The March of Abstraction

I begin this analysis with an examination of the development of financial structures. The earliest economic activity between sovereign groups took the form of direct exchange. I’ll give you this chunk of flint if you’ll give me that cow. Because such transactions are as explicit and direct as possible, they were easy to evaluate and police. One party examines the cow, the other party examines the flint, they each see what they’re getting, and once the exchange has been made, there is no further cause for interaction. Thus, the earliest forms of financial interaction were direct, explicit, utterly without abstraction.

The first level of abstraction was the introduction of money as a medium of exchange. Metals not just precious metals such as gold and silver, but even base metals such as copper, lead, and tin enjoyed a special position in the economy because 1. demand always exceeded supply; and 2. they were imperishable. The profound significance of this lay in the fact that a bar of metal could always be traded for something else, and, the nub of the matter, that everybody knew that it could always be traded for something else. Thus, if you offer me a bar of copper for my cow, I may not myself be interested in the bar of copper, but I know that I can always trade it to somebody else for something that I do want. Thus, I am willing to make the exchange.

There were only two drawbacks with using metal as a medium of exchange:first, there was the problem of knowing exactly how much metal you were getting. This problem was quickly solved by the introduction of simple scales for measuring weights, but it did impose a certain amount of hassle on the economy. The second problem was much tougher. People quickly learned the trick of alloying metals, mixing baser metals with precious metals and then passing off the result as pure precious metal. Just about every combination was used in ancient times, and it made trade more difficult. A variety of countermeasures were used, such as the touchstone, which, when rubbed against gold, showed a distinctive mark that roughly but unambiguously indicated the purity of the gold. Still, something better was needed.

That something better was the introduction of money. The new idea here was to have the government manufacture chunks of precious metal of guaranteed weight and purity. The government put its imprint on these chunks as a declaration of their honest value. Counterfeiting these chunks proved to be an expensive and difficult process; the cost of setting up the molds and the blast furnaces was so high that you could only recoup your cost by making lots of counterfeit coins, and in the impecunious economies of those days, any operation moving large amounts of gold and silver would surely attract lots of attention and official curiousity. Thus, coinage provided a ready solution solution to the problem.

But note how coinage moved the economy to a higher level of abstraction. Now all fiscal accounts were kept in the otherwise arbitrary units of coinage. A rich man might be worth 10,000 sisterces what does that mean? In a simpler economy, a man’s wealth might be measured by the number of cattle he owns. That makes sense. But this well, it’s more abstract, isn’t it?

The next big advance in financial abstraction was the concept of debt. It’s only a small step from "I’ll trade you one drachma for your cow" to "If you give me your cow today, I’ll give you one drachma tomorrow." And then it’s an even smaller step to extend "tomorrow"to, say, "next year". Of course, as soon as we talk about long-term debt, we get into problems of recording the debt. After all, I might conveniently "forget"my debt to you, or die before the time is up. The obvious solution is to write down the debt and give you the piece of paper:an IOU.

In those days, travel was hard, slow, and dangerous. Wealthy people, the kind of people who wrote and received IOUs, were constantly on the move. Collecting on an IOU often proved a difficult matter. This led to a new level of abstraction:third-party collection. Here I am in Venice, with an IOU from you for 1,000 ducats. Unfortunately, you’re in Bruges, hundreds of miles away. I run into fellow merchant and while talking shop, we realize that he owes you 1,000 ducats, and he’s ready to discharge the debt. So I simply sign my IOU over to him in return for the 1,000 ducats. I get my money, and when you dun him for your money, he gives the IOU back to you, releasing him from his debt to me. This three-way transaction meets everybody’s needs.

This was an immensely important leap in abstraction, because for the first time, the concept of "value"was divorced from a tangible object. Instead of transferring wealth through tangible intermediaries such as precious metals, wealth could now be transferred through a piece of paper.

It’s important to recognize that this worked only because the legal systems backing up that piece of paper were robust enough to give everybody confidence in it. If you tried to welch on your IOU, I could haul you before the local magistrate and make you pay.

Once we had established that a piece of paper could carry value, all sorts of new abstractions were possible. Two in particular were paper currency and joint stock companies. Paper currency made it possible for governments to print standardized contracts (bills) that promised to pay the bearer some fixed amount of coin. Because everybody knew they could trust the government, the paper money was every bit as valuable as the metal coinage, and a lot easier to handle to boot.

Unfortunately, some governments have trouble balancing their budgets, and whenever a government got into financial trouble, there was always the option of printing more money, an option that was exercised so often that people quickly lost confidence in paper money. It took a long time before governments realized that they had to have the discipline to refrain from printing excess money or they would poison their own economies.

Joint stock companies were another example of the march of abstraction. Merchant ventures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were very risky but immensely profitable. You bought a ship, equipped it with a crew and some local goods, and then you sent it to the Far East for spices. If it didn’t get sunk in a storm, or hit a reef, or get captured by pirates, then a few years later it would come back loaded with spices worth a fortune. Only a very few people were rich enough to play that kind of financial roulette. Yet, there was no question that, on average, this kind of investment was very lucrative. If your ship came in, you could easily get 1000% return on your investment. But the chance that it might come in was only about 50%. All in all, those are great odds but would gamble your life savings on an investment like that?

The solution was the joint stock company; I believe it was the Dutch who first really exploited the concept. A bunch of us pool our money to finance a ship, then we jointly share the profits or losses. You might not risk your life savings on a deal like the one above, but wouldn’t you be willing to risk 1% of your life savings? The controlling concept here was the stock certificate, a piece of paper that gave you partial ownership in the "company" of investors. So now we have a higher level of abstraction:a stock certificate that does not specify an actual amount of money, but rather a percentage of some amount to be determined in the future.

Well, it was only a matter of time before people realized that such stock certificates represented wealth, and started buying and selling them among each other. And this opened up all sorts of new avenues for human venality, and over the next few hundred years, lots of people got cheated and lots of people got rich over stock scams. More complicated laws were needed to regulate this more complex financial instrument. But human greed is always one step ahead of human wisdom, and stock scams continue to this day, as I can testify.

So now we had stock markets buying and selling stock. This permitted many new levels of abstraction, only two of which I’ll mention here: derivatives and mutual funds. A derivative is a contract that represents an abstraction of a stock sale. For example, suppose I decide that Netcom’s stock, currently selling at, say, $100 per share, is overvalued by the market. I therefore conclude that someday its price will fall. Suppose you think the opposite that it is undervalued and its price will rise. So I sell you a "short sell" derivative: I promise to give you 100 shares of Netcom stock next January 1st, in return for $7500, or $75 per share. You see this as a bargain you’re getting shares at below market price. I see it as a bargain, too, because I believe that, by next January 1st, I’ll be able to buy Netcom shares for only $50/shares, so I’ll make a tidy profit of $25/share.

So here we are at a higher level of abstraction, making financial judgements of how much the price (one level of abstraction) of a stock certificate(another level of abstraction) representing the anticipated profits of a company(a third level of abstraction) will change. We’re getting into some pretty rarefied abstraction here.

Another higher layer of abstraction is the mutual fund. I decide not to play individual stocks, but rather to hire an expert to buy and sell stocks for me. I give him my money and in return I get a stock certificate that entitles me to a percentage of his gains. And then there are mutual funds of mutual funds:funds that invest in other mutual funds. Think how many layers of financial abstraction that represents!

At the personal level, we can see many of these layers of abstraction operating simultaneously.Look in your pockets. You’ve got some coins (precious metals representing value) and some dollar bills (pieces of paper representing coins), a checkbook (pieces of paper representing money deposited in a bank account), and credit cards (pieces of plastic representing an account that you promise to pay into).

Time to summarize:as economic systems have grown and matured, we have developed ever more advanced structures to control them, and the central motif of financial evolution has been increasing layers of abstraction. Systems grow more sophisticated by growing additional layers of abstraction.

Political abstraction
The same process has been going on with politics. The political organizations of small tribal units tend to be direct, straightforward, and simple. But as social organizations expanded, they required additional complexity. Of course, the laboratory of history has had many experiments and variations, so the simplistic generalizations I’m about to make should not be taken too seriously. But the overall trend has been towards greater differentiation and abstraction.

The early "headman" or tribal king merged religious, political, and judicial functions. But over the course of history, as civilizations have grown larger and more complex, we have seen increasing differentiation of function.First religion split off from political authority although various linkages between the political and the religious sphere have persisted right up to the present. Later the judicial function split off from the political one, followed soon after by the military function. In the last few centuries, we have seen the separation of the legislative and executive functions.

As governmental control systems have grown more complex, they have also become more abstract. Consider the abstraction implicit in the very concept of a constitution. This document abstracts the functions of government and defines those functions without reference to the individuals performing those functions. That is, earlier concepts of government focussed on the individual ruler. The concept of "divine right of kings", "L’etat, c’est moi", focussed attention on the prerogatives of the person, not the requirements of the job. Would you be surprised to learn that Erasmus was one of the first political commentators (after Plato and Aristotle) to emphasize a king’s responsibilities as opposed to his privileges?

The new concept here was that of the "governmental office", a position occupied by an individual. Everything is defined by the constitution in terms of the office, not the individual.

An even higher level of abstraction is attained when we consider the process of creating or changing a law.A law, after all, is a statement defining certain powers and responsibilities to be executed by some governmental office. When we talk about changing a law, we are discussing the next higher level of abstraction.

But we have gone even further beyond this:we have defined a governmental office, called a legislature, whose task it is to create and modify laws. So that’s another level of abstraction.

But it doesn’t stop there:the occupants of that legislature are chosen by a procedure called an election. This defined procedure creates one more level of abstraction. And campaign finance laws governing the process by which candidates may run for election constitute yet another level of political abstraction.

Again, the message is clear: as we’ve gotten better and better at politics, we have added higher and higher levels of abstraction to our political control systems.

Computational abstraction
Now let’s talk about the process of computation. Its simplest form is counting. In the earliest days, counting was as direct a process as could be imagined:you made one mark for each item you counted. We still use this process today, making four marks before closing the group of five with a diagonal mark, but the basic scheme of counting with rows of marks has been with us for a long time. We have bones that are a hundred thousand years old, with rows of scratch marks incised on them, obviously some sort of counting mechanism. What were our ancestors counting?Antelopes?Phases of the moon? IRSreturns?

Later on our counting systems took a higher level of abstraction with the introduction of symbols for larger numbers. Every culture had its own system, but the Roman numbering system is typical. For small numbers, the simple slash mark was retained as an "I". "V"stood for five slash marks; "X" stood for ten, "L" meant 50, "C"meant 100, and "M" meant a thousand. You still counted by making a long pile of slash marks, but at least these things saved some space. The system worked for counting large numbers of things, as suited the needs of a more complex civilization, but it was hell to perform arithmetic with.

The next big step in abstraction was the Hindu concept of numerals. There were three big ideas here:first, the creation a separate numeral for each of the ten digits in a decimal counting system; second, the introduction of a numeral for zero(how do you show zero slashes?); third and most abstract -- the concept of decimal places:that a number consisted of a set of numerals, each numeral multiplied by an implicit power of ten. You may learn it in second grade, but this was rocket science for the ancients. And before you dismiss their obvious stupidity, I challenge you to define the way the system works in purely theoretical terms. You may know how to use it, but on a theoretical level it really is quite abstract.

The Hindu system travelled through the Islamic world and made its way to Europe, where it was called "Arabic".

The next level of abstraction built on this layer as its foundation. With the newfangled Hindu numerals, arithmetic became easier to implement. Try multiplying two big Roman numbers and you’ll see the problem. Of course, the Hindu system required some fairly complicated procedures, but like any complex tool, once you learned the system, it was faster.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. The needs of European business drove the development of arithmetic. Financial transactions were themselves growing more abstract, and this growing financial abstraction demanded concomitant computational abstraction to figure out who deserved how much money.

Next came the substitution of a variable for some imagined number. Again, finance led the way. In early, more primitive days, loan terms were specified by actual monetary values. My loan contract with you might stipulate that I will give you 50 ducats and you will pay me 55 ducats next June. But as the economy heated up, and transactions became more common, merchants began engaging in "what if"games. What if I borrow enough money to buy the whole shipload?How much would I make? In these circumstances, people began to think in more abstract terms about such concepts as principal and interest rate. If a bank quoted an interest rate of 25%, you could plug whatever numbers you wanted into that interest rate and figure out your payments.

Once we had jumped to this level of abstraction, algebra was the next level of abstraction (although a Persian mathematician had invented the discipline long before; Europe didn’t catch up with the idea until there was money to made in it.) Now we were putting variables together in equations; this allowed us to think in higher and more powerful terms.

From there, mathematics took off in its own direction, introducing even more abstract concepts such as operators and groups, but I won’t follow that trail. Instead, I’d like to talk about computers. The computer enters this discussion as a calculator. You’re in the supermarket and one package offers 19 ounces for 27 cents, while another package offers 31 ounces for 40 cents; which is the better buy?You whip out your calculator and punch a few buttons to get the answer.

Suppose, however, that you are SuperShopper. You don’t just wander through the aisles blithely; you attack the task with vigor. You have your high-powered calculator with memory registers. You methodically traverse the supermarket aisles, making notes on prices and storing them in your calculator for all sorts of clever calculations on how to save money. Of course, to do this, you have to have those memory registers, which represent a higher level of computational abstraction.

Memory registers, whether they are the little things in a calculator or the bytes in a computer, are the first expression of computer abstraction. Instead of dividing 19 ounces by 27 cents, you now divide the contents of register 1 by the contents of register 2.

But computer programmers quickly moved on to higher levels of abstraction. The first of these was the pointer, a memory register that contains the address of another memory register. The value of this level of abstraction is that it permits simpler handling of large gobs of data. In this part of the computer we’ve stored the prices of all the brands of flour in Supermarket X; in that part we’ve stored the prices of all the brands of flour in Supermarket Y. If we have one pointer to the flour prices, we need merely change that single pointer to gain access to a different supermarket’s data. That’s handy!

But why stop at that level of indirection?We can go a step higher with pointers to pointers, sometimes called handles. The value of handles only becomes evident when you have lots of pointers. Managing lots of different-sized blocks of information in a limited amount of RAMis a tricky business; we constantly need to rearrange the data blocks to fit new entries into the available holes. If we use handles, we can change the pointers to blocks as we rearrange them, but the handles pointing to the pointers remain stable.

The moral here is the same:as calculational and computational systems have grown more complex, we have resorted to ever-higher levels of abstraction to manage them.

Related essay: Indirection

Biological abstraction
Perhaps I am overdoing it, but I’d like to add the observation that biological systems have also evolved in the direction of increasing abstraction. What I mean by this is that the more complex organisms devote greater biological effort to more abstract traits. The simplest one-celled organisms concentrate on the basics:getting food and reproducing. As we move up the phylogenetic scale, we see the addition of locomotion, which in and of itself is not of direct value to the basic goal of reproduction. But locomotion grants access to a larger food supply and a wider range of possible mates, so it indirectly supports the two basic goals of the organism. In the same way, sensory mechanisms provide only abstract support for nourishment and reproduction. Much the same thing can be said about immune systems, which have evolved an ever-more abstract approach to dealing with the ever-more abstract assaults of invaders. Particularly striking is the success of the AIDS virus, which pulls its trick by moving up one level of abstraction, attacking the immune system rather than the organism.

But the most spectacular example of biological abstraction is the development of the nervous system. In its earliest forms, it was a simple detection and control system, providing direct connection from stimulus (pain) to response(retraction of affected body part). Later on, nervous systems expanded to provide additional computational power, giving organisms greater ability to react to their environments with sensitivity and discrimination. And of course the human brain represents a profoundly abstract piece of biological machinery, much of which is unallocated at birth. Here’s a chunk of tissue whose job is not precisely defined by the chromosomes -- it learns what it needs during early years of life. How’s that for abstraction!

Narrative abstraction
At last the time has come to bring home my point. The general lesson from all these examples is that, as complex systems grow more complex, they evolve more abstract structures to cope with the increasing complexity. And now, after thousands of years of stasis, we are ready to move storytelling to higher levels. That means that the mechanism of such motion will be the use of greater abstraction.

What exactly do we mean by greater abstraction when we talk about storytelling? I don’t know for sure how could a Venetian merchant of 1360 CE understand a mutual fund? But the many examples of systemic abstraction presented above give us some basis for speculation. Our approach must be to move away from the specifics of storytelling and think in terms of the grander principles. We need to invent higher-level constructs. What relates to storytelling as a credit card relates to currency?

One possibility arises from a consideration of the purpose of storytelling. Consider that a story is, strictly speaking, a lie. I’m sorry to tell you this, Virginia, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there never was a Luke Skywalker. Yes, George Lucas lied to you! How is it, then, that we can all see truth and value in something that is a lie?The answer emerges when we consider the story at a higher level of abstraction. Star Wars is not about Luke Skywalker it’s about coming of age (among other things). What it says about Luke is false, but what it says about coming of age is true.

This gives us a new, more abstract model of storytelling. George Lucas did not want to tell us about Luke Skywalker he wanted to tell us about the human condition. The problem is, if he simply wrote down his thoughts on the human condition, in suitably abstract terminology, his message to us would lack emotional power. So he translated his thoughts into a story, something with emotional power, and then communicated that story to us. We ingest the story and then induce the more abstract lessons from the story. Perhaps we are not even consciously aware of the act of induction on our part. But without that induction, all we have is a useless pack of lies.

It’s really just like money. Suppose that George wanted to give us something of value. So he writes a check and puts it in the mail. What we actually get from George is just a piece of paper with his signature on it. But by taking it upward a higher level of abstraction (cashing the check), we derive the true benefit of George’s transmission to us.

What we need, then, is something akin to check-writing, but for storytelling. We need a more abstract way of thinking about stories. Specifically, we need a better way of thinking about that message we want to communicate in our story. My suggestion is that we simply transfer the process of instantiation from storyteller to computer.


Let me run that by you one more time:the storyteller has a Big Idea. He translates the Big Idea into a story. The story is not the same as the Big Idea; it is only an example of the Big Idea at work. He then communicates the story to the audience, and the audience induces the Big Idea from the example.

What if that first translation, from Big Idea to story, were not done by the storyteller but by the computer in collaboration with the audience?The storyteller still defines and controls the Big Idea, but rather than expressing the Big Idea through a single instance, he expresses the Big Idea itself in more abstract terminology. He communicates the Big Idea to the audience in the form of a computer program. The audience runs the computer program which interacts with the audience in such a way as to spawn a story expressing the Big Idea while matching the interests of the audience.

I know:this sounds like that old "magical balance"argument. We set up two extremes and then argue that the proper balance between those extremes will work wonders. In this case, I am claiming that a computer program can magically balance the storyteller’s control of the Big Idea with the audience’s interests. How do we know that such a balance can be achieved?Am Isweeping a fundamental conflict between storyteller and audience under the rug?

I don’t think so. It’s obviously impossible to achieve a perfect match between creator’s control and audience’s interests, but this impossibility has always existed with conventional stories, and has never been a serious impediment. So long as we can get some overlap between the interests of the audience and those of the creator, the problem will not be serious.

Another, even more important issue, concerns the mechanics of this process. Exactly how does the storyteller "express the Big Idea itself in more abstract terminology"? What is the abstract expression of a story?

Greater thinkers than I have tackled this problem, and they oh, what the hell. I’ve already made enough of a fool of myself to bother with such qualifiers. Damn the greater wisdom of others! Full speed ahead!

A story is a statement of the mechanics of the human condition. Its simplest form is, "X did this, and that resulted" from which the audience induces, "If I do this, that will result". The step from "A led to B"to "if A, thenB"is the fundamental induction of storytelling. A storyteller expresses "A led to B". An interactive storyteller expresses "If A, then B". The storyteller, being in total control, spells out every detail of A and B. The interactive storyteller has no such control and must instead recognize the audience’s version of A and generate a version of B that properly corresponds to the stipulated A.

Ican hear the objection:what if the audience doesn’t go along with A and comes up with something that violates the storyteller’s basic intent?This is a non-issue. My best argument to this springs from an analogy with word processing.

When you sit down with your word processor, who exactly is creating your document:you or the designer of the word processor?Don’t be too quick to take full credit for the document that emerges from your printer. Remember, your conception of the document was formulated in accordance with the specifications of the designer. The designer created an abstract conception of a document:something with margins, paragraphs, text, fonts, styles, and so forth. You learned his conception while learning the word processor, and you conceive of your document in his terms. The letters may be yours, but the conceptual foundation of the document is his. So who created it?

There’s an immensely important idea here:that of creative collaboration between the designer of a program and the user of the program. With interactivity, we blur the hard lines that separate the creator from the audience. Instead of dividing the world into creators and dullards, we share creativity in a measured way. The audience gets just enough creative freedom to meet its needs, and the heavy-duty creativity remains under the control of the high-powered creators. This isn’t creative anarchy; it is a more judicious distribution of creative freedom and responsibility. Isn’t it wonderful? How small-minded are those who resist this magnificent new social opportunity!

Yes, it’s possible for the audience to abuse such responsibility. Look here: ksdhia wo;hkjnd kjh sdfast sd. See, I just typed in a bunch of garbage. My word processor permits failure! But I’m a big boy; I can accept responsibility for my actions. If I type in garbage, I don’t feel bad if I get garbage coming out of the printer. And the same thing applies to interactive storytelling. What’s wrong if the audience playfully experiments with perverse behavior and discovers idiotic results? Isn’t that part of the truth of the universe, too?

Getting back to storytelling, the solution is to give the audience the format of the story, the skeleton that allows them to fill in details. The creator specifies the principles, and the audiences provides the details to which the principles are applied.

Now for an unfortunate aspect of narrative abstraction:it requires more work and bigger structures. Consider how financial abstraction only makes sense with bigger economies. The use of money only makes sense if I believe that somebody else will take my money in return for goods. If I live in a tiny world with just one other person, money has no utility.

A credit card is only useful to consumers if there are lots of retailers who accept it, and it’s only useful to retailers if there are lots of consumers who use it. Suppose, in a moment of twisted humor, God had equipped medieval Europeans with the technology for credit cards. They still couldn’t have used them, because their economies were too small to make them worthwhile. Most people didn’t have any money to spend anyway.

Or consider how political abstraction requires magnitude. Let’s start off with the assumption that the Consitution of the United States is a good thing. Fine, let’s use it for the Chris Crawford Fan Club. Unfortunately, the CCFC has only six members: ChrisCrawford, Khublai Khat, Penelope Pig, Galahad Goat, Binky Burro, and D’Artagnon Duck. So, Chris Crawford will be the President, and Khublai Khat will be Vice-President, and Penelope Pig will be Speaker of the House, and... wait a minute, who’s gonna be the senators?And where will we get a House of Representatives?And then there’s the IRS -- who wants to be IRS commissioner?

Here’s the problem:the logical links between abstraction and system size point both ways. As a system grows more complex, it requires additional abstraction, but additional abstraction only makes sense with more complex systems. Thus, if we are to take advantage of narrative abstraction, we must also expand the content of our storytelling.

What does it mean to "expand the content of our storytelling"? The basic concept here is to think of the larger issues treated by the story. Recall my earlier claims that a story is an example of a principle at work. Narrative abstraction requires that we tell the whole principle, not just a single example of it.

Consider, for example, the simple morality tale presented in "Fatal Attraction". In the movie, of course, we present a single tale with a single outcome. The "best"outcome was a matter of some dispute; only after the movie was tested with a number of audiences and alternative endings was the "best" outcome selected. But there was clearly some uncertainty as to the best outcome; why did they have to discard the alternatives?The subject of adultery is not a simple black-and-white moral issue; if it really were that simple, why is it so common?This is a complex issue, one that faces millions of men and women every day. Surely its complexity cannot be adequately addressed in any single story.

There are so many variables to consider in debating adultery. What if the wife is frigid?What if the husband brings home a disease?What if the wife is the one having the affair?What if she does it in retaliation for his affair?How does a one-night drunken fling compare with an extended affair?No single story can hope to cover all these issues. It can emphatically make an isolated point, but it can never address the broad issue. It can powerfully describe a single tree, but never the forest.

This is where narrative abstraction enters our vision. The subject of "Fatal Attraction"was not adultery but rather a single case of adultery. The subject of an analogous interactive environment must necessarily be adultery, not any single case of adultery.

This is why all the attempts to "interactify"existing stories are doomed to failure. You can’t climb up in abstraction by taking a single example and magnifying it. Finance did not evolve by mere magnification; huge financial transactions are not carried out with forklifts moving gold coins the size of pizzas. So long as you think about finance in terms of coins, you’ll never get the idea. So long as you think about politics in terms of who gets to be king, you’ll never understand democracy. So long as you think about anatomy in terms of eating and reproduction, you’ll never understand why the brain evolved. And so long as you think about interactive storytelling in terms of individual stories, you’ll never get the idea.

This demands far more of the storyteller than any single story ever demands. The conventional storyteller can contrive the situation to focus attention on the key point. The interactive storyteller must think in larger terms, must be more open-minded about his point. Instead of proving that a single case of adultery can be disastrous, he must instead treat adultery in all its guises and variations. Perhaps there are cases in which adultery is good and desirable; perhaps there are cases where it does little harm; perhaps there are cases where it is despicable.

Ah, but what becomes of emotional power in such circumstances?"Fatal Attraction" scared the bejabbers out of a generation of husbands; how could "A Simulation of the Ethical Implications of Extramarital Sexual Liasons"ever have that kind of impact?

Remember, we’re talking interactivity here; there is always a huge emotional boost whenever the audience gets to control the action, even if the results aren’t as dramatically powerful as those produced by the professionals. My wife goes to Yosemite and takes pictures; she has plenty of Ansel Adams photos of the exact same places, but the photos on the wall are her amateur efforts, not Ansel’s masterpieces. I remember watching the elevator scene in "Fatal Attraction"and thinking, "Gaw-lee, I sure wish I could get that horny with a woman, but I don’t think I could do that." What we lose in expressed power we gain in received power.

There is one problem that profoundly troubles me, though. The implicit assumption in storytelling is that the storyteller is wiser than the audience. The storyteller has some wisdom to impart to the audience, and the audience is prepared to accept the his claim to wisdom.But the interactive storyteller must do so much more; he must be that much wiser. Is there anybody wise enough to create an interactive storytelling world? I don’t know.