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Thoughts on War of the Worlds

November 20th, 2002 · No Comments

Spurred by Brink Lindsey’s Halloween post, I downloaded a recording of the famous, panic-inducing radio play adaptation of War of the Worlds. It occured to me that one reason that a modern equivalent couldn’t have that effect — aside from our greater familiarity with the story-that-claims-not-to-be — is that we’re compulsive channel (and browser) clickers. Audience members in the 30s who became hysterical must have sat listening through the uninterrupted narrative, whereas our first instinct today would be to see what CNN, Fox, the Times website, and Instapundit had to say. Folks like Neal Postman bemoan this shift from a linear, textual (and, in McLuhanese “hotter”) approach to information, to a multitasking fugue mode. But it does seem to have it’s advantages, among them a more critical posture towards any one perspective, greater awareness of relative biases, and the ability to, as they say, “fact check your ass.”

I also thought a bit of Spiders, which in addition to standard comics panels, uses different familiar Internet “frames” — a personal site; an IM-like spiderbot and chat client; a Salon-style webzine — to move the story along, just as WotW moves from music program to “breaking news” to emergency government announcements, to communications from aircraft, and finally, as civilization collapses, a last few ham radio operators looking for other surviviors. The method isn’t used as often in visual media, with a notable exception in recent memory being the faux news-helicopter coverage of a highway chase that opened the X-Files episode “Drive.” When we finally hit the long ballyhooed but longer-in-coming point of “convergence” — you know, video, sound and everything else coming into one box over a single set of big fat pipes — I think it’ll be possible to do some fascinating things with that technique. In the early 90s, people got jazzed up about “virtual reality,” but the helmet and gloves turned out to be superfluous. As more of our lives and interactions move online, we’re increasingly willing to treat that “space,” constituted by a fairly protean set of forms (chat client, email, different kinds of websites, streaming media, VoIP) as real anyway. A narrative that wove those forms together could be partly traditional story — a streaming news broadcast — part game, part collaborative theatre. Maybe something like the old Vampire: The Masquerade live-action role playing game. The layering would also be a good vehicle for a technique people who buy Neuro-Linguistic Programming talk about: “nested loops.” The idea is that when you stack a story within a story within a story — the Worlds’ End arc of the Sandman series is a good example of this — it can create an almost trancelike state as the audience follows the plot down through layer after layer. The first person to do this well, when it becomes possible, will proably make as powerful an impact as did Welles.

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