Storytelling

I spoke at History Hack Day this past weekend. It was a lot of fun! I ducked out before the presentations because I felt a bit poorly on Sunday, but by all accounts they were a fabulous bunch.

Many thanks to Matt Patterson for inviting me along and for kind words from the likes of Jeremy Keith. Here’s a version of that talk, but with less hand-waving, fewer post-it notes and less direct references to hacks…

My day-to-day job is as Last.fm’s Data Griot. The ‘data’ part of that isn’t so important; we have scientists who work with the algorithms at the heart of Last.fm and I don’t get hands-on with numbers. The ‘Griot’ part is though. Griot basically means storyteller; my job is to turn Last.fm’s numbers into stories that say something about the pop-culture they’re a part of.

Stories are what this is mostly going to be about, but I want to start with a confession; I’ve never really ‘gotten’ hack days. I’ve always been really drawn to them – the collective effort, the sense you’re breaking data sets apart to find toys inside, there’s a joy in that – but I don’t have the skill-set to take part. I felt that as a writer I’m technically useful to maybe eight people in the room, and only then if they include a button on their interface.

History Hack Day, more than the others I’ve been aware of, piqued my interest just a tiny bit more. I liked the idea that what people would be hacking has a real-world impact, and could shape our understanding of the past.

I really liked that History Hack Day might generate stories.

When I think of important stories in history I think of one man. His influence can be seen felt across history, oral and written, and his impact on contemporary culture is staggering. For the developer community the stories he’s a part of can take on a whole new layer of meaning. I’m talking about this man; The Doctor.

His adventures have been chronicled nearly continuously for the last 48 years. He’s been an observer – and a participant – in every world-changing moment in our time. He saw the fires start on Pudding Lane, saw Pompeii’s lava crack the ground, and he’s hidden in a bunker with Winston Churchill. He’s seen the beginning and end of earth, time, humanity and his own race; the Time Lords. And he’s awesome.

As a fictional construction he has repeatedly been dislocated from the times he understands and that his viewers, or readers, comprehend. In many ways I feel that time travelers and characters like The Doctor prepared us for the real-time web, by helping us understand temporal alienation in the context of entertainment. We came to fear not the process, but the enemies who exploit that process.

Whenever The Doctor exists his incarnations fixate on the now. When you or I can flit between archives or play games like Wiki races – when we can wormhole through history – feeling tethered to the present becomes incredibly important.

That’s where the power of stories comes in; if you’re a Time Lord then your perception and experience of the passage of time bears no relation to the human perception and experience of time. A narrative, a tale, replaces that. It provides the grounding that you might otherwise experience simply by living in linear time.

At the same time this has enabled us to see even more clearly just how the clues required to solve problems forty years in the future might need to be encoded in the walls and furniture of today. The archives we leave behind have impact beyond our wildest expectations. All of which sounds much more serious than it needs to, but stories are like that.

What we’re used to seeing, now, is the memeic nature of ideas and history playing out before our eyes. The degrees of separation between influencer and influenced are impossibly small, and I’m as likely to get a link to a cool music video from an economics editor as I am a band. As James Darling’s snapshot of tweets last week shows, this stuff happens really quickly, and very naturally (and degrades just as naturally/quickly).

But we’re terrible at matching up that kind of cross-pollination in historic terms. I’ve never known of the Library of Alexandria explained in such a way, as the product of collective thought and shared ideas. But now we’re starting to get access to disparate enough sets of information to be able to join those dots, and articulate history in somewhat less monolithic terms.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and these ideas are lost. I hope they’re not.

SpaceLog does something like this. It’s a project initiated at /dev/fort full of exposable, explorable stories that join up into grander narratives. You spend time with SpaceLog, you get a bit lost in it. Part of that’s the raw appeal of the stars – all that space – but a lot of it comes from casually laying bare the human facets of spacemen; from forgetting to file a tax return to wrestling a tiny craft back home. These are stores that might otherwise be untold – it takes hacks and tim-boxed projects to surface them.

Some stories surface in more abstract ways. James Bridle’s glanceable Romance Has Lived Too Long Upon This River is an elegant page that shows the height of the Thames at time of viewing. It’s pulled together to show, in about as graphic a manner as possible, what a body of water that defines a city is doing. I’d love to see it overflow. I’d love to see version that works alongside Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River to illustrate to readers how deep the Thames was breathing through the ages.

Then there’s this; a recent data-vis from The Guardian about deaths in 2009, a very recent history. It’s less cheerful, less glanceable, less comfortable to dwell on, but it still packs an emotional thump. And it wants you to ask questions about it, it wants you to map your own stories to it. It makes the reader question where one’s number might fall. And, off to the right, there’s a strange and scary number. It’s small compared to the others, less than one four hundredth of the big number in the middle, but it’s context is terrifying. It says “unknown causes”.

What else in the timeline might shed light on these? What dots have we been so far unable to join up? What are the stories here?

That’s the thing about having all this history at your fingertips; you might want to poke it into some fairly alien shapes: I’d love to know if the Old Bailey has ever seen monsters through its doors; as bombs fell about London what plays might Londoners have been getting ready to watch; what correlation do alien sightings have with “gas leaks” or “commercial airliners traveling new routes”; where and when did the bees go?

Craig Ferguson, a Scottish-American chat show host, had Matt Smith – the latest actor to play The Doctor – on, and he came up with an incredible description of Doctor Who

It’s about “The Triumph Of Intellect And Romance Over Brute Force And Cynicism”

Who wants to leave this life without leaving something behind that sparkles with intellect and romance?

You have history at your fingertips right now, so think about the places you want to go. Think about the places you’ve been. Try to think about the companions you want to take with you; some of them will be Time Lords – expert travelers just like you – but some of them won’t be, and they might want their hands held a little. Think about all of those fascinating branches of history you’ve always wanted to explore, all those wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits.

Think about the stories you want to tell; think about the stories you want your companions to tell. Most of all just think about stories.

6 thoughts on “Storytelling

  1. Lovely post.

    The last few artworks I’ve made have been about anecdotal conversation as a site for the creation of history. In a philosophical sense, narrative could be the only thing that makes sense of what may well be a totally chaotic world.
    Stories seem to me to be a way of creating causal relations between things that aren’t necessarily connected.

    when I clicked your links to the data representations I thought of this LRB article that I read today:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n02/jenny-diski/short-cuts

    I also have a preference for trains of thought, or conversational sequences, over written or pre-meditated narrative. It is hard to capture, but it allows for associations between ideas that we could never think of ‘on purpose’.

    This is a lecture I gave in Liverpool that linked stories to other stories – micro to macro narratives. It’s called Liverpool Fugue

    Matt

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