Welcome to the revenge of the stories.

Stories are not just powerful – they’re what make us human. That’s the thesis of Jonathan Gottschall’s 2012 book, The Storytelling Animal.

The final chapter of Gottschall’s book, though, isn’t so sanguine. Titled “The Future of Story,” it says the outlook for story is so bright, in fact, that it could prove deadly – in the way Coleman lanterns attract suicidal moths.

Through the looking glass

Gottschall describes a future in which technology breaks down the barriers between reality and fantasy so convincingly that some people may never want to leave their virtual worlds. They will prefer their exciting fictional lives over their boring, real ones.

Maybe that’s not so new. We use our imaginations to willingly suspend our disbelief and enter the world of the story, whether around a campfire, in a book, in a theater or on a stage. We love how a good story, well told, can grab us completely and take us through the looking glass. How many times have you left a theater or put down a book, and, Alice-like, almost have to shake yourself to return to the real world?

For at least as long as the mediated story has been around, plenty of people have preferred to spend their waking hours immersed in the latest best-seller or binging on the new season of House of Cards. But what Gottschall is describing is a phenomenon on a more massive scale. Take the rise of interactive fiction, for example – stories where we become characters and invent the plots as we move through imagined universes.

He cites MMORPGs – massively multiplayer online role-laying games or “Mor-Pegs” like World of Warcraft (WoW) – as examples of where we might be headed. WoW is an online universe with its own planets, races, cultures, religions and languages. Twelve million people (probably more now) apparently play WoW.

Massive online migration

What’s startling is Gottschall’s next observation. The author cites economist Edward Castronova, who, in this book Exodus to the Virtual World, says that we have begun the “greatest mass migration in the history of humanity.” And where are we going? Online. He cites one statistic that tens of millions of people already spend 20 to 30 hours a week absorbed in MMORPGs.

And why are we going there? Sure, the games are mesmerizing. But it’s also because of what Castronova calls “the repellent force of real life.”

Are we turning into a nation of Walter Mitty’s?

I can see this happening already with smart phones. We walk around with ear buds plugged in, listening to music or podcasts or talking on the phone. We stare at our screens while we text or play games or watch YouTube videos or Google the latest question to pop into our heads. We walk by or sit beside people without acknowledging their presence. Who wants to just be, when you can be somebody else, an avatar of yourself, online?

I practice Zen meditation. Sitting on a cushion in a zendo may seem like a way to escape the world. But in fact, it’s a way to confront it. The idea is to learn to become aware of our lives in every moment. To recognize our unconscious stories and choose whether or not to believe them.

Where’s the exit from this rabbit hole?

Are we coming to a time when life as it is, unplugged, is too boring?

Here’s what Gottschall says: “… as digital technology evolves, our stories – ubiquitous, immersive, interactive – may become dangerously attractive. The real threat isn’t that story will fade out of human life in the future; it’s that story will take it over completely.”

For someone writing novels, maybe I should find that exciting. I’d love for my readers to get sucked into the world I’ve created. But great stories help us see ourselves more clearly and others with more empathy. They don’t distance us from life.

Are we falling down a rabbit hole without an exit?