The Stories in the Machine
Sara Campbell
0xa139
Untitled Frontier
0x4086
May 5th, 2022

Pioneering web3 technologist, writer, and artist Simon de la Rouviere, founder of Untitled Frontier, came to CCS for a mind-expanding talk on the new frontier for narratives and storytelling.

When new mediums arise, so too do new possibilities for communication. As web3 continues to take shape, one of the biggest questions artists, writers, and builders are currently exploring is, what are the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the medium? And how can we use it to create new dimensions in storytelling? 

As Simon put it, we have a blue ocean ahead of us that is just waiting to be explored – there are infinite possibilities for telling stories that make novel use of blockchain technology. 

Act 1: History: Simon’s Story

Early in his career, Simon explored multiple avenues for creativity, including animation, games, music, entrepreneurship, and the study of sociology. He discovered Bitcoin in 2011, and immediately recognized the potential it had to help creators from anywhere in the world get paid. 

From then on, he began actively developing in the space. He started a decentralized band called the Cypherfunks. He founded Ujo, a team inside ConsenSys that created one of the first smart contract royalty payments on Ethereum and conducted early experiments with music NFTs. While at ConsenSys he became interested in tokens and creating new financial tools that allowed creators to make a living. He helped co-design the ERC20 token standard, which allowed him to begin the experiments that led to the creation of curation markets and token bonding curves. 

Simon left ConSensys in 2018 when he had a big realization: that at the heart of all the things he most enjoyed — writing stories and code, making music, developing games, creating blockchains, etc. — was storytelling.

Having this breakthrough inspired him to take what he learned from all those different disciplines and funnel them into one overarching focus: learning to tell better stories. Citing a quote by E.B. White, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it,” Simon emphasized his belief that stories can serve as a way for us to both understand and enjoy our world.  

Act II: The Now: What Stories Are Being Told?

Cut to 2019, and Simon decided to pursue a new goal: writing a novel. It took him a year and a half to write the experimental sci-fi novel Hope Runners of Gridlock, and he found the long process of worldbuilding and creating characters fulfilling. 

He continued to work on NFTs, exploring early ideas for generative projects, and also made progress with art projects like This Artwork Is Always On Sale and Neolastics

After a long break from coding, he decided to get back in the business of experimenting with technology to empower creators – specifically fiction writers. Inspired by Li Jin’s 100 True Fans essay, he wanted to help this category of creators who he felt were particularly in need of better avenues for monetizing their work. 

So then the challenge was to figure out what parts of web3 allowed for new ways to tell stories. As Simon sees it, there are three core aspects of the medium to consider. 

1. Record-keeping:

The blockchain gives us access to time, and some amount of trust that this is an immutable history. That is useful for keeping record of things that could factor into our connections to stories and to each other. Simon pointed out that NFTs give fans new artifacts or merch to collect from their favorite artists, and gave the example of how seeing that someone was also an early fan of a project or creator could foster a relationship between two people. In that sense, record-keeping can serve as a store of feeling. 

2. Economics:

The blockchain is powerful because it provides global access to markets, but also global access to collaborators. It makes collaboration with people in other countries easier because it removes some of the financial barriers that can often prevent people from working together. This a huge boon for creative works, as it gives people all over the world the ability to explore new avenues together — and to seamlessly get paid for them. It also offers new ways for creators to both connect with and reward their fans. 

3. Programmability:

This is still in very early stages, but smart contracts give us a novel method for programming stories. By embedding certain rules and behavior in code, we are creating new ways for people to interact with and expand stories. Using the example of CC0 licensing, which essentially creates public domain works, and other unique ways to license content in the space, we can create more programmable experiences. What’s exciting about this aspect of web3 is that it’s wide open for innovation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of experiences people dream up.

Now: The Experiments

Few Understand
Few Understand

In terms of web3 storytelling experiments we’re seeing now, there are many examples of people embedding text on the blockchain. Examples here include: 

  • Few Understand by Kalen Iwamoto, a series of micro autofiction blocks that mimic the blockchain.
  • Excerpts of Gridlock, a digital art project that allows readers to collect 15 unique and scarce excerpts from Simon’s novel.
  • Poetry NFTs like those created by Artemis Wylde.

Simon’s company Untitled Frontier is experimenting with digital collectibles in the form of NFTs, and established players like Marvel are as well. There’s also a project called Huxley, which gives you access to read a comic book if you buy an NFT of the cover. 

Additionally, fascinating experiments in collaboration are arising that give fans the ability to contribute to storytelling projects by collecting NFTs. Nuclear Nerds and Shibuya’s White Rabbit are two such examples, as is Jenkins the Valet, which is based on a Bored Ape character.

Dope Wars
Dope Wars

Going further down the programmability road, Loot is an interesting case study. The project provides blocks that contain a description of an adventurer’s loot bag, and they serve as a primitive creators can build on. One of the derivatives that has arisen is Dope Wars, a game that is being developed based on a Loot block. 

Going even further, the Chronicles project provides nodes in a story and allows people to select and build upon them, so that many branches of the story are emerging. 

The rise of programmability in storytelling raises interesting questions about property rights. If an asset is available for sale with Harberger Tax and it can also be built upon, it exists in a kind of gray area between private and public domain. This also provides a potential new avenue for creators to encode new rules for stories. 

The Mesh by Takens Theorem
The Mesh by Takens Theorem

Takens Theorem is an artist who is creating fascinating NFTs that change based on the activity that occurs in the entire collection. Considered as a whole, it tells a fascinating story of interdependence that is reminiscent of the nature of human relationships.

Act III: The Future

The future is very much in the process of being written. Simon observed that the longer you are in the web3 space, the clearer it becomes that the factors of time and immutability are critical to understanding the possibilities for the space. We’re watching history being made in real time, and realizing daily that there’s much more to come. 

In the blockchain space, the past is important because you can always revisit it. By writing code and interacting with smart contracts, we are continuously embedding ourselves in the system, which means those stories will always be there for people to excavate in the future. 

Exodus 2 by Folia + David Rudnick
Exodus 2 by Folia + David Rudnick

More so than any other medium, web3 offers us new ways to think about telling stories with time itself. One very cool example is a project called Exodus 2 from Folia + David Rudnick. Exodus 2 is a series of haikus that are locked in a custom smart contract in an inverse fibonacci sequence. The final work will not be available for sale until 40 years from now. 

Graph from John Palmer 
Graph from John Palmer 

Dynamism and composability are also underexplored to date. 90% of NFTs today are in the static representation/low functionality quadrant in the graph above, which means we have a huge amount of new territory to explore. We can expect to see much more functionality and different kinds of dynamic representation going forward. 

When you factor in the passing of time and the fact that composability compounds, you can start to see that there are tremendous possibilities ahead. 

The Rise of Infinite Game Storytelling

On that note, there’s another sea change afoot — the rise of infinite game storytelling. These are stories that are continuous, expansive, and collaborative. 

Here’s a chart that compares the characteristics of finite stories with those of infinite stories. 

In the end, there is no right or wrong way to tell a story. But the medium of web3 gives us more ways to tell infinite stories than we’ve ever had before. 

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Crypto, Culture, & Society (CCS) is a learning DAO focused on building liberal arts for crypto. Founded in 2020, CCS has grown into a full-stack educational initiative hosting workshops, electives, and other programming for its members. The CCS community includes technologists, creators, community builders, educators, and lifelong learners. You can keep up with CCS on Twitter, Substack, and via the Society Journal.

Special thanks to Miru for the art and Tasha Kim for the graph design that accompanies this post. And to Tom White for editorial support.**

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