almost too perfectly theatrical. The stories in his TV shows and movies are impeccably engineered to set up conflicts that conspire to bring out the precise inner flaws of each character involved. Superhuman dialogue – everyone has the perfect thing to say in every scene – increases the stakes until we reach an emotionally cathartic resolution that is both unexpected yet – in retrospect – inevitable. Sorkin is today’s master of Aristotelian narrative, that beginning, middle, and ending in which a character and his or her entire world descend into chaos then just come together, make absolute sense, and make us cry. It’s why we love such stories. Or did.

Because the real world just isn’t tidy like that. Conflicts don’t resolve; they linger and fester. Like terrorism or global warming. In real life there’s almost never a sigh of ultimate relief. The cathartic self-knowledge of the sort depicted at the end of every perfect drama doesn’t even happen in the shrink’s office, much less the night before a trial (A Few Good Men), an election (An American President) or an iPhone demo.

At best, good drama of this sort is escapist. It gives us a way to see life the way we’d like it to be: Justice prevails, evildoers get their comeuppance, and honor is rewarded. Sorkin shows like The West Wing or The Newsroom succeed not because they show us what those environments are really like, but because they show us what they should be like. In stark contrast to the calamity defining George W’s tenure, we get President Martin Sheen on a heroic journey on par with Shakespeare’s Henry V.  While the ratings-driven newsmedia boggles the Gulf War and misreports elections in progress, The Newsroom was an homage to journalistic ethics and integrity trumping ratings and profit.

Director/producer Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin on the set of "Steve Jobs".
Director/producer Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin on the set of “Steve Jobs”. Image used with permission by copyright holder

But these worlds must be depicted this way in order for them to serve as the perfect engines for heroic drama of a very particular type. They are shot in a photorealistic style, but they are backdrops for the classical well-made play.

As Sorkin recently told Wired, he is not really a screenwriter, but a “playwright who pretends to be a screenwriter.” What he may not fully realize is that this makes him not just one, but two full media revolutions behind the times. We are living in a digital-media universe, where the rules of drama described by Aristotle 2,000 years ago no longer hold.

Stories you can click

For decades now, interactive media devices, from the remote control and the VCR to Netflix and the DVR have changed our relationship to filmed stories. If we don’t believe something, we can change the channel. If we don’t understand something, we can pause and go back. We have a freedom we couldn’t enjoy as live broadcast viewers – much less as movie theater goers. We don’t have to sit through the rising tension, the plot twists, or the frustration of the protagonist unless we want to. We can watch three shows at once, cutting back and forth between them as TV operators rather than as mere TV viewers. We watch movies on YouTube, less as immersed audience members than as distanced critics.

In real life there’s almost never a sigh of ultimate relief.

That’s why traditional sitcoms and hour dramas with weekly happy endings gave way to stories broken up into lots of little pieces, or serialized over years. The Simpsons was written for the channel surfer. We don’t care about whether Homer gets out of the nuclear power plant before it blows up; we are watching the show scene by scene, trying to recognize which commercial, movie, or other show is being satirized. It’s like Mystery Science Theater 3000, where the satisfaction comes not from getting to the end, but getting the reference. The implied hyperlink.

Meanwhile, premium channels like HBO are filled with shows that don’t ever really resolve. We don’t watch Game of Thrones to see who is going to win the war, but to watch the game in progress. Look at the opening titles over a map of the seven kingdoms: It may as well be a fantasy role-playing game or World of Warcraft. The object of such a game isn’t to win, because that ends the play. It’s to keep the game going.

Likewise, our real lives in the digital era have become less traditionally structured. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman tells us to dispense with the notion of a career, and to think in terms of 18-month gigs and a constant search for new opportunities. You never get to the promised land. There is no end. The only ones still left hawking a story with an ending are VCs pushing the millionaire-minting “exit potential” of their startups – and, thanks to Mike Judge’s show Silicon Valley, most of us are coming to realize what malarkey that turns out to be, too.

The jig is up

The truth is, we have outgrown the kinds of bedtime stories that have placated us and assuaged our anxiety for centuries. We don’t need the contrived resolution of Mark Zuckerberg sending a friend request to his ex-girlfriend at the end of Social Network, or the emotional catharsis of Steve Jobs forging a relationship with the daughter he neglected.

Besides, our digital technologies and the sensibilities they foster have made us less likely to want to watch someone else’s story than to experience our own in a video game. When we do turn to media today, it is less likely in order to hear some story than to check a fact. In this age of transparency, we want to know what’s really going on.

To Sorkin’s credit, it was the villain in his first great play who argued that we “can’t handle the truth.” Reality, Jack Nicholson’s character explained, is just too messy, too dirty, too violent for us innocents to behold. We require pretty stories.

But as members of the digital generation, we have learned to interact with the worlds behind the screen. We have become the masters of the most powerful technologies humankind has ever known, and eaten from the tree of the knowledge. Indeed, we have bitten into the apple.

And for that, we have the real Steve Jobs to thank.

douglas-rushkoffDouglas Rushkoff is the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now as well as a dozen other bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including Program or Be Programmed, Media Virus, Life Inc and the novel Ecstasy Club. He is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens. He wrote the graphic novels Testament and A.D.D., and made the television documentaries Generation Like, Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation. He lives in New York, and lectures about media, society, and economics around the world.
Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, as well as a…
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