Saving Humanity from the Machine: How Storytelling Will Keep Us Human

By Autumn Thatcher
Guest Blog Post
Autumn’s Blog

Human RobotThe digital age has brought with it exciting transformation, but with that change comes an eerie foreshadowing of a future where human beings are dismissed and overlooked for the less expensive and faster-producing artificial intelligent counterparts that are being introduced in the workforce. The idea of human beings competing with robots sounds like something right out of a science fiction novel, but in the 21st century, these Sci-Fi fantasies are becoming a terrifying reality for those who are being pushed out of their jobs by artificial intelligence. Enthusiasts of robotic employees tout more accurate data, quicker production, and an ability to create in a way that human beings could only dream of. However, these cheerleaders encouraging robots as possible replacement for human beings are failing to recognize that machines lack the ability to connect and create an emotional response with their audience due to the simple fact that they are not human. In a world where machines and gadgets are everything, there is one thing that the human race can hold on to: storytelling. Though companies have created algorithms to generate stories, these robotic storytellers cannot do justice to the art of evoking an emotional response within the recipient of a story. Whether it be through an oral dictation, a visual piece, or even through simple shapes and colors, the stories that are told by human beings are what will ultimately save society from losing itself altogether to technology.

There is a vast amount of text generated by theorists and analysts who fear for and even mourn the future of modern society because of the ways in which technology have forced human beings to be treated like and viewed as machines—especially in the workforce. In his essay “Human-Centered Design,” Mike Cooley laments the way in which the creation process seems to have been removed from the workforce, specifically within design, asserting that “we have allowed the great storytelling traditions to all but wither away” (Cooley, 61). Cooley’s concern for the endangerment of storytelling stems from what he views to be negative effects of growth of an industrial society. This growth has resulted in an alienation of humans from the very society that they have created. Cooley supports this claim by making mention of “…the deranged mentality of the expert in artificial intelligence who said on the BBC that human beings will have to accept their place on the evolutionary hierarchy of animals, human beings, and intelligent machines” (Cooley, 63). This hierarchy seems preposterous, however, it is not so much a stretch of the imagination given how widely artificial intelligence programs are used in modern society.

In 2012, Wired magazine featured an article by Steven Levy titled “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?” This piece is a blow straight to the heart of any reporter who has taken time to research, interview, and write a meaningful story. Perhaps the most chilling element of the article is the fact that Kristian Hammond, cofounder of the algorithm Narrative Science, believes that a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize in five years. Not only that, but Hammond ascertains that in 15 years, “more than 90 percent” of news will be written by computers. Hammond and his team created an algorithm that works off of software that collects data and then generates news stories based on this data. Making its debut with stories about Little League baseball games through data collected off of parent’s smart phones throughout the game, Narrative Science has worked its way up the ranks to writing for big profile publications such as and ESPN. Users of this algorithm can “…customize the tone of any story—from breathless financial reporter to dry analyst” (Levy, 3). Hammond believes that in “20 years there will be no area in which Narrative Science doesn’t write stories,” (Levy, 4). Hammond as a creator, is surely innovative in what he has enabled his robots to do. However, he clearly lacks an understanding of what it truly means to tell a story.

The tradition of telling stories has existed as a part of human culture in every area of the world for as long as mankind has existed. The ways in which stories are told have evolved with human kind, but the most significant and important element of storytelling is the connection that is built between the teller and the recipient. “When successfully employed, an audience will experience and recall the events of the story in a personal way—it becomes a part of them. This is a phenomenon unique to storytelling,” write the authors of Universal Principles of Design. According to these three writers, “Storytelling is uniquely human” and “…remains one of the most compelling methods for richly communicating knowledge” (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler, 230). An algorithm such as those created by Kristian Hammond of Narrative Science can collect data and write a story in any tone that its user assigns it, but that robot can never become a successful storyteller because it does not have the ability to truly learn, receive, and experience. A major part of what it means to be human is the ability to feel, to sense, to retain memories, and to react to things that trigger these memories. In order to truly connect with a reader, a writer would need to go beyond facts and data and into the heart of a story. The writer as reporter would become familiar with the subject, react to the details surrounding that subject, and in some cases, craft a beautiful story that strikes the heart chords of the reader.

According to Universal Principles of Design, “good storytelling experiences generally require certain fundamental elements” (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler). These elements include: setting, characters, plot, invisibility, mood, and movement. While an algorithm may be able to grasp the setting, character and even plot of a story through data, it would be impossible for the robotic writer to truly capture the mood of the story because this element “creates the emotional tone of the story” (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler). In order to create emotion, the storyteller would first need to feel it, something that is not possible for artificial intelligence to do. Being unable to create an emotional tone in a story decreases the algorithm’s chances of being successful at becoming invisible to the audience member as a storyteller and setting up movement that allows the story to flow.

Human beings as storytellers are able to adopt and employ all elements of storytelling because of their ability to feel and experience. The way in which stories are told vary due to the advancements that mankind has made. Though Mike Cooley believes that storytelling has withered to near extinction, the many ways in which they are now communicated would prove otherwise. In fact, artists, writers, and digital designers alike are all able to tell a story in their own way and because these different methods evoke an emotional response within the recipient of the story, they are still human, which makes the storytelling a success. Comic book artist Scott McCloud argues for the role comics play both in language and storytelling in his book, Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. McCloud walks his readers through understanding comics as a form of art and language by explaining how the medium is capable of allowing readers to identify with it. This identification happens through capturing the senses that are part of what make up what it means to be human. McCloud explains that “storytellers in all media know that a sure indicator of audience involvement is the degree to which the audience identifies with a story’s characters” (McCloud, 42). This identification to a story’s character happens when the storyteller is able to truly depict a character’s experiences in a way that can be felt by the reader.

One exceptional example of visual storytelling in comic books is a panel drawn by Jim Aparo in the DC Comics issue number 497, “The Breaking of the Bat,” where the caped crusader is literally broken by super villain Bane. In this issue resides the famous image of Bane bringing Batman down over his knee, breaking his back. One glance at this image and the reader—whether a comic book expert or not—immediately knows what is going on. The chilling cartoon shows a larger-than-life, heavily muscled Bane holding Batman in his arms. Batman, who is bent nearly in half, is writhing in pain from the shocking force of Bane’s huge knee crushing up into his back. Thick, wide streaks of white light shoot out of Batman’s eyes as his mouth opens in screams of pain. His suit is ripped and torn and his legs are kicking away from each other in reaction to the bones breaking in his back. Above Bane’s head in all black, chiller-like text float the words “…BREAK YOU!” and a bright yellow ball of light surrounds the knee shoving the force into Batman’s back. The word “krackt” runs diagonally down the page from his back.

There are only three words on this panel, but the drawing alone tells a story that does not need or require words—the story is understood through the emotional image. The artist Jim Aparo uses lines (such as those spurting out from his eyes) to make emotions visible, allowing the reader to identify with the pain that Batman is experiencing. According to McCloud, “the idea that a picture can evoke an emotional or sensual response in the viewer is vital to the art of comics” (McCloud, 121). Aparo’s image is for all rights and purposes, quite simple, yet the way in which he depicts this significant event in the story of Batman successfully evokes emotion from the reader and tells a very serious story. Any fan of Batman coming across this image would experience a series of emotions and most certainly react to what the image is suggesting. For Batman to be broken means more than just a physical impairment, but a lost hope for justice and the good guy’s ability to win. This image would not be able to be recreated by an algorithm with the same effects as Aparo’s rendering has because he as a human illustrator is able to actually connect to, imagine and associate with—on a very realistic level—the physical and mental anguish this image visually describes. As Molly Bang explains in her simple yet complex book Picture This, “…associate is the key to the whole process of how picture structure affects our emotions” (Bang, 73).

Structure is a significant element to any kind of storytelling and when thinking visually, Bang reminds artists of the importance of the human experience to set up a successful story. In Picture This, Molly Bang simply uses shapes and colors to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Every element of her design is inspired by what the final result will trigger in a reader. To tell a visual story with no words, like comic book artists, Bang must rely on the ability of the reader to react to the shapes and colors she uses. These reactions stem from memories and situations that the reader as a human being has experienced. “It is these ‘emotions attached to remembered experiences’ that seem largely to determine our present responses” (Bang, 73), explains Bang. In order to evoke a reaction from a reader, the visual storyteller must first know from their own experience what certain symbols and colors can do. For example for Bang, the color red conjures up images of blood and anger. Jagged shapes with sharp points feel scary because “most weapons are pointed” (Bang, 70). These emotional reactions to visual images come from the human experience—something than cannot ever be shared with an algorithm.

Reaction to the human experience is found in the student project discussed in Hanno H. J. Ehses’s essay, “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric.” Here, students were asked to not only read Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but also code the play for themes that would ultimately inspire a theatre poster. Interestingly, each poster—though inspired by the same play—was completely different from the one before it because “almost all human reasoning about facts, decisions, opinions, beliefs, and values is intertwined with emotional elements, historical evaluations, and pragmatic motivations” (Handa, 164). The students, as storytellers, represented the themes they unearthed based on their individual connections to the play. Their different reactions can be understood through the way in which Macbeth is represented. Though ranging in style and graphics, each poster carried with it a tone of darkness, tragedy, and pain. The different ways that the students chose to represent these themes is an example of how human beings feel and experience things differently.

The examples of storytelling illustrated here serve as a reminder that though human beings must fight to keep up with the advancement of technology, they are not replaceable. Robots can generate faster data, produce less flawed results, and even in the case of Hammond’s Narrative Science robots, write stories, but they cannot feel. There are some technology enthusiasts who hope for a future that sees robots trying “…to entertain one another by telling stories around the fire” (Lankow, Ritchie and Crooks, 236). However, that future will never come because robots, no matter how wonderfully they are programmed, are incapable of telling stories—at least the right way. They cannot set the tone or the mood. They cannot evoke an emotional response, and they cannot trigger a memory in the way that real storytellers can. Technology is capable of some incredible possibilities, but it cannot nor will not ever have a heart that is capable of loving, of breaking, of feeling sorrow, pain, or joy. There is no place within an algorithm’s cables and wires to create memories that can be triggered by a simple shape or color. These special qualities belong to human beings, and that is what makes the art of storytelling “uniquely human.”


Works Cited 

Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. California: Chronicle Books LLC. 2000. Print.

Cooley, Mike. “Human-Centered Design.” Information Design. Ed. Richard Saul Wurman. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1999. 59-81. Print.

Dixon, Chuck, et al. Breaking of the Bat. DC Comics #497. 1993-1994.

Ehses, Hanno H.J. “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric.” Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World. Ed. Carolyn Handa, Leasa Burton. Massachusetts: Bedford / St.     Martin’s. 2004. Print.

Lankow, Jason, Josh Ritchie and Ross Crooks. Infographics: the Power of Visual Storytelling. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2012. Print.

Levy, Steven. “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?”  Wired. 24 April 2012. Web.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers. 2003. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. New York: Harper Collins. 1993.  Print.