Friday, December 17, 2010

Story games

This post is about story games, in three ways.

First, it is an announcement to my readership that, due to the lamentable fact that I am apparently incapable of making any utterance less than five pages long, I will be switching to biweekly posts for the foreseeable future. I just can't keep up this level of writing - on this blog, anyway.

Second, I'm happy to say that due to the apparent lack of anybody wanting me to work for them (much) in January or February, I may actually be able to finish rewriting the book. I may blog even less during that time. So if I'm silent, you will know why.

Third, I thought I'd throw out a few tidbits on great games to play with your kids if you want to build and tell stories together, for fun and for narrative sensemaking. My son and I have had a wonderful time using games (online, for the Wii, on the computer) as part of our daily narrative sensemaking, so I thought I'd pass on some recommendations for other parents, and just anybody who likes to play with stories.

Open-ended physics games

Physics games are those where you manipulate objects in virtual space with realistic elements such as gravity, momentum, inertia, etc to reach goals. Some are very simple because the goals are obvious and the puzzles involve nothing but logic. Those bore me quickly because there is no way to tell a story in them. To tell a story you need uncertainty. You need to have something happen, and then not know what will happen next, and then find out what happens next. If what will happen next is always that you will solve the puzzle, or not, you can't do much with it story-wise. But some games offer scope for the imagination. In general, if there is either much latitude in how a problem is solved, or a level editor that exposes the game designers' engine to players, you can work out stories in the space.

Fantastic Contraption is a favorite. There you have things like wheels and planks, and you need to build things to get things from here to there under constraints. The fascinating thing about Fantastic Contraption is that site visitors submit their own solutions to the puzzles, and many of them are essentially stories. People have taken the basic engine and used it to create the most amazing events, some of them featuring emergent patterns that they found by exploring the limits of the system. The catapults in particular are worth watching over and over.

There are many more wonderful physics-engine games at that can be used in this way (Demolition City, Sprocket Rocket and Red Remover are favorites).

Open-ended games with characters

Playing with a simulation-style program (not necessarily physics-based) that has a good level editor and characters is a little like being a director, in that you can explore and work out issues (like negotiating rules, resolving disputes, avoiding vicious cycles, etc) by manipulating the actions of characters. It is also useful to be the characters (who must have  funny voices, of course) while making them do things onscreen.

Professor Fizzwizzle is a silly platform game where you help this little crazy professor get back to his laboratory from which his robots have evicted him (he accidentally turned the control dial from "friendly" to "rage"). The challenges are fun (luckily solutions are nearby for the lazy player - never mind how I know that) but the great part is the level editor. We have set up endless stories in which the professor and the rage-bots (over which he still has a limited degree of control via various funny devices) face off in hilarious ways. Here the story is not so much built with simple balls and planks interacting as it is characters who have useful behaviors and characteristics that stand in for things we want to think about.

Some others in the open-ended-with-characters group are MySims Kingdom, MySims Racing, the WeSki series, and the games based on the Cars movie. In all of these it's fairly easy to place characters into situations and pretend to be them while controlling them. One favorite thing is to play hide-and-seek, where one of us searches for the other who is hiding somewhere. Or we set up story scenarios, like one character is lost and needs help finding their way home, or two characters have an argument, or one character is bullying another, or two characters want to convince a third of something, and so on. This is all great narrative sensemaking material.

You might say The Sims is the standard for character simulation. But when I played The Sims (this was before the child) I found myself frustrated by the restricted worldview. I created an endless parade of hermits who would carefully parcel out their meagre savings in order to bury themselves in reading, writing and walking in the woods. But they ignored the woods I built (those trees cost money, you know!), and all they would do is whine that they wanted television and parties and jobs delivering pizzas. I hear the Sims people have done some work on those limitations, but I'll believe it when I see it. I did have some luck when I found out the infinite-riches cheat (something to do with monkeys), and I did have some fun creating people from literary situations (the Boxcar Children was one I remember). But I never could get the people to enjoy nature and reading and solitude, which sort of took all the fun out of it for me. If you can't tell stories about yourself, what is the point of telling stories?

Role-playing games

Role-playing games are, obviously, games where you play a role. I find that these games vary immensely in how much you can play with the roles you inhabit. You can't build stories if you can't play with characters, for the same reason you can't build stories if you can't find uncertainty. If you always know what a character will do (because they are orcs or something) you can't build a story. You can only experience one somebody else made (which is fine for what it is, but that's not what I'm talking about here). What you can do with a role-playing game is, if the narrative material provided is rich enough, it can provide fruit for stories that spin off outside the game itself.

For example, I have played and loved several titles in the Harvest Moon series. It's a favorite unwinding thing to do after work. Everything's free or next to it, everyone's nice, your spouse and kids do anything you ask, you can befriend people simply by handing them things they like (and you can look up what they like online). And work consists of hoeing in the garden for an hour or two a day. It's the ultimate fantasy game for middle-aged workaholics. But this series is particularly rich in materials for narrative sensemaking as well. In one of the Harvest Moon stories, when I was playing as a woman, I found two suitors (you marry and have kids) who perfectly captured two sides of my husband: Craig the irritable grouch, and Toby the soft-hearted and humble fisherman. Similarly, I found two female characters that described two sides of me: the proud, sharp-tongued Selena and the shy, kind Candace. My son and I spent many hours working out the ramifications of these abstract characters trying to live together and do things like, say, put food on the table and keep a house clean. My son himself favored the tough-guy characters who seemed to have great power - but cleverly, the game didn't leave them that simple and gave them interesting flaws to explore. All of this has been great grist for the mill that is childhood (and parenthood).

Other role-playing games that spur storytelling like this are Ico (the emotions it evokes are amazingly real) and the must-see Samarost. The Dungeons and Dragons world is another great role-playing system in which people work out who they are going to be. I spent many hours defining and redefining myself using that narrative system during adolescence (when I most needed it). Once in a while I'll drag out my yellowed character sheets (or whatever they were called) from back then and look at them, and it's like reading the story of my coming of age. As I understand it there are many such worlds now, and everyone can find something that works for them.


We have recently started playing create (by EA for the Wii), and I find I have to give it its own category. It is an excellent story vehicle, not necessarily the best ever, but still pretty darn good. It took me a while to figure out how it works, and I'm still amazed that anybody thought to put things together in this way. To begin with, you can explore fourteen distinct worlds, each with its own mythological/symbolic setting: theme park, transportopia, family home, outer space, the great outdoors, ancient history, future city, pirates, I can't remember them all. In each world you have three elements. At the back of the 3D space is a standard-issue 2D paint program, although it has some extra-fun elements like "stickers" you can "flick" to set in motion (airborne vehicles, clouds, birds, etc).

In front of the 2D backdrop is a 3D composition space where you can arrange items appropriate to the setting (or inappropriate, as you like). Conveniently, some of these items make great story characters. There are even real and fanciful animated creatures, though they don't do much but stand around and do a few stereotyped moves. They also don't interact, sadly, which would have made the system more Sims-like. It's not that fun to put the robots with the ancient sea monsters if they just stand there and gawk at each other, or at nothing really. My favorite of the worlds so far is the ancient history world, where I have Mayan and Greek and Egyptian statues holding little conferences on various topics all over the place, while monsters and rabbits wander among them. It's easy to set up stories of jokes, disasters, discoveries, conflicts and so on. (Interestingly, my son has decorated all of his worlds to look new and perfectly functional, while my built worlds all feature rust, decay and the taking over of human structure by natural growth. Hmm.)

Right smack in the middle of each 3D composition space is a ribbon on which a 2D physics-based simulation takes place. It looks like it is embedded in the world around it, but it really isn't (leading to much initial confusion). In each world you have ten "challenges" with pre-made goals, and of course achieving the goals wins you points and 3D objects to use in the scene composition and simulation (how irritating this pervading belief that nobody will play anything if they don't win anything, ooooh, winning). But the cool thing here is that the challenges themselves are not logic puzzles but great story-generating engines. Even with all the other stuff, if these challenges had been the boring sort - only one way to get this ball to that hoop - I would have put the game down.

The reason this simulation works for narrative play and sensemaking is that like many of the better physics games, it is a complex-and-complicated system. Because you are using virtual gravity, wind, and fickle machines (some of which have hilariously unexpected properties, like monster truck tires that pop like balloons), things rarely go as planned. Successfully having completed a puzzle once gains you next to nothing when you try to do it again. One misplaced whiff of forced air and the whole contraption goes off in a different way and you miss all the goals. One type of challenge in particular, called the "Score-tacular," is less like solving a problem than like orchestrating mayhem. This is a story event generator. There was one memorable moment the other day when we had to gain 30,000 points and couldn't see how, and then by accident the simulation got into this cycle where a spiky thing almost popped a balloon, but didn't quite, and we watched the spiky thing go around in circles for about fifteen minutes as the points added up 500 points at a time. We began to wonder if the cycle would ever end and talked about stopping the simulation, when at 37,000 points the balloon suddenly burst, and we burst out laughing. What a story! After we stopped laughing we talked about other times when things happened like that, when it seemed like something would never happen and then it suddenly did. Like anger, and making friends, and wars, and stuff like that.

Outside of the challenges, you can use the open-ended simulation to build events into stories. One we did last night was, we took teleporters and put them in a circle so that whatever we dropped into one teleporter would go round and round forever. We then placed a magnet somewhere just to give the system a nudge, and watched as the lawn tractors chased themselves around the loop faster and faster and faster, until they started popping out and shooting like rockets across the sky. We also had a blast placing characters from the past (an Inca god who shot arrows out of his mouth in indignant fury and rode around on a seige tower) into positive and negative interactions with contemporary vehicles like tanks and blimps and farm tractors. This propelled a discussion about technology through the centuries and how our lives are different in some ways while the same in others. And about conflict and the various ways we leap to conclusions about each other. The tanks in particular have enabled much exploration of power used to aid and obstruct: sometimes a missile blast can be a helping hand. And so on and so on.

What makes create such a useful resource for narrative play? I think it is the combination of many settings (providing backstories, dilemmas, opportunities, genres), many characters (bears, robots, monster trucks, indignant statues), and many events (importantly, many of these happen by surprise). I always think of stories as looking like pencils, with setting as the eraser, characters as the shaft, events as things along the shaft (letters, icons, fingernail marks, teeth marks), and the point of the story as ... well, the point of the pencil. When a game substrate provides settings, characters, and events, you can build lots of stories with lots of points. And then you can draw things with them.

So that's my round-up of great story games (for the around-seven set and adults who like that sort of thing).

One thing I've noticed while writing this is that except for D&D, I only described computer games. I can hear somebody saying, "But what about good old board games?" The problem is, most board games aren't great story material. Too many of them are only about winning, or so much about winning that the story material is hard to make good use of. Monopoly is a pretty good story substrate - I spent years of my childhood exploring all the ways to cheat and steal in that game, and only found out years later that some of our "variations" weren't actually written in the instructions but local to our family. (Evidently there is no "rich game" where everybody gets loads of money! In that case why play?) In general the best games for narrative play are not games with rules you play by, but games with rules you play with. I've found a few games like that recently - Set is one, Blokus is another, and some of the ThinkFun games (Rush Hour is a pretty good story generator). Colorforms still exist, thank goodness. But it's mostly slim pickings. It seems like most board game designers are more interested in creating docile instruction followers than original thinkers. Or that's what they think parents will pay for anyway. If I see one more tangrams set with "helpful" patterns you must build, I'll scream. Quietly.

In the bath, as usual, I thought of another paragraph to add in here. It's the predictable response from the stick-and-rock people. You know, the people who say children can only grow when they have nothing but sticks and rocks to play with. We are mostly stick-and-rock people ourselves, in the summer, and the Wii sits abandoned for months. Certain LEGO lovers around here become offended by my admonitions to stop "shuffling bits of plastic around" and go out in the real world. And we do (and you do too). Just two weeks ago we built a pirate/anti-pirate ship (it kept switching sides) out of bits of old wood and string, with a tomato support for a mast, a garbage bag for a sail, a log for an anchor, and an old frisbee for a wheel. (This being a futuristic pirate/anti-pirate ship, it also needed many inexplicable dials and levers.) However, the ship soon stuck fast to the ground and had to be yanked up and frog marched to the garage for storage, lest it trip us up when it's invisible under the snow. This time of year it's always either cold and dark or cold and going to be dark soon, and the Wii begins to beam benevolence in contrast. (And our friend the snow is not yet here. When the snow comes we gain another medium of narrative substrate that, unlike the frozen mud and sand, can be molded into roads, buildings, people, cities.) But yes, I agree that when physical conditions permit, nothing can beat sticks, rocks, mud and snow as the best narrative substrates of all.

Are there any games - of any kind - that you find particularly useful as material for narrative play and sensemaking?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The healing cleaver

Yesterday I posted about the issue of context in story listening, and how I try to preserve context and worry that I fail. Today I listened to two doctors tell stories about how listening to their patients tell their stories helps them work together to find solutions to problems. (This was on a teleconference from the Plexus Institute on the topic of Narrative in medicine, about which a colleague told me and many thanks, colleague. I think the Plexus Institute puts up archived recordings of these calls if you want to listen to their stimulating accounts. Look for archived PlexusCalls.)

The two doctors on the call reminded me of something I had forgotten. They talked about how part of the therapeutic solution doctors and other health providers offer to patients is just the opportunity to tell their story to someone who cares and is listening. The story is the therapy, they said. They mentioned the gratitude they have found in patients for this act of listening, not for any solutions proposed but just for the chance to speak and be heard.

The sword in his mother's hand

I had forgotten that. I myself have been amazed to find so many people grateful to be heard in the story collections I have helped people put together. Generally the storytellers in the projects I help clients with have been asked (begged) to contribute to something, a goal or a cause, though sometimes they have been simply paid or required to contribute and given no other reason to speak. In most projects some number of people have inevitably expressed gratitude for what they have usually called the chance or the opportunity to speak. Some who don't say it directly have radiated their gratitude indirectly, through their stories. Sometimes you can just feel the relief people have at finally being asked the right question that gives them the permission to share their experiences and perspectives.

This made me think about my post yesterday. If the severing of context from a story is always negative, if asking people to recount their experiences to strangers and using those stories to represent people without their further participation is a dangerous enterprise open to abuses of power, how could anyone possibly feel gratitude about it? Should they not cry out in protest? Why do so many people seem to honestly enjoy the experience?

I wonder if in my soul searching I've been too one-sided in looking for solutions and blame. Maybe sometimes the loss of context in storytelling is exactly what is needed. It could be empowering as well as coercive, and maybe at the same time. Maybe sometimes a story that cannot be told within the boundaries of family, friends and community can be told beyond those boundaries, and that could lead to reflections and revelations impossible otherwise. Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

It reminds me of this great Sting song that goes:
He looked beneath his shirt today
There was a wound in his flesh so deep and wide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
He turned around to face his mother
To show her the wound in his breast that burned like a brand
But the sword that cut him open
Was the sword in his mother's hand ...

Though the sword was his protection
The wound itself would give him power
The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour
She said the wound would give him courage and pain
The kind of pain that you can't hide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
Maybe what I have not been considering, in my struggle to work ethically, is that effective story exchange should be both a tie that binds and a sword that cleaves. If that is true, cleaving context from story becomes not something uniformly to be avoided, but something to be used at the right place and time. When is that place and time? I don't know. It is something I'd like to think more about. If the creation of distance is an essential element in story collection, when is it essential and when is it obstructive? When does it help and when does it hurt?

The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour. Isn't that what stories do for us, give us the power to remake ourselves? Maybe it is in our darkest hour when we need the distance a loss of context can provide. Maybe that is why I've seen the people with the worst, saddest stories show the most gratitude. They have the most to reveal, the strongest boundaries, and the greatest reason not to reveal their stories without the freeing context of no-context. Why do people call suicide hotlines when they are surrounded by family and friends who would do anything, go anywhere, pay anything, to help them in their time of need? Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

Clothes or skins? 

I'm not saying my ritualized practices of relying on storyteller interpretations as maps of authenticity are not warranted. I still believe it is manipulative and self-deluding to interpret the stories of others without attempting to preserve some understanding of their meaning in situ. But maybe the key to helping people collect and work with their stories is not in preserving context above all else, but in helping them manage the interplay of cleaving distance and joining intimacy.

I've thought about this duality in stories for a long time: are they objects or living beings? I've seen lots of people excoriate those on the other side of that divide. Those who treat stories as objects say: Don't put too much stock into stories. Don't treat them as powerful forces and don't be deluded into thinking they represent reality. They are just shiny playthings, constructions created for purposes, artifacts, masks. When my son was very little, he would describe people based on the colors of their clothing, not realizing people didn't define people that way. We would read a book and he'd say, "I liked that red man" or "That blue man said mean things." It was only later that he realized I separated clothing from identity and stopped doing that. People who see stories as objects see them like clothing, things that can be put on and taken off. They caution us not to take them too seriously.

Those who treat stories as living beings say the opposite: revere stories for their centrality to the human experience. Respect them, don't ship them around as commodities, don't remove their sacred layers of context. People on this side get all hot and bothered about voices and rights, and write long blog posts about the dangers of cleaving story from context and the daring temptations of manipulative interpretation by outsiders. I've been on this side, obviously, but I wonder if I have gotten too storier-than-thou about it for my own good. Maybe because I have felt the sharpness of the cleaver in my hand so often I have not understood its dual uses as I should. There is that great quote from Oscar Wilde: "Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Maybe sometimes stories should be masks we can put on and take off. Asking people to come into a room of strangers, or onto a web site, is like asking them to shed their skins as if they were clothes and try on others. It allows them to step outside of their clothes that say "single mother" or "struggling farmer" or "helpful doctor" and speak freely, unadorned by the confining encrustations of context. It transports.

Casting themselves into the wind

My favorite metaphor for stories is that they are like seeds, so I like to use it as a handy tool to explore any and all dilemmas. Seeds can be seen as objects, things that can be picked up and cast about by those in control of them. Some even speak of seeds as tools, elements of human-controlled technology.

But seeds can also be seen as living organisms with abundant abilities to adapt and respond: sharp spines, chemical weapons, adaptive growth patterns, the power to endure through harsh conditions and emerge when favorable conditions return. I've always been on the side of the living-organism view, I think. It is where I am when I talk about the horror of cleaving context from story. But there is a liberating merit, at the right place and time, to treating stories as objects, to casting them on the ground as a farmer casts seeds. To loosening the bonds of context and sacrificing the sacred to the profane. To Carnival and the breaking of rules. To shaking stories loose from their moorings and prodding them to travel. To giving them the gift of courage and pain.

But it's not that simple. Some seeds don't wait for farmers to cast them, and maybe some stories don't either. Some seeds cast themselves, with their pinafores of fluff and their whirligig motors. Some seeds build their own loss of context into their travels, and maybe some stories do, or want to, as well. If that is true, some stories may wield their own tiny cleavers and cut themselves loose. For these stories, maybe I am not the agent of control at all. Maybe I just delude myself into believing I have power over them. If it's true that some stories cleave themselves, the ethical narrative intermediary should not expend their energy on preserving context in every situation, because sometimes they will work against what they want to support. Instead they should find out what is most wanted in each circumstance. Which stories want to travel? Which have grown wings? How can you tell? I'm not sure. There must be some way of discerning a winged story from the burrowing sort. There must be some way of finding out which stories have cut themselves loose and are struggling to fly. Maybe in a story wings look like gratitude.

One bridge too far

From the story-seed bridge I see another nearby analogy (will you follow me there?) to mutation in natural selection. Mutation is a sort of shaking of the bag of life to see what will fall out of it. Mutation destroys cherished boundaries and concocts new combinations, some wondrous and some grotesque. When we cleave stories and cast them about, we are inserting some entropic forces into the order of cognitive, psychological and social explanation in order to reach new assemblages of order. If so, is that not the perfect role for a trickster to play? Should not a narrative intermediary fill that role, at times? Is the cleaving of story from context the spice of story work? Does it keep the process just unbalanced enough to keep it alive, even as it introduces the pain of destruction and renewal?

Oh, dear. I've done it now. The metaphor police are here. They have a warrant for my arrest on charges of flagrant mixing: "beyond all reasonable tolerance." I can't very well argue. I know I've been caught red-handed. I have to go.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Severed stories and those who sever them

One of my favorite moments in my work is when I'm sitting with a body of stories and their accompanying interpretations. This is a position I have been in many times now and have come to love, over and above writing or programming or almost anything else I do. Sitting with the stories, abiding with them, listening to them, is a delight. Recently, as I reflected on this process and the emotions I experience as I go through it, I thought writing about it might be helpful to others who are also doing this sort of work.

Listening to the story of stories

I always start with the answers. I should explain, to those who don't know, that in projects I help my clients with, I always ask them (beg them, really) to ask people at least a few brief questions about each story they tell: how do you feel about it, when did it happen, and so on. When I receive the stories for a project, they never stand alone but are adorned, encrusted, surrounded with meaningful interpretations.

So when I receive this information, I begin by generating every possible measure and comparison among answers, visual and/or statistical. Then I pore over them. How many people said they felt happy yet confused about their stories? How many people over fifty told stories in which people needed respect? How many under twenty said that? How many people said their second-hand stories lacked control? If they said one thing, were they more likely to say another? Or the reverse? And so on. These thousands of comparisons form patterns which I sort through, sometimes by eye, sometimes by algorithm and sometimes in both ways. Some patterns line up as expected, some are surprising, some curious, some unsettling. The patterns begin to assemble themselves into heaps that grow and merge until I arrive at a smaller group of large trends at the highest level.

Importantly, none of these trends are based on the stories themselves. They are based on interpretations: answers people gave to questions about their stories and about themselves and their views.

I do actually read some stories as I assemble patterns; but I only read small subsets when a pattern is too curious to be understood without plunging into detail. I carefully avoid looking at any stories without a good framing reason, a question to be answered, in the early stages of the work. I never allow myself to wander into the story collection and start exploring.

Why keep myself away from the stories? Because I don't want to form any patterns in my own reading. What I want to do is find the patterns the storytellers set down for me to find. The patterns that form in the interpretations given by storytellers create a second-order story, one that encompasses and explains all the stories beneath it. It is the story of the stories, told by the people who told them. I can only find that story-of-stories by listening to what people said about their stories. The most delightful moment in every project is when the story-of-stories starts to tell itself (or, when the large trends in story interpretation begin to appear and stabilize). If slogging through all the pattern comparisons is like patiently tending a garden, watching the patterns join and merge into strong messages is like harvest day. It is like watching a dense fog lift over a quiet landscape, or rounding a corner and hearing a distant sound become a resounding choir. It is heartening. The people find their voices and speak.

After I have discovered the story-of-stories I communicate it to whoever asked me to help collect the stories. In more technical terms, I explain and illustrate each major trend in prose, in graphs, in statistics, and in stories. As I build this presentation, I finally allow myself to dive into the stories. At this point I read as many stories as I can in order to choose relevant stories with which to illustrate each trend. (Usually that means I read all of the stories, but when there are thousands I cannot get to them all, poor things.)

I always find myself pleasantly surprised at how perfectly the trends match the stories. I don't know why they wouldn't match up, but I'm always excited when they do. The problem is never to find examples that illustrate the trends; the problem is to choose among the many excellent examples that present themselves. People know their stories. I've come to rely on that fact.

Whose story of stories?

I mentioned this always-surprisingly great match between trends and stories to my husband the other day, as I put together a report on a project. He said, "Gee, if they match up so well, maybe you don't need to do all those statistics and look at all those graphs. Maybe you could just read the stories." Not knowing any better, bless him, he put his finger directly on the crux of the issue. My reaction was rapid, emotional and instinctual: I recoiled. What would happen if I read the stories alone? I know exactly what would happen. The result would be worse than useless; it would be a disaster. I might as well not even start such a project. The people would not find their voices and speak; I would try to speak in their voices, and I would fail. It would be like any number of bad movies where ghosts or aliens or monsters take over people, issuing grunts, guttural horrors, grotesque gestures. It would not be real speech but un-speech, something wrong, distorted, alien, horrible.

So I've been thinking about this issue, of why it matters that people interpret their own stories, lately as I work on rewriting the book (Working with Stories). At one point in WWS I say, "You don't have to ask people to answer any questions about the stories they have told." But you know, I don't like that anymore. I want to take it out.

I think I'm coming round to a belief that if you don't ask people to interpret their own stories in some way, you have to take the P out of PNI -- that is, you are just doing Narrative Inquiry, not Participatory Narrative Inquiry. You don't necessarily have to ask people to fill out survey forms about stories; that is just convenient in some circumstances. You can ask people to reflect in a workshop setting, because asking people to build larger stories out of their stories is asking them to interpret, reflect and participate. (In fact in-person, facilitated reflection is far better when you can support it.) But you do need to engage people in some sort of reflection about their stories if you want to hear their true voices. Stories alone are not enough. I have become increasingly convinced of that fact. It just can't have the positive impact I think story work can and should have, and in fact I think it holds danger.

Whose trails through whose lands?

Let's picture a story collection as a landscape marked with features: rocks here, bushes there, a brook, a solitary peak rising above a grassy plain. Anyone who reads the stories gets a sense of the lay of the land. If you have read through any books with hundreds of folk tales or short stories in them, you will remember what it feels like to begin to sense the rise and fall of the terrain. I love to stretch out with a book of folk tales from a region or history and explore it, all the while thinking of other lands I've visited in the past. Maybe you do too.

Now. Anyone who encounters such a land of stories lays down trails through the land. Some trails are broad and rutted, with nothing but the most stubborn grasses struggling to grow on the compacted earth. Some trails are slight and hard to discern, only visible to those familiar with them. Forming your own trails through a narrative landscape is one of the delights of exploring a story collection. As a lover of folk tales, I look forward to feeling the paths form as I read through a collection. But if you have done this, you also must know that my trails cannot be your trails. The experience of reading a collection of stories is a story in itself, and each such story is unique.

Even the same person reading the same book decades later will lay down new trails. When I used to read Hans Christian Andersen's collected fairy tales every year as a child, I ran first on my favorite trails. One of my favorite stories then was "The Story of a Mother." It was about a mother who loses her child and speaks with Death and -- I don't remember how it ends. As a child I loved that story. It was heroic and romantic, and I think it helped me understand how much my own mother loved me, even if that love was manifested in rules and chores and waking me up in an irritating way. As a mother today, I cannot bring myself to read that story. That trail has grown over and lies untrodden, abandoned, forbidden. Just now I looked the story up on the internet and tried to read it -- but I find I can't. I can't face what it says. I couldn't even keep the browser window open, not looking at it; the words leaked fear and pain across into this page where I am writing. Someday I may read that story again and forge a new trail to it, but not in this stage of my life. People know their stories.

Now picture me again, this time facing a collection of stories told by real people, often people in real distress (because story projects usually involve people unhappy about something). Or picture yourself in the same position. If I was to build my own trails through that land of stories, or if you were, of what use would those trails be to anyone other than myself, or yourself? How would my trails or your trails help the people who told the stories, the people who asked for the stories, or the people who might be helped by the stories? They would not help them; indeed they might hurt. My story, or your story, would fight with the story the stories are telling. It might even take over and enslave their story, without our knowing it. So I don't build my own trails. I let the storytellers show me where to find their trails. I do this by asking them to reflect on their own stories. The answers they give me are the trails I follow, and those trails are what I present to those who asked me to help collect the stories. I recommend this practice to everyone who works with stories. Don't build trails. Ask, help and watch.

My journey to story reflection

I didn't always feel this way. I didn't always ask people to interpret their own stories. I started thinking about asking questions about stories soon after I began my journey through organizational narrative. As I recall, I had been reading the literature on story classification and story databases, and I was unhappy with the way people described stories. Of course adding contextual information to stories was nothing new. People had been annotating stories with metadata in computer systems for decades already, and for centuries (though less systematically) before that. But recently the cognitive scientists had got hold of things and everything was about plans and goals and actions. I wanted more. I asked myself: What are all the questions you could possibly ask about a story? To answer that question I spent three months surveying the research and popular literature in fifteen fields related to stories and storytelling. I ended up with several hundred possible questions, which I clustered into the three giant categories (form, function, phenomenon) that informed much of my later work. Some of my favorite questions from that list can be found in Working with Stories.

Soon after I developed this list I began to use questions of form, function and phenomenon to annotate stories and find patterns in the answers. Some of this early work on story annotation was done with John Thomas in IBM Research and some with Dave Snowden, Sharon Darwent and others in IBM Global Services. A decade later, lots of people have used this question-asking process in dozens of successful projects, but many may not know that in the first few years we did not ask storytellers themselves the questions. We did not think people would do it, and we did not realize it had value. Who answered the questions in those first years? Our clients, that is, the people paying us to collect stories, were supposed to answer them; we always asked people to agree to do that part of the "work" (as we saw it then). But when it came down to it, one client after another balked, and Sharon and I ended up staying up half the bleary-eyed night answering questions about stories. After doing this several times we said to ourselves that it just wasn't going to work this way. I did try, sometimes, in the early days, to answer questions myself about the intent of storytellers, like, did the storyteller appear to find this memorable. But those were always educated guesses, maps drawn by hearsay.

Note that all through this we did not realize the potential benefit of asking people to interpret their own stories. We were dragged kicking and screaming into doing it right. I have tried to remember on which project people were first asked to interpret their own stories, but I just can't remember. I do have a strong sense that when we began to gather more and deeper reflections from the original storytellers, the trails we found became more clear and easy to follow. What we discovered was that people know their stories. There is no better foundation on which to work with stories than stories combined with what their storytellers say about them. This is abundantly obvious in retrospect, but I for one did not see it coming. (If anyone else did, fine, all honor and credit to you, but I don't remember anyone else seeing it coming either. As I recall it, we all saw it as a labor-saving device at first and only discovered its other effects later.) In any case I'm very glad we discovered it, because it has had huge positive effects, from what I've seen, on the field in general. Isn't it always the case that the thing overlooked becomes the thing that holds everything together?

Severed stories

When I consider the benefits that can be gained by exploring the trails people have laid down among their own stories, I begin to have almost a horror of people reading and presenting the stories of others without such contextual interpretation being somehow preserved. By extension of course this is a horror of my own early work, but following my embarrassment rule it is a good sign of progress.

In their natural setting stories are never told devoid of context. It is only when we set about collecting them in databases that the problem arises at all. People add meta-narrations to their stories all the time, about why they told them, who they want to hear them, what parts are the most important, how they feel about them. Asking people to reflect on their stories is a way to mimic these interactions and preserve at least some of the story's context. That's why it works.

I'd go so far as to say that a story with no context to it ... is not really a story at all. It is a sort of imprint of a story, an impression, like those pencil rubbings people make of old gravestones. If you make no attempt to include some sort of story context in what you collect and work with, you are not really doing story work at all, because you are not working with living stories. You are just picking up dead stories and shuffling them around.

It reminds me of that scene in The Golden Compass where Lyra discovers a severed child: a child without his daemon, something torn apart, abhorrent, grotesque.
The little boy was huddled against the wood drying-rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon [her daemon], with both hands, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.
Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense. ...
She found herself sobbing, and Pantalaimon was whimpering too, and in both of them there was a passionate pity and sorrow for the half-boy.
Passionate pity and sorrow for the half-boy. This is exactly how I feel about stories taken out of context. They are naked, lost, half-stories that cry out to be clothed in meaningful context.

The kind of narrative analysis where experts build trails through the stories of other people simply by reading them and rearranging them seems to me nothing more than a thin fabric of delusion over the cold-blooded seizure of control. It is the treatment of stories as objects or commodities, things to be remapped and repurposed into new objects for consumption and use by those with the power to use them as they see fit.

Those who hold the cleaver must not use it 

I'm aware that this reaction is extreme. It seems extreme even to myself. I can't entirely explain it. It is not rational. Maybe it has come after sitting with so many tens of thousands of stories, feeling their vulnerability to exploitation, and wanting to protect them. I don't actually know anyone who rips stories away from their meanings in this way, so it's entirely possible -- no, probable -- that I have constructed a bogeyman to act out my own fears of what I might do with stories.

Just today I got an email about a project. The email said, we are entering the stories now and you can read some if you want to. My immediate reaction was to recoil. I even drew my hands back from the computer as though the keyboard were burning. It is interesting to reflect that the person who sent the email is used to facilitating storyteller reflections and interpretations in workshops, not to receiving disembodied stories through the ether as I do. I wonder if they are further removed from the daring temptation to use the sharp cleaver I could wield to separate context from narrative, daemon from child. Maybe it is the nearness and power of that cleaver that brings the spectre of using it so close to my mind and makes my reaction so intense (and my procedures so internally ritualized). I always say that working with stories has both great power and great danger. This is one of the dangers: of cleaving context from story and thereby subduing one story of stories with another.

Of course, there is another interpretation of my bogeyman story. It only occurred to me as I let this essay steep while I stepped into a hot bath. The bath, that womb-like, back-to-the-beginning font of wisdom, bubbled up the thought that maybe the reason I fear the cleaver so much is that I am already wielding it. I am an agent of story intercision myself. How foreign, how alien is it to gather people into a room or onto a web form and ask them to tell their stories to strangers? No matter how many and how deep the questions I ask, maybe I delude myself into believing I am preserving context. Maybe the thin fabric of delusion over a cold-blooded seizure of control is my own. Maybe my procedures are so ritualized not because they preserve context but because they preserve the remnants of what was once context. Maybe what I fear is what I already do.

Recently I was talking about the issue of being an intermediary in story projects with a colleague, and I noticed that I kept mentioning attributes of tricksters. People who work with stories must stand with one foot in two worlds, as insiders and outsiders at once. They must be ready to break the rules and upset the prevailing order so they can help people discover new rules and new order. They must lie to discover the truth, because only by making it clear that they cannot be trusted can they provoke people to think for themselves. And more than anything they must laugh at themselves and question their every statement and motive and plan. If that's true, I am probably exploring in the right direction. I'm starting to think a manual for working with stories (which is what I've been trying to write all this time) should be a manual for tricksters. It's worth thinking about, and it may be worth writing about. I've got my copy of Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World out and am planning to map it onto story work. Can't believe I never put that together before.

Readers, I wonder how much I am unique in having this feeling of power that must not be used, and in worrying I might be using it without knowing it. If you work with stories, have you had nightmares about severed stories? Have you seen anyone wield such a cleaver? Have you used one yourself? And have you developed any techniques that preserve story context in your own work? And do they work?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lost in a book

Here is a strange little story related to the post I wrote about two weeks ago in relation to reading novels on e-book readers. Having finished reading Little Dorrit and having slurped up both movie versions (each best in its own way), and having gone through the customary refractory period (for respect and reflection), I was now ready to read another novel.

I looked in the Dickens collection on my e-book reader. While watching the film adaptations of Little Dorrit, I had noticed two film adaptations of Bleak House on Netflix. I love book-film combinations, so Bleak House seemed a good choice for my next reading adventure.

As I began to read, a curious sensation stole over me. The people and places seemed strangely familiar, like things I'd seen in a dream. I was sure I'd never read Bleak House before. But might I have read something like it?

With each page the feeling grew. I found myself recognizing little visual particulars in some of the scenes -- a man in a coach, a girl standing in front of a fence, a rag-and-bone shop, a bare attic room, birds in cages, twisting staircases. I became convinced that I must have at least started the book before, because why else would these images seem so familiar? But even as I kept recognizing fragmented images, I could not guess at what might possibly come next, or even whether I had read what came next. I could not guess whether the characters I saw were central or peripheral to the plot. I asked myself: Who and what is Bleak House about? What is its point? What does it mean? How does it end? Did I read the whole thing? I had no idea. It was unsettling, uncanny, even frightening. It was like one of those dreams where you are frantically trying to call home but can't remember your own number.

I've now come to the conclusion that I must have read Bleak House within the past two years, since that is how long I've had my e-book reader. But I still can't recall reading it or anything about it. It's all new to me, even though it's familiar. By the way, it is highly unlikely that I would have read a bit of the book and stopped; that's not how I read. I would have finished it. I always do.

You know what it feels like to be in pain, right? Have you ever felt the other sort of pain? The pain that says to you, not "ouch that hurts" but "hey stop doing that"? The kind that tells you something has broken inside? The kind that, if you are paying attention to yourself, stops you from getting more seriously hurt? I remember the first time I felt that sort of message-pain. It was when I was in the high school band. I had carried my sousaphone for hours and hours one day, and the pain in my shoulder went from "ouch" to "hey you" status. I knew I needed to put down the sousaphone or damage my shoulder, so I obeyed the command. I've felt that sort of pain only a handful of times since, but I know it when I feel it. Probably you do too.

When I was reading Bleak House, apparently now for the second time, I felt the same kind of sensation. It was not exactly pain, but it was a message coming from somewhere in my brain. The message was: "I cannot do what you would like me to do. Something is broken in here. Would you please stop doing what caused this?" I felt that I was getting a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to lose your mind. The machine was breaking down.

I read Nicholas Nickleby when I was a teenager, and I can still remember its main characters and plot, if indistinctly and based more on emotion than fact. And I of course do remember that I read Nicholas Nickleby. I was upset before because I couldn't remember Chekhov's short stories. But those were short stories, and there were more than 200 of them. I can accept forgetting them, or at least some of them. But forgetting an entire novel? The thing is nearly a thousand pages long. It must have taken weeks to read, in the bits of free time I have available. How can I retrieve no memory of it? Are e-books really that bad? This is not looking out of a little window at a vast landscape and remembering only the window. This is forgetting the entire journey.

Here is one more little piece to this story. Last week I was writing to a colleague about the issue of managing motherhood and career, and I wanted to send her a funny scene about a mother who is enthusiastic about helping people in Africa but ignores her own children. I could not recall where I'd found this. I could only recall an image of a Victorian parlor filled with tumbling children and scattered papers. My best guess was Edith Nesbit's Five Children And It, so I went poking about in that book, and then in all the other Nesbit books I've read (note, all on the e-book reader). It wasn't in any of them. I began to think I'd seen it in an old movie, or it might have been in something I read about Edith Nesbit herself (who famously wrote books for children while ignoring her own). I finally gave up and didn't send anything.

Can you guess what I found in Bleak House? The scene I was looking for. In a book I had forgotten I'd read. If someone had said to me, oh that scene is in Bleak House, I would have said, Bleak House? I've never read that. The scene was in my memory, and connected to the motherhood-career theme. But it was completely unconnected to any sense of an overall story or reading experience related to Bleak House, which apparently is not to be found anywhere in there. If my memory is a library, the Bleak House book never got bound. Its pages lie scattered in rooms and shelves and tucked into other books far from where it (I find myself having always to add "apparently") entered the library.

I'm still reading Bleak House on the e-book reader, as a sort of experiment to see if at some tipping point I will suddenly remember the rest of the story and the Bleak House book will fly together and bind itself in my mind. But this may be the last e-book I ever read. After a scare like this, it's back to paper for me.

I can't help but wonder how many other people might have broken their reading machines without knowing it. Could this be a larger problem? Could we be breaking the reading machine on a societal level? Now that's a scary thought.

[Update: It's now the next evening, and I've just come from reading another chapter of Bleak House. In it I found a ghost story with such rich imagery that I could never have got past it without tucking it away somewhere. So my new reconstruction (as of this evening) is that I must not have finished Bleak House. I'm wondering if I tried to take it up in the post-Dostoyevsky mourning period, when nothing seemed good enough, only to cast it off. I would never do such a thing except under extreme conditions of literary grief. My response to this discovery was partly "Oh crap, I made such a big thing of forgetting this whole novel and now I find out it's not true, I must look awfully stupid" and partly "Ah, this deepens the problem, and how sage I must look because I've now shown I was able to convince myself of a lie!" So choose which you like best. I'm for the sage one. If I can convince myself equally well of having read a book and not having read a book, it still doesn't bode well for the future of e-book reading. In my bathtub anyway.]

Friday, November 12, 2010

What to expect: topics

Yes finally it's a blog post related to the book. Does anyone remember that I said I was setting aside October to finish the rewriting of Working with Stories? Well, folks, October laughed. So many tasks came up unbidden that I was barely able to spend a few days on the book. But I did make some progress, slowly, in between things. After three attempts I managed to satisfactorily cluster the themes of about 250 stories gleaned from my notes from around thirty group sessions for storytelling and/or narrative sensemaking. The general outline of topics goes like this.

There are dynamics between the session facilitator and participants.
  • People understand your goals, or they don't.
  • People understand your methods, or they don't.
  • People understand your instructions, or they don't.
  • People understand storytelling, or they don't.
  • People are motivated to participate, or they aren't.
  • People feel it's safe to tell stories, or they don't.
  • You understand the people well, or you don't.
  • Things run smoothly, or they don't. 
  • You get along with people or you butt heads with them.
  • People work with you or pursue their own agendas.
  • You find unexpected opportunities, or you don't.
  • People try too hard to do things right, or won't try at all.  
  • The timing is perfect or all wrong.
  • You understand your own personality and skills and limitations, or you don't.
  • People vary in their interpretations of what you ask them to do.
  • People vary by personality in how they respond to your instructions.
  • Groups and roles vary in how they respond to your instructions.
  • Topics vary in what you can ask about and how you can ask.
There are dynamics among session participants.
  • Storytelling has natural dynamics.
  • Group conversation has natural dynamics.
  • Group sensemaking has natural dynamics.
  • Rooms with a few small groups of people in them have natural dynamics.
  • People vary by personality in how they tell and listen to stories.
  • Groups and roles vary in how they tell and listen to stories.
  • Topics vary in how people tell stories about them in groups.
Running a storytelling or sensemaking session has physical requirements.
  • The room works well, or it doesn't.
  • Recording stories works well, or it doesn't.
  • Getting people to come to the session works well, or it doesn't.
That's 28 topics, and I plan to start going through them a few at a time here, with most what I write ending up in the Supporting storytelling part of the book. This week I have only managed to put up the list itself, but next week I plan to start summarizing my experiences and giving some advice on each topic.

If you think there is a topic I should cover about collecting and/or working with stories in group sessions and you don't see it here, please tell me via comment or email.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

E-books, narrative context and the future of reading

Here is today's set of desultory thoughts, this time about where technology and narrative come together in e-books.

The end of the line, or, a unique opportunity

About two years ago I found that the time had come to read the works of Anton Chekhov. (Oh God, she's on about literature again -- No! It's about technology! Computers!) Ahem. The trouble was, there is apparently no comprehensive published English version of all of Chekhov's 200+ short stories. Instead, several compilations overlapped, and to read the entire set I would have to buy some stories three or four times. I calculated that to buy the entire set with the repetitions would cost about $120. But all of the earlier translations of Chekhov's work are available for free on the internet. The books would cost almost as much as an e-book reader. The perfect opportunity had come to enter the e-book revolution.

So I bought a Sony Reader. Since then I've read not only all of Chekhov's works on it, but also a few dozen novels and plays as well as three entire Star Trek series in transcript form. The reader has paid for itself three or four times. It's a nice device, small and light, easy to read and use. It holds its charge fairly well and can even be used in a hot bathtub with the addition of an AquaPac protector. I have loaded about 200 free books onto it, most from the excellent Many more are to be had there and elsewhere. (I use the also quite good calibre to manage my holdings.) I don't travel much lately, but I can imagine it would be wonderful to travel with the next hundred novels you might like to read in your pocket. "It's my new best friend," I told my husband.

But the bloom of friendship has faded. I have become increasingly unhappy with the reading experience I get from my e-book reader. Because I wanted to read some authors whose works are not available for free, I've been bouncing back and forth between the e-book reader and real books for most of the last two years. It has taken all that time to understand what is wrong with reading on the e-book reader, but I've finally figured it out. It has to do with the stories of stories.

A warning: I am going to talk quite a lot about what I do when I read books, on the e-book reader and elsewhere. I know everyone reads books in their own ways, and I don't mean to say that I am somehow magically representative of all readers. This is very much my own view based on my own experiences. But it still may be useful and interesting, if you like reading or e-books.

What happens when I read a book

When I read a real physical book, I connect the story told within it to the story of my life using the physical book as a sort of recording device. Here is where I nearly dropped the book into the bathtub; here is where I carried it to the living room and read it half the night (that's the non-water-warped part); here is a jelly stain from breakfast; here is the place where I lost it for a week under the mail; here is the place I copied a paragraph out to put on my blog; here is the spot I marked to read out to my husband; here is where I grasped the book so strongly during a tense moment that I broke part of the spine; and so on. Some of my favorite books have forests of sticky notes coming out of them at all angles; some have small and large dog-ears; some obligingly fall open to the same spot every time. Each book becomes a record of my reading, a story surrounding the story inside it. The changes I make to a book as I read it, sometimes more than once, remind me of what the book means to me.

In my parents' library is a series of books handed down from my paternal grandfather, who was also a great book lover. In each of his books he wrote the dates on which he read it. When I was a child I would read those books and think about how I was following after the grandfather I had never met, reading his story along with the stories inside. Every time I think of Zane Grey or F. Hopkinson Smith or E.D.E.N. Southworth or the other authors of books he left behind, I remember those days in the library, touching his writing and thinking how those books connected our stories. It may be why I treasure my own library so much.

In my own library, one of my favorite things to do in odd moments is to let my eyes run over the books on the shelves. As I glance at each book I recall not only the story contained inside it but also the story of my reading it: how I felt when I encountered each surprise and disappointment and elation, and what was happening in my life when I felt those things. I remember why I read each book, what came before it and after it, what it meant to me at the time. Looking at a shelf full of books I've read becomes a way of remembering life itself. Around the time I was reading Jane Austen and George Eliot I made the dreadful mistake of clearing out some books, and I feel sometimes like that year of my life is missing from my memory because I don't have my milestones to mark it. Some books recall several periods: my copy of Naguib Mahfouz' Children of Gebelawi has been read several times, as has Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and those books greet me as old friends should. I know some people journal their book reading, and I wish I had started on that back when, but it seems silly to start now, halfway through my reading life (if I had the time for it). I use the books themselves as my journal.

Now before I am attacked as a profligate book-waster, let me say this: I am fully aware that dog-earing books and reading books in the bathtub are flaws in my character (that's what husbands are for). I'm aware that I shouldn't presume everyone else has these ruinous habits, and I'm aware that many people read library books and return them in pristine condition, as they should. However, even when I treat books with more care, I still use them as connective tissue. I was certainly ginger with my grandfather's books, and I remember them well. I didn't own the copy of Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales I read yearly as a child, but when I did buy a copy of the book as an adult, I made sure it looked a lot like the one I treasured in my school library, so the memories would have somewhere to settle down. If you read mainly library books, imagine visiting your favorite shelf in your local library, with all its familiar smells and rustlings. Do you not visit your memories as you run your eyes over the books, then select one and peruse its headings and sections and beloved little flaws? Does each book not tell you the story of your time together?

Peering through the porthole

Now, to the e-book. It has no context, or rather, its context is reused with every book read on it, so it has no context. Just now I'm reading Dickens' Little Dorrit on my e-book reader, and every time I pick up the thing I think "Ah, I'm reading Great Expectations. It's Pip. How nice to -- wait -- it's not Pip, it's -- what am I reading?" It is not until I've read a few lines on the page that I can put myself into the right context.

I have tried to articulate the feeling I get when I read on the e-book reader, and I've settled on something like this. It's like I'm in a submarine or time-traveling pod or supersonic spaceship or something, and I'm looking out at the world through a tiny porthole window. The world outside the window keeps changing because the submarine or pod or spaceship keeps moving, but the window always stays the same. I remember the window, but I can't keep track of the changing world outside it because the frame of reference never changes. The window seems more real than the view.

You might ask, if reading on an e-book reader is like looking through a tiny window, aren't all experiences on computers like that? Yes, but it depends on your real estate. In my work I use four screens with about five million combined pixels, so if it's a window it's a big one. (General advice to programmers, writers and other detail workers: if you want to be more productive, get more real estate. It's magical.) In my screen world I maintain different lands with different meanings in the story of my work. Here is the e-mail train station where I speak to people in hushed conspiratorial tones; there is the gleaming future world of here-you-are-there-you-are Skype sky-ports; here is the musty file cabinet with its higgledy-piggledy heaps of past mistakes and triumphs; there whirrs the gears-and-levers programming environment; the accusing calendar lives here; and so on. I lay out my screen world in a way that helps me remember the stories that play out on it, and I never vary its meanings. If I have to temporarily put the e-mail on another screen, I can hardly read it: the train riders wander in the sky-port looking for the gaslights among the laser beams.

When I use a laptop I also get the peering-through-a-porthole feeling, but the e-book reader is even worse than that. At least on the laptop you have some semblance of a landscape, with the seaside docks, the icon peaks, the soaring menu ridge and the great desktop hinterlands. But on the e-book reader, there is only one space, it is always filled with words, and the words are about anything and everything. There is no there there.

This would not matter, except that it leads to something. I cannot remember Chekhov's short stories. I keep searching my mind, and the only one I can find any remembrance of at all is "The Lady with the Little Dog", because I saw a picture for the compilation with that title on Yes, I'm saying that I can only remember the book I didn't buy. That doesn't seem right. In fact I realized with growing concern that I can't bring to mind any of the stories I've read on the e-book reader, at least not in the intense, deeply connected way I usually remember books I've read. I read The Idiot once on the e-book reader and once in a paper book (for the new translation). Where do I look to ponder The Idiot? The paper book. The story lives there. It was on the e-book reader for a little while, but it left no trace when it left. It was just a window.

All this makes me wonder whether my investment in the e-book reader was indeed valuable. If I can read lots of books for free, but I can't remember any of them, was it such a good idea? What is the value of a book you read but can't remember or connect to your life? Isn't that why we read? To make sense of our own lives?

Perhaps I am unique in being such a thoroughly visual thinker; but surely I am not the only person on the planet who has had such a porthole experience with e-books or who has had trouble remembering books read in this way. If that's true (and let's pretend it is for the moment) it has implications for the way we all remember and weave together the stories we read on non-paper devices.

Connecting stories with their stories

So, I've been thinking. What would an e-book reader look like that did not sacrifice narrative context? What would take me through the porthole and into the world beyond? How could I get the convenience of the e-book reader without losing the connected narrative of the real book? What are the essential elements of narrative connection a real book provides that an e-book reader does not now provide but could?

To start with, e-book readers could connect narrated and narrative events by preserving the story of the story. Stories are made up of narrated events: things that happen in the story. The story of you reading a story is made up of narrative events: things that happen as the story is told. You feel emotions; you are surprised; you are disappointed; you notice things; you ponder. When I read a physical book, I build the connections between narrated and narrative events by repeatedly looking at the book, the picture on the cover, my progress through the book, and my physical location and circumstances as things happen within it. I use the context of my reading at the moment of the narrative event to keep in memory the connection between it and the narrated events it depends on, so I can find it again. This is similar to people remembering where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy was assassinated or Reagan was shot or the Challenger exploded or 9/11 happened. People remember events partly by remembering context, and we do this when we experience stories as well.

To give an example, recently I was reading Dickens' Great Expectations. A significant moment in the story of my reading, not only of this book but of this genre, was as I will now describe. It grew upon me that when Dickens switched from describing Pip's humble childhood as the poor adopted son of a blacksmith to describing his "coming up" as a newly-financed gentleman of society, the writing style changed. I could be wrong, but I got a strong sense that Dickens felt more at ease describing someone of his own class and was able to take on both a more jocular tone and a more authentic one. I felt a loss of stiffness in his writing as he arrived at his social-class home. This sense was strengthened later, when the narrated events returned to the blacksmith's home and Dickens wrote a chapter that made me cringe. He jarringly carried the jocular tone into a rural funeral and poked fun at the local color when hushed reverence would have been more appropriate. I felt almost ashamed for his mistake and thought he must have realized it also. But since most of Dickens' work was published in segments, there must have been little he could do even the next month after the chapter was published. My guess is that Dickens got carried away with his satirical description of the funeral and didn't realize he was carrying the disdain of Pip's new higher-class world with him as he went back into the poor village. This was a significant moment in my understanding of Great Expectations, of Dickens' work, and of the work of all the social-causes novelists of Dickens' day. My mind immediately flew to the work of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy. Poor people didn't write novels about poor people, and that has implications I had never noticed before.

If I had read Great Expectations in a physical book, I would remember that entire realization, with all its manifestations intact, every time I looked at the book on the shelf, and more so when I sought out the pages where the realization took place. However, because I read it in my e-book reader, I can only remember it now because I just read Great Expectations two weeks ago. And my sole visual tag for the realization is: bathtub. It was in the bathtub. That's all I remember, and it's not much to go on, and it will be soon lost, written over by more "it was in the bathtub" memory fragments. I'm sure within a year if you tell me about it I will be surprised. I don't think I like that.

How could e-book readers help people build stronger connections between narrated and narrative events? As I mentioned above, my books come to tell a story of how I read them, and I read that story along with the book years later. If we put aside the fact that I shouldn't be ruining books in this way, we can examine what constitutes that larger story and how an e-book reader could do something like it.

To begin with, water marks show me whether I read the book in the bath or out of it (which is telling in itself). Places that fall open tell me that I either loved a spot and copied it out, or lost or abandoned the book open. It could be either, but I always remember which it was on seeing it; excessive loving looks different than abandonment. Places where the pages are ripped, marked or in disarray are places where the book had an accident (child colored on it, dog walked over it, coffee fell on it) or I had an accident with the story (it upset me, like the time I threw Anna Karenina across the room on finding that Tolstoy had betrayed my trust).

Dog-ears are also great story-of-the-story recorders. Little dog-ears mean "here is where I am" while big dog-ears shout "OH MY GOD!". The distance between dog-ears is also a recording device. If a long series of pages has no dog-ears, it either means I loved that part so much that I put aside other things (possibly sleep) to take it in, or that I hated the part so much I flew over it quickly to get to what came after. Sections with lots of dog-ears either mean I was very busy at the time and read it in snippets, or that it was so dense with meaning that I read and re-read every paragraph trying to tease out the meaning. Some books that slowly revealed critical elements have special very large dog-ears, or even sticky notes, that I kept returning to as I pondered "did he really mean that?" or "was she getting at this?". Books with dog-ears in both the main body of the text and the "notes on this text" section had enjoyable explanations of minutiae. Where the dog-ears appear in relation to chapters is also telling. If they appear only at chapter ends, it usually means I found the book so compelling I was probably telling somebody "I'll stop at the end of this chapter, I promise." When the dog-ears are not at the end of chapters, it means I could bear to turn away at other times, which means either that the book was not that compelling, or that I had no spare time that week. In short, the pattern of dog-ears on a book recalls the story of its reading at a level of detail that allows me to access the full story of the story.

This is where I think e-book readers could excel and even surpass physical books if they tried. There is an endless parade of useful data an e-book reader could capture, process and present; and as it happens, that's what computers do best. Suppose you look at a book on your e-book reader that you read a few years back. Suppose you can see: which parts you read fast and which slow; where you paused or paced back and forth between pages; which pages you went back to over and over; where you veered off the book to check something on the internet and how long before you returned; what words you looked up the meanings of; in what position you held the reader at each moment (were you looking up at it? down? sideways?); the humidity and temperature and amount of ambient light in the room; whether you gripped the tablet tightly or left it lying down; when you referenced the table of contents; when you looked at the cover picture and with what degree of detail and for how long; how gently or jarringly you put down the reader (with reverence? with disdain?); whether you carried it with rhythmic motion in your bag; whether it flew on an airplane or rode on a train; whether it sat in a drawer untouched for months; whether you read it out loud; whether you copied out text to post to the internet; and on and on through many nuances of the way people read and carry and converse with books.

Imagine if, while reading, you could tap a word or sentence to make a mark that meant "this mattered" but without the distraction of having to articulate it in words. Gestures could form a conduit between narrative and narrated events. Say you could tap a word or sentence or paragraph and the e-book reader could record how you tapped it. You might blot it out, cross it out, highlight it, drum out an exactly-so song on it, give it a gentle caress, slap it, stroke it, touch it gently, or poke it in anger.

We handle our physical books in all these ways, don't we? Have you ever caught yourself stroking a page when someone was hurt, as you would stroke the cheek of a crying child? Have you ever poked at a passage or slapped at a page that offended you? Have you ever thrown a book across the room or slapped it down on a table? Have you ever held a book to your cheek or cradled it in your arms? Have you ever patted or petted a book? (If you have not yet done any of these things, reader, you have not yet read a book.) Why can't e-book readers record our reactions in the same way real books do? An e-book reader is too strong to show marks of caress or violence, but many of our new technological devices can tell if we shake them or stroke them or hold them upside-down. Why shouldn't an e-book reader use that information to help us record our reading story? It would go some way toward building connections between events inside the story and events in our lives.

And do you talk to your books? Do you say "HA!" and "ooooh" and "oh come on"? Do you argue with your books? Do you chastise the characters? Why can't an e-book reader capture that and tell you the story of it later?

Here's a funny thing: it looks like the Kindle designers have got this exactly backward. Here is a bit of their promotional material:
The most elegant feature of a physical book is that it disappears while you're reading. Immersed in the author's world and ideas, you don't notice a book's glue, the stitching, or ink. Our top design objective was to make Kindle disappear—just like a physical book—so you can get lost in your reading, not the technology.
But a physical book doesn't disappear while you're reading; it holds and records your reading. That's exactly what is wrong with e-book readers, not what is right. Clearly these people need to talk to more readers.
What about deliberate bookmarks and notes? My Sony reader has bookmarks, and you can take notes on some of the newer e-book readers. I like both of these features, but there is something wrong with the way they are implemented. They are not enticing. They are hidden and easy to forget about and pass over. They don't tell the story of the story. When I make notes in a real book, I use sticky notes, because they stick out and draw my attention, even years or decades later. Sticky notes are bookmarks, annotations, and historical records combined. If the notes on an e-book could somehow stick out -- perhaps as little ticks or tabs on the book's event-studded story-of-the-story timeline -- I would surely be intrigued to find out what I wrote then, as I do when I see a book with sticky notes of different colors sticking out of it.

But I rarely add sticky notes to fiction. I annotate things, but I don't annotate people. It feels wrong to put sticky notes on the people in stories. It feels disrespectful. I'd rather touch them or speak to them than stick bits of paper on them. I wonder if the e-book reader designers are thinking of non-fiction? I wonder if they have really considered the narrative experience? Would an e-novel reader be different than an e-book reader?

A sense of character

There are two other useful analogues in the things I do with physical books that I haven't mentioned yet. (And here I pause to repeat my warning at the start: I am not the world's readers, so take this for what it brings to you, not more.) While I am reading a book I frequently peer at the cover. I love doing this so much that when I'm buying a book, if there are multiple editions available (there often are for older books), I look over the different covers and choose the one with the most memorable picture. I remember gazing at Madame Bovary over and over as I absorbed the events in the book. Granted, the pictures on the covers of most old books have nothing to do with the book and come from a painting of the same time period, but if some knowledgeable editor felt I could get something out of gazing at the painting they chose, I'm willing to trust them.

Whether it has a great cover picture or not, the physical form of each book -- its paper, its print, its fonts, its chapter headings -- becomes imbued with the book's character as I read it, and that character places it within a society of other books. When I look over my shelves of books I visit the stories and remember them and the stories of how I read them. My books are segregated by subject matter (fiction, physics, gardening) but not within that, simply because I have no time; but in my dotage I will probably arrange them in elaborate ways. I've heard of people who arrange their books by character, placing next to each other books that will "get along." Being a contrarian I think I may do the opposite. I already have Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian next to D. James Kennedy's Why I Believe. But in general the placement of books on shelves is another device we book lovers use to record the story of our reading, this time at the level that arcs across several decades of our lives.

How could an e-book reader facilitate the recording and telling of the larger story of a life's reading? Again, there is abundant information for the reaping. My e-book reader could show me: when I read each book; when I re-read it; what I read before and after it; which books took me a long time to read and which were eaten up quickly; which books have the most notes, dog-ears, pauses, back-and-forthings, dictionary look-ups, text copyings; which books I never finished; which I read out loud; which I read on a train, on a bus, in the air, in the kitchen, in the bath; how many books I read of each author; which authors I read all together and which I read intermingled with others; how the genres mapped out over time; which books I left and came back to; which books I cradled gently and which I threw down; which covers I stared at over and over and which I barely glanced at.

All of this information could be shown on the bookshelf inside the device, instead of a simple list of title, author, and genre. In addition, if books were represented by, say, little book-shaped icons, I might be able to shift them about and group them in meaningful-only-to-me ways that change over time. I might leave a book out on my virtual nightstand, or I might hide one in my "nasty books I hated" cupboard, or I might copy one into my "great gifts for the nieces" box, or I might leave one out on my virtual kitchen table so I'll remember to mention it to my neighbor the next time I see her. Why can't an e-book reader manage all this? No reason it can't.

The future of e-book reading, or at least the future of mine

So, will I abandon my e-book spaceship, escape its tiny porthole and walk freely in the world beyond? Meaning, will I go back to buying only real books? I don't know. I have a strong urge to buy all of Chekhov's works on paper and read them again so I can experience them differently. But for the same price I can buy a Kindle, so here we go round again. What the Kindle appears to offer me at this point is a middle path, where I force myself into regular note-taking to bridge the gap between device and need using my own rules and practices. If I can learn to read books in a new way, perhaps I can make an e-book reader work even though I am looking through a tiny porthole.

But I'm not satisfied with such stop-gap measures. I want a better spaceship. One that doesn't confine me. One that won't make me nervous, wondering what to do. One that makes me feel like I feel when I'm with books. My new spaceship should be made of glass, maybe, and it should talk to me. Yeah, and ask me questions and say "Something getting you down?" and "What did you think of that?" and that sort of thing. And if I say, years later, "Do you remember when we went to the desert planet?" it should say "I sure do" and launch into a funny story about our trip together and all the things we learned there. Which is all a way of saying that I hope someday e-book readers will mature enough to provide reliable support for the meaningful interweaving of stories into our lives that is the reason we read books in the first place.

[Update: Another post about this topic here.]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Selection and development

I was looking at the blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos and followed a link to Owen Barder's wonderful presentation titled "What can development policy learn from evolution?" I enjoyed the clear, thought-provoking presentation so much I wrote a comment to the post. However, the comment turned out to be much too long for manners, so I am posting it here instead. Readers, you may want to look at Owen's blog post and presentation to understand the context.

Selection as a design tool

First, I wish Steve Jones [an evolutionary biologist excerpted in the presentation] had been a bit more careful in his terminology, because the process he was talking about was not natural selection but artificial selection. There are important differences. One is that people can control and even design artificial selection. The people who created that soap nozzle [which Jones used as an example of evolutionary design] chose how many generations to create, how many progeny to create per generation, how to create the variation (which was certainly not perfectly random), and how to tie their selection to fitness for the task at hand. They also could choose to stop the selection at any point and veer off on a totally different tack. Because artificial selection is artificial, it can be incorporated into deliberate design in ways that makes it much more valuable to human ends than natural selection could ever be. So a "roomful of scientists" is exactly the group that can use and control and benefit from artificial selection.

It follows from this that selection is not the only good way to solve wicked problems; it is one tool in the designer's toolkit, and many of the tools work together. I've had some little experience with this myself. In a previous career making educational software, I designed an artificial selection process for "breeding" plants in simulated 3D space (to teach botany and to help artists populate 3D worlds). An essential element of the system was the ability to "reach in" and stop the evolutionary process at any point, make some changes, restart it, and essentially incorporate it into a larger design process. This relates to the point I've often made in my writings, that in human life self-organized complexity does not exist apart from human-made structure, and that it is pointless to pretend we can or should leave structure entirely behind. The greater utility is found in intelligently managing the two sources of order (organization and self-organization) to create something neither could create alone.

Getting to the main point about development and evolution, to my mind there are three main issues to consider in applying artificial selection to problems of development.

My fitness, your fitness

One issue is that selection must be strongly tied to actual fitness in order for the process to work. In human societies fitness depends on perspective, and there may be conflicting ideas of what deserves to reproduce and what deserves to die. Aid that makes donors want to give more money is not always aid that works; aid people will accept is not always aid that helps them; aid people will admit works is not always aid that works; aid that works once is not always aid that will work again; what helps in one place may harm in another; my solution may be your problem; and so on.

This is somewhat like sexual selection, in which male peacocks grow larger and larger tails and become more and more vulnerable to predation. They are more fit overall because they are also likely to sire more offspring. In natural selection (which envelops sexual selection) the balance between death and reproduction irons out all details with a heavy hand. But in human affairs there is no such equalizer. If what matters to you is vulnerability to predation, you may see peacock tails as a disaster. But what if I see things differently? Who decides what is most fit and should reproduce? What happens when people can't agree on that? Does it just go back to power and money again? If it does, what have we gained?

Even something as apparently binary as death is not so simple when you consider human affairs. If a cockroach is dead, it's dead. When you move into the plant world where organisms are modular things get more complicated. I have the stump of a maple tree in my yard that has been rotting away for more than ten years; but every year it reminds me that it is not yet dead by putting up new maple stems (which I ruthlessly "kill" wanting the sun for gardens around it). Is the maple tree dead? Yes and no. (And here I simply must quote the irreplaceable Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride: "It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.") In the same way, it might be hard to say whether development projects are alive or dead. What constitutes death, and who decides that?

As with death, reproduction also gets difficult to determine when you are setting up an artificial selection process related to human endeavors. Reproduction in biological evolution seems simple from the outside -- either the place is swarming with babies or it isn't -- but even there things are sometimes difficult to parse. In many species "maiden aunts" take care of the children of siblings, or of their parents, and thus promote kin selection to the detriment of their own reproductive success. Is this reproduction? Yes and no. When I was in graduate school in the 80s the concept of "sneaky fuckers" was all the rage (yes, that was the technical term) and it led to what is now a widely accepted understanding that reproduction in many species has various complementary modes, some of which involve deception and counter-intuitive means to the popular end (such as looking like a female in order to get close to the females). So even in nature reproduction is not as simple as it may seem.

In the soap nozzle example of artificial selection, control over reproduction was easy: one nozzle was carried forward to the next generation, by human caveat. But in selecting development projects, what would reproduction mean? A project would get more money? Or an aid group would? Or an aid worker? Or an approach? If an approach got more money, how would the system enforce adoption of the winning approach? What if groups or approaches got more money by "sneaky" reproduction, meaning, getting money outside of official channels? Would this be considered valid reproduction? If not, how could it be stopped? If so, what effect might it have on what is selected and how development evolves?

Mourning the soap nozzles

The second issue I see is that natural selection embraces death but people do not. If you are designing an artificial selection process to create a better soap nozzle, nobody mourns the lost soap nozzles. So it's easy to make strong decisions about what lives and what dies. But when you are trying to help people, it's harder to work in that critical death element. Everywhere you put it, it bounces off or morphs into something else.

I would suggest that to plan a successful artificial selection process for development policy, what dies and what reproduces has to be carefully chosen and agreed upon, and you need to be prepared for such definitions to change over time. This issue was mentioned by other commenters [to Owen's post] who said evolution was "unforgiving to the weak" and that "you have to work against the political forces that resist calling a failure a failure". It hinges on values. You need to find some soap nozzles you can throw away without anyone rushing to defend them or mourning their loss. Artificial selection in development won't work if projects or funding sources or field units or institutions must die, because people will fight to keep all of those things alive. You might say approaches can die, but people get very attached to approaches. You might say ideas can die, but again, people fight for ideas. What can die? What can be selected out? It's a hard question, but you can't proceed without getting past it.

What you select selects you

The third issue is the issue of scale and awareness. If mice in a particular valley are falling prey to a particularly clever cat with exceptional night vision, mice halfway around the world don't hear about it and tell each other stories about night cats. But people do. This is both an enabler and an obstacle in planning artificial selection processes. Say you design a system where only projects that meet five carefully chosen criteria receive more funding. You have set up a system of artificial selection, with fitness tied to particular characteristics of individual elements in the system. Fine. What is the probability that in a few years' time every single project meets those criteria? What is the probability that some of those projects will fail to produce positive outcomes for those they mean to help, or even hurt those they mean to help, even though they meet the criteria on paper? What happened? People were aware of the selection and reacted. 

This change-it-and-it-changes-you-back situation reminds me of the folk tale where the devil gives somebody three wishes, and it seems wonderful until the person gets the wishes and realizes how the devil can deliver them in a devilish way. In one movie that repeated this old story (Bedazzled), the main character wanted to be very rich, and he became very rich -- and a drug lord about to be attacked by rivals. Unlike mice, people become aware of global patterns and change their behavior, appearance, tactics, even sometimes their self-definition to suit the new criteria. So I would say that artificial selection, when it applies to people, has to include a recursive element that operates on itself. Which forms of variation and selection deserve to die, and which should reproduce? And again, who decides?

Watch out for those sharp edges!

I'm not saying you can't apply artificial selection to development. I'm saying it's a tool whose power and danger have to be equally respected. This is partly because it will be operating on top of several layers of biological and sociocultural evolution that can't stopped to create an "all other things being equal" experiment. (Some argue that biological and cultural evolution have become so intermingled in human life that they cannot be considered separately.)

Artificial selection has been responsible for many of the best things humans have done, but it has also been responsible for some of the worst. So it's not a solution without its own dangers. Feedback loops can be positive as well as negative, and even with negative feedback the wrong things can feed back. Both natural and artificial selection are replete with stories of events going "off the rails" with disastrous consequences. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I'm concerned about people believing that complexity science and evolutionary theory present panaceaic solutions to human problems. If you think complexity is a uniformly benevolent force, Google the term "ant mill". There are some videos of this phenomenon on YouTube. They make my hair stand up. It's smart to be aware of complexity and evolution, but it would be as much of a mistake to look for simple or easy solutions in them as it is to look for simple and easy solutions in rigid centralized planning.

Selection and narrative

Now of course I have to make a plug for the complex solution I've been working on for the past ten years: stories. Stories are unique vehicles of human communication, packages of thought and belief and value, tiny simulations of life itself, that we use to make sense of our lives together. I've helped lots of organizations and communities work with raw, personal stories to create new feedback loops that bring difficult-to-articulate values, beliefs and experiences where they most need to be heard. I've helped people use narrative techniques to pump up diversity of thought through exposure to new perspectives; to facilitate selection through self-organizing participation; and to connect variation and selection to fitness functions relevant to the community through the crystallizing lens of sensemaking.

I sound like an evangelist, and I suppose I am one! My bias is that narrative work is particularly well suited to enabling well-informed, self-reflective creation of artificial selection processes in human societies. If there is any chance of people meeting the goals you set out in your presentation, I humbly submit that stories are likely to be involved. The reason I wrote (and am now expanding) my free book on this subject is to help people use narrative methods for exactly these purposes.

Readers, I recommend Owen's excellent presentation, and I wish him the best in his important work!