Apologies for the evangelical sounding headline, but in this case it’s not puffery but the plain, simple truth. Because in October, I travelled to New York for a two-day festival of narrative novelties called, appropriately enough, Future of Storytelling (or FoST, for short).
The attendees came from an amazingly diverse range of disciplines; I spoke to architects, video game designers, marketers, and one professor of English Literature with a particular focus on science fiction. The speakers were equally multifaceted and multitalented. There were Hollywood directors, puppeteers, authors, choreographers, computer scientists and more. And everyone was talking about one thing: how do we best tell stories in an age where technology seems to take a seismic lurch forward every other week?
A lot of the speakers were there to spruik their own particular piece of digital wizardry. There were purveyors of VR, AR and AI. Everywhere you looked, people were hooked up to goggles or gadgets with tangles of cables hanging from them like tentacles. It was a glimpse of the kind of future we’re used to seeing in movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report.
But, for me, all these high-tech toys just got in the way. My most powerful, emotive experience of the two days was also the simplest. It was an installation called A Mile in My Shoes, described as an “empathy museum”. You walked into a room with a large row of shelving stacked with shoe boxes. An attendant asked your shoe size and then brought you a box containing a stranger’s pair of shoes. You put them on and were then handed a small iPod and a pair of earphones and instructed to go for a walk outside as you listened to the shoes’ owner talk about their life.
The story I heard was not incredibly remarkable or dramatic. It was simply an Englishman in his mid-50s describing a swimming pool that he visits regularly with a group of hardcore locals who brave the waters all year round, even in the depths of winter. When an elderly member of the troupe died, it led the narrator to consider his own mortality and the meaning of life. It was gentle, wise and incredibly intimate.
For all the screens and special effects offering to whisk you away into worlds unimaginable, the most transfixing, transformative journey I took was a short visit into the interior life of another person. And that was my big take-out for the event; never let a piece of technology overwhelm the simple power of a true human story.