Most of my life has been spent dithering between two environments. As a boy I spent my winters in Canada and my summers in Texas. I now live in a town friendly to amphibians; Davis, California, is famous for its toads.
My first novel was half science fiction, half murder mystery, and the books that came after it were usually equally unsure of which habitat was really their home.
My work life has become amphibious, too. I have continued my career as a novelist while at the same time, by a fantastic stroke of luck, I have been able to participate in the birth of a new kind of storytelling.
THE INTERNET IS A PRINTING PRESS
One way of looking at novels is to say, “This is the kind of art that emerges from the platform of the printing press.” Over many centuries, great writers have explored all the ways the arrangement of words on paper can entertain, enlighten, delight and console us.
Similarly, movies can be understood as the artform that arises from the existence of the motion picture camera. Artistically, a lot of what the 20th century was about was the exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of that medium. It does not lend itself, like a Henry James novel, to unwinding the labyrinths of our interior monolgues—but on the other hand films have a visual intensity and dynamic charge Henry James can’t approach.
The internet is another platform for art. Like books and films it has strengths and weaknesses. Loosely speaking, the internet is structured around two behaviors: searching for stuff, and gossiping about it. By incredible good fortune, I have been in on the ground floor of a series of projects that use Searching for Stuff and Gossiping About It.
The internet’s nature is participatory. People who will read books very happily don’t want to do that in front of a monitor. The internet promises that sometime soon you will get to click your mouse and Stuff Will Happen.
BEYOND THE FOURTH WALL
“The fourth wall” is the imaginary barrier between the audience and the stage. The nature of the internet is to blur or even erase that wall, and much of the work I have done since the turn of the millennium has been about finding ways to tell stories on the wrong side of that wall—to make the audience part of the play.
The world I grew up in had a fundamental model of Active Broadcast → Passive Audience. ABC would put out a show: I would go the Channel 3 at a specific time and watch what they put there.
The internet doesn’t want to work this way. As an audience member I browse for the news and entertainment I want at the times I want it. Increasingly, the “channel” is defined not by the television, but by me: I am the Sean channel, and I pull programming to myself, using my browser, my phone, my email, my instant message client, my circle of friends.
If you start from the premise that the audience is the channel, you can make works of art that feel intensely personal in ways other artforms are hard-pressed to match. When I read about Lucy going to Narnia or Harry Potter entering Hogwarts, I have a wonderful second-hand experience of exploring a mysterious new world. If I can use my browser and my phone to enter a fiction, however, that experience isn’t second-hand any more. I am not imagining what it would be like to explore that world, I am actually exploring it.
The internet, curiously, has allowed me to keep the most fundamental (and unobtainable) promise of the fantasy books I grew up reading. I was one of those kids who wanted more than anything to go to Middle Earth. The promise of “fourth wall” art is that you get to go.
You don’t just watch heroes, you get to be one.