Another perspective on storytelling came from game designer Paul Bennun and sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, who collaborated most recently on the intriguing iPhone game, Papa Sangre. They set out to discuss the “special relationship between sound and storytelling”.
Papa Sangre, if you haven’t seen is set in a pitch black underworld and you have to rely on navigating by sound – apparently about one in ten people just can’t get their head around it, but those who love it.
For the technical-minded, Nick’s passion is for binaural recording, creating soundtracks which when listened to in headphones mimic how sound works in the real world (which is different to stereo – see Wikipedia for an explanation).
There were some really interesting discussions during the session, including ideas about creative an “navigational language of sound” for storytelling, which I’d like to hear more about.
One point which really struck me was when Nick reminded us just how hi-tech recorded sound was, how new it was – just a hundred years ago, as he put it, if you heard a sound you could be sure it was something happening nearby. Recorded sound allows us to separate time and location from the listening experience and
Nick also described a project for Macmillan publishers where he created an “audio enhanced” edition of a Ken Follett novel called Fall of Giants, which looks (sounds) really interesting – in the demo you hear sounds of the battlefield as the text is being read – I’d like to try that out.
Continuing with notes on the The Story 2011 talks, I’m going to try and restrain myself to Cory Doctorow-cited five sentences. More or less, and these two don’t count…Popular champion of the talks was Mary Hamilton‘s talk about her Zombie LARP (Live Action Role Playing Game) and how the constraints and simplicity (compared with more complex, traditional LARPs) made the whole game a kind of story factory.Particularly pleasing was her use of Nerf guns on the audience (“As soon as you pick up a (Nerf) gun you become a protagonist”) throughout the talk and her charming stick-man slides (see below for the whole slide deck).The nub of her approach to story was this: “we create edge conditions so people can make their own stories.” She also described how they had formalised or made space for story telling after games (“frothing” as LARP participants call it).
We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.
Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.
The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:
Can you use the web to tell stories?
Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.
The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust
Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
“The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”
What history feels like as it happens
Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.
Follow the power
Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).
Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…
Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:
The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…
The Story 2011 was exactly like the inaugural event a year ago. It was like the day just continued from where it left off – and for anyone who had been before, that was exactly what they wanted.
The Story is the brainchild of art, TV and tech Renaissance man, Matt Locke. He curates it unashamedly as “the conference I want to attend”, and it brings together a collection of storytellers from every medium and persuasion, from scientists to sculptors, live action role players to documentary makers.
The cards are laid out on the floor and he begins to string set pieces into episodes, about ten per episode (presumably they get thinned out).
Once he has the stack of set pieces per episode he has ” a good place to start”
Graham Linehan on collaborative writing online
Graham was clear that crowdsourcing and writing didn’t mix well, or at least they didn’t sit easily with him. He mentioned issues around taking advantage of people, reward, keeping conversation on topic and the risk that people feeling that their ideas had been “stolen”.
Incidentally, his prize bit of advice for writers starting out was not to be so worried about people taking their ideas – it is them themselves that will be what is valued by producers etc. That’s great advice for all sorts of creators – ideas are cheap, it is who carries them through and how they do it that makes all the difference.
There’s no tool that makes this easy, says Graham, having spent a fair bit of his “systematised goofing off” trying anything suitable out. So he uses Basecamp. He’s also thinking about experimenting with Beluga, which allows Twitter-like conversations in smaller groups.
He and about eight writers collaborated on the last season of The IT Crowd, using all sorts of things to spark off ideas, such as posting photos from awkwardfamilypetphotos.com and asking: How would Roy and Moss find themselves in this situation?
Cory Doctorow on blogging and writing
Whether he meant it this way or not, Cory’s approach to blogging was lovely, and I know I will be referring others to it as a useful approach to the format/platform in future:
Blog about why something is interesting in five sentences.
By doing that you are creating a searchable database.
If it is interesting, people will annotate it with comments.
After a while, there are enough posts and emerging themes that the case for a long-form piece of writing becomes clear.
: : Graham talked about the episode of The IT Crowd with the courtroom drama. In that there is a joke about malapropisms – one character talks about “a damp squid” while another talks about putting women on a pedal-stool. Maybe he was being slyly self-referential referential then when he was talking about “hyper-bowl“? Regardless, it tickled me. “We all have our blind spots, Jen…” (BTW – this how to pronounce “hyperbole” video is hilarious in itself (and yes, I appreciate I am writing an invitation to pedants to pick over my pronunciation, grammar etc, but that’s life on the web…).
: : Aside: Mostly these days I will take notes into an Outliner app on phone or Mac, or straight into Curio, but something about The Story made me want to take analogue, ink-based notes, so I grabbed notebook on my way out. When I opened it I realised it was the same one I used to take notes at The Story 2010. If I get the time (unlikely) I may even go back and put soem of those onto my blog as well.
The SuperSkills idea was one which I was airing for the first time, and am continuing to work on. The notes and links are all in the post – TEDx Brighton notes on my talk – I put up on the day. If you have any feedback at all I’d be immensely grateful…
And just so you can see what the slides are like with the fonts in beautiful Gotham – here they are again…
Two blog posts – one notes for a Newsnight feature that never got made, the other an academic paper – made a deep impression on me when I read them last week, and have stayed with me since. I’ve recommended them on Twitter and to anyone whose will listen. For me they together mark a turning point in the development of the social web and the way it affects society and politics. They, and the events they analyse have implications for business, our personal lives and just about everything else as well.
I’m still digesting their implications, and the implications of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. This blog post comprises my notes on both pieces.
The two blog posts
First of all, if you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend highly enough taking some time to read these two blog posts (and many of the comments on the former):
Paul Mason’s post pulls together social, economic and technology factors that have led to what seems to be a global wave of street protests, activism and unrest…
At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.
Some insights I took from his post were:
This isn’t all about technology, but technology’s effect have created the context for the revolutions in progress: “Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.”
Networks erode hard ideologies: He talks about the protest movements globally having at their heart the “graduate with no future” who is not prone to “traditional and endemic ideologies”. From Islamism to socialism, structured ideologies ultimately end up in movements becoming sclerotic as the forces of bureaucracy and internal power struggles take place. I’d say that this rule may hold true for corporations and other organisations ultimately.
The collapse of command and control communications as an instrument of authoritarianism: Because of social media “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”. This reminds me of something I learned early in PR about crisis communications – gossip and misinformation often moves faster than facts because it is illicit and has perceived value in human social networks. You pass on rumours and urban myths and spam because of this (“KFC has no chicken in it”, “New Facebook app lets you see who has viewed your profile”). In places where the media and government are spreading the lies and misinformation the hunger is for truth and the value in the social network comes from spreading. If truth is illict, it spread faster?
Transparency, and effect of the social web’s pressures on organisations, reveals not just information but how systems work: As Paul writes:
People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”.
One point which Paul makes links his notes to Dan McQuillan’s paper/post:
oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.
This is an insight which is very valuable beyond the protests also. To put it pithily, using social media changes how we expect the world to work. It changes what we expect from relationships, how we find out about things, talk about things, organise things.
Dan also puts a certain bit of unhelpful misreporting/social media hype to rest when he discusses the “Thank You Facebook” image which featured in a lot of Western media. It’s a mis-translation at best…
The mis-translation of a protester’s sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is ‘FACEBOOK’, in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as ‘Thank you Facebook’. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is ‘Thank you, Egypt’s Facebook youth’. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them ‘Egypt’s Facebook youth’ it also recognises that they’re acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.
Acting differently doesn’t just mean using Facebook, Twitter et al:
My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it’s impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.
Dan walks us through a timeline of the cutting off of the internet in Egypt and discusses the range of “pre-Web” technologies people used to keep the networks working. “Older” tech like ham radio, modems and telephones came into play, along with tech like Tor started to be used:
The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.
I like as well, the clear way Dan dismisses the whole discussion about whether “it was Social Media wot won it”:
Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.
He goes on to say “social media has changed the global sense of entitlement” toward being able to have these kind of communications, connections, relationships… That sense of entitlement means cutting off the internet is
The strands of thought in these two posts, and the context that they bring isn’t a case of Western democracy and freedom prevailing. Democracy as it is currently practiced is also under pressure – witness Wikileaks and the friction between the US State Department and Twitter. Those promises and ideals that Google and its ilk had about protecting our personal information from intrusive state authorities? They are being tested now and will be tested more so in the coming months and years.
Businesses too will be tested by these forces. Transparency is one they need to consider, but also changed expectations of customers, employees, of everyone about how they work. All organisations, not just corrupt and authoritarian governments may well experience challenges from networks, from new ideas about what they should do, how they should be organised.
: : As an aside, how great blogging is still as a form for getting these thoughts out. Before blogs i might never have read Dan’s analysls outside of an acdemic paper months later. Instead I get his analysis the moment it is finished. The notes Peter made for the Newsnight feature would have stayed in a notebook once the piece for the programme was dropped. Instead he was able to not waste that intellectual effort but share it and reach a huge audience (I don’t know what the traffic is, but the number of comments and re-tweets of the article suggest it was significant.
In Peter Day‘s annual tech trends interview in with Mark Andersen of Strategic News Service, the latter was scathing about Google’s lack of direction and its seeming inability to monetise the outputs of its (previously) much-admired 20 per cent time.
When they produce something as wonderful as Art Project, a large of me thinks: I don’t care. Take a look for yourself, it’s just thrilling.
Cisco is a company that I find very interesting indeed, as it has completely understood the importance of online networks not at just a technical level (its machines are what makes up much of what the internet is built on) but at a strategic business level.
That means much more than effusive but impractical “this changes everything” sentiment in the boardroom. Cisco, led by John Chambers’ born-again zeal for the potential of the hyper-connected world, has put its brains and brawn to work on building a networked company.
Accepting that the social network sum of its people is smarter than its C-level team
Embracing complexity and uncertainty about where technology, business and the whole world are headed
Designing business processes and growing a culture that takes both of the previous two points as its context
Being able to work in upwards of 25 major initiatives at once, where previously two at most were possible
Anyway, do read that original post and watch the video of John Chambers at MIT for more information.
Two years on, Cisco hasn’t deviated from pursuing the vision it laid out there. I was really interested to read an account by Andrew Sharrock of another Chambers keynote, this time last week in London, talking about how Cisco was doing and where its strategy was taking it next.
It seems that Cisco’s vision has deepened with experience, and the concept of Networked Economy taking over from the Information Economy is being discussed.
Adapting to the age of networks is an imperative not just for technology companies, but whole nation states, for most of the West, Chambers says. When we’re seeing R&D jobs leaving the UK for emerging markets, this view really rings true.
I was also interested to see the slide on Cisco’s Vision, Strategy and Execution, which shows global councils (see my previous post) still at the heart of being able to move on several fronts at once, seemingly producing the effect of allowing a big company to be agile, freeing itself from 20th century structures and accessing the latent power of its own human networks.
if you’re interested in reading more about Cisco’s Global Council approach, Andrew’s post also links to another by Raph D’Amico, which includes a diagram showing how Cisco prioritises opportunities.
What the post is saying is that in many ways the community is more important than a singled-out influencer, and yet a lot of effort is expended trying to identify the influencers and then, er, influence them. And I agree with that – the networks are more important to understand, and usually less understood by everyone from media/marketing planners to policy makers.
There is influence in networks, multidirectional influence at that. It is just wrong to boil down influence to being all about influencers. There are people who are important, who can pass on a thought or idea or link to a whole lead of others, but it’s not a a predictable, simple, sustainable thing.
You influence the networks you join, you are influenced by your networks, by the actions of people you know and don’t. And networks also have a mind of their own, the rule from Connected that chimes with what Geoff is saying.
Thinking about the idea of influencers in that context, it is almost as if networks choose their influencers. Or maybe that influencers are an emergent phenomenon in social networks.
Image: A troop train in the First World War (cc) drakegoodman
@avschlieffen: Is anyone srsly suggesting trains caused the biggest war of all time? WTF!?! Get over it, you trainspotters. Rail isn’t everything.
@billthekaiser:LOLIt wasn’t me it was the 11.24 to Gdansk that made me do it. ;)
Train timetables caused the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. 16 million dead, 21 million wounded. Mechanised destruction and suffering, literally on an industrial scale.
That was the argument of AJP Taylor, one of the most influential British historians of the latter part of the 20th century (and the godfather of TV dons). What he said was that the plans for troop movements a large scale war against both France and Russia simultaneously by German military planners depended on a sequence of trains deploying troops quickly to both fronts. Once you pressed the button, as it were, there was no turning back. If you paused you would lose the advantage and then the war.
So when they thought they had to go to war, the logic of the technology, the context created by the communications technology of the time (trains and telegraphs, to put it simply) meant that Germany had to commit completely.
It was a startling insight. Tragic and disorientating when you thought it through – this apocalypse was brought about by a human’s decision, but one which was warped by the technology, the systems they had created about themselves.
The web reveals the complexity of the world about us. It speeds things up. This much we know.
One effect of this is a flight to simplicity, it seems. People see the complexity and can’t accept – they want to know cause and effect: thing x causes thing y. Yes or no. You agree or disagree. Win or WTF.
It’s hard in 140 characters to include caveats and disclaimers, maybe that’s part of it.
Take the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia over the past few weeks. Communications technology and social networks have been present, both on the streets, among the protagonists.
Did Facebook cause the revolution? Is it a Twitter revolution? These are partly silly questions, partly interesting ideas to follow through. Historians will soon enough, why shouldn’t we?
One thing is perspective, another is evidence, and then there’s time to reflect, think over hypotheses for and against. As events occur, it is hard to get a lot of any of these things.
Which is why a lot of the Twitter updates I’ve seen on this subject are likely to be filed/filtered as less useful noise, less likely to follow the links if they are saying something binary and self-evidently unconsidered “It’s a Twitter revolution!” or “social networks play no part in it – get over yourselves you technocrat Western narcissists.”
It is not unimaginable that the presence of web technologies have enabled people to communicate and coordinate street actions – there seems to be evidence that is the case. Twitter’s not the sole cause of the uprisings, just as train timetables were not the sole cause of the Great War.
Social networking technology and mobile phones are important part of the context, not of the causes of these events.
On a different, related note: corporations and Governments will behave differently about diplomacy because of the logic, the context of a hyper-connected world. Transparency will be assumed, knowledge will be assumed, the inevitability or high likelihood of disclosure will colour decision-making.
Twitter and Facebook and Google aren’t going to be the root causes of these things, but they will be the context, why things are able to happen in certain ways, why people choose to do certain things, for good and ill.
Coming back to the main point of this post, though – we shouldn’t waste energy on black and white debates about technology and current affairs. Acknowledge the fuzziness, embrace complexity – it’s the only useful way to make sense of the world.