Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the Island of Misfit Story Ideas: Narrative divination for sensemaking

I'm working on that promised post about preserving natural storytelling (note to self: never again end a post with "the next post will be about..."). It's stewing.

In the interim here is another visitor from the island of misfit story ideas. As before this is something I've been playing with in my mind for a decade but have not done anything with, mainly because this one is hard to explain.

Ancient connections

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is an ancient divination system and book of wisdom which forms one of the cornerstones of Taoism. The basic idea of the I Ching is that all of the complexity of the universe - encompassing all of the "ten thousand things" of multiplicative reality (ten thousand being the ancient way of saying "billions and billions") - can be represented by 64 six-bit combinations of no/yes, yin/yang, receptive/creative conditions. This includes all scales of reality, from the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the earth, and human society, down to your life, your relationships, your personality, and your needs at any moment of your life. When you throw the coins or cast the yarrow stalks, that action enters into the totality of the situation of the moment, and that in-the-universe-right-now connection - what Jung termed "synchronicity" - leads you to the pattern, or hexagram (six bit settings), that best describes the totality of the moment. Since the totality of the moment includes the situation on your mind when you threw the coins or sticks, the hexagram is relevant to that situation. In a sense the I Ching is a cosmic database query engine.

Why in the world am I explaining this? Because there are two things about the I Ching (and Tarot and Ifá and many, though not all, other forms of divination) that make them worth bringing up here. The first is their utility for sensemaking, and the second is their narrative nature.

A few examples ... sort of

Now here is a funny story. In order to illustrate the use of the I Ching for sensemaking, I thought I'd take you through a simple divination session. First I tried taking as my situation the fact that I was writing this blog post about this topic. The texts I found ... brought out my mixed feelings about writing on this topic. Brought them out a little too well. Of course I'm aware that some might see this topic as weird or irrelevant (what, are crystals next?), and let's just say the word "guile" came up. I wrote about it, I rewrote it, I deleted it.

So I tried again. I thought, better to choose a situation that is unimportant, silly, fun. I fixed on the treehouse my son and I keep talking about building. An innocent topic, I thought, but again the result was too good to talk about in public. Essentially, the I Ching (I always find myself thinking of it like a person) reminded me that there is no end to the ways a parent can fail a child.

Finally, casting about for some way to illustrate my point without exposing my deepest fears, I started looking around the room at objects of no importance. I looked out of the window at the snow falling onto tree branches, and decided to consult the I Ching on nothing but that simple image. But a third time, the answer cut too deeply into my feelings - about who I am, where I live, and why I live there - to talk about in public. 

Ironically, my little divination exercise proved exactly the point I wanted to prove, but not in the way I had imagined proving it. So all I can say is, it works well enough that I can't show you how well it works.

What works and what matters

Do I really mean "it works?" Are the results of divination systems such as the I Ching actually appropriate? Does it actually mean anything that the first words I found, after looking out the window at snow on branches, were "Wood is below, water above"? Probably not (though all good scientists retain a sense of possibility, if not probability). But when our purpose is sensemaking, the question of whether divination "works" in the narrow sense is beside the point. The practical fact is that ancient divination systems were and are excellent (and, lately, untapped) tools for contemporary sensemaking. If we throw out the baby of utility with the bathwater of belief, it's our loss.

Webster's dictionary says divination is:
1 : the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers

2 : unusual insight : intuitive perception

The first meaning let us leave aside (though discovering hidden knowledge is fair game); the second, let us explore.

How does divination help with sensemaking? Well, look at how I described my use of the I Ching above. I said it brought out my feelings, reminded me, and cut deeply into my feelings. All of the imagery in those words is about bringing previously hidden things to the forefront. This is an essential element of most sensemaking, to start talking to the elephants who are (and have always been) standing in the room with us. It also links to seeing ourselves anew from the other side of the mirror and to exploring what makes us tick.

It's full of stories

The second amazing thing about many divination systems is that they are made out of stories. If you read any of the "judgments" or "images" in the I Ching, they are essentially tiny stories. For example, from the hexagram I got when I thought about writing this blog post, and taking some liberties with concatenation, we get this lovely piece of narrative poetry:
In the abyss one falls into a pit.
The abyss is dangerous.
One should strive to attain small things only.
Forward and backward, abyss on abyss.
In danger like this, pause at first and wait,
Otherwise you will fall into a pit in the abyss.
A jug of wine, a bowl of rice with it;
Earthen vessels
Simply handed in through the Window.
There is certainly no blame in this.
Bound with cords and ropes,
Shut in between thorn-hedged prison walls:
For three years one does not find the way.
Water flows on uninterruptedly and reaches its goal.
Thus the superior man walks in lasting virtue
And carries on the business of teaching.
I'm not going to interpret this - surely you can understand its messages well enough - but a story is being told here. In each of the texts of the I Ching - some encouraging, some warning - stories are being told. Some sections are not full stories, but when they are not, they allude to elements which can be combined to make stories. The image of "crossing the great water," for example, comes up often in the I Ching, as does the "superior man." These are archetypal images which in combination produce narratives, supporting pattern-matching at the level of collective sensemaking throughout society and throughout the ages.

Ifá divination is practiced in some parts of West Africa, usually by experienced diviners. Ifá is similar to the I Ching in the sense of involving indexes into a book of wisdom stories, many of which are condensed folk tales. I have a handy copy of the Ifá texts right here on my bookshelf (at least the version packaged for foreigners). I have no idea how to look up the situation I am facing, so I'll just choose a page at random (which may or may not come to the same thing):
Ifá says that a visitor is coming; we should take good care of him lest his kindness and goodness pass us by, because the visitor brings something that can benefit us.

Again, a story with a message. (Actually, that is part of a much longer story, but it's too long to type in here.) The Ifá texts in the book I have are much more obviously drawn from folk tales than the I Ching, but that may be an artifact of the way the book was collected and written down. Also, when stories survive for several millenia, details fall away.

I don't know much about Tarot, but I gather that the cards are essentially story elements - characters, situations, dilemmas. Again, this is a tool for narrative sensemaking. Not all divination systems (and there are hundreds) involve stories, but I'd venture a guess that the longest-lasting and most widespread do. Even such things as divination by weather patterns or bird flights involve stories - it was rainy and then it turned sunny; the flock veered and then dispersed. Divination through dreams is also a narrative method. 

Your own book of wisdom

Now, how does this all relate to organizational and community narrative? You might guess where I am going. Let us compare:

Divination systems make use of a collection of stories and story elements derived from collective experience. A diviner extracts combinations from this collection and applies them to current situations about which someone needs to discover hidden knowledge, improve intuitive perception, and derive unusual insight. ~ When you collect stories about a topic or situation, or from a group of people, and when you do sensemaking exercises that produce constructs of collective meaning, you create a collection of stories and story elements derived from collective experience. You can extract combinations from this collection and apply them to current situations about which you need to discover hidden knowledge, improve intuitive perception, and derive unusual insight.

Just for fun, I tried a little experiment and pulled up some random stories from the project I last worked on, thinking again about the situation of this post I am writing. Almost immediately I happened upon a story about people being overrun with conflicting demands. Uncannily, this happened at almost precisely the same moment as my husband opened my office door, and as I simultaneously realized I had promised to finish this post and come back to Mommying a half hour ago. Again, the divination system revealed hidden knowledge about the situation of writing a blog as the mother of a small child.

(As Ursula K. le Guin wrote in Tehanu, in one of my favorite there-I-am moments:
And she went on, pondering the indifference of a man towards the exigencies that ruled a woman: that someone must be not far from a sleeping child, that one's freedom meant another's unfreedom, unless some ever-changing, moving balance were reached, like the balance of a body moving forward, as she did now, on two legs, first one then the other, in the practice of that remarkable art, walking.)


Upping the wisdom

You might argue that a simple set of stories collected from real people today can't compete for sensemaking quality with the concentrated wisdom of the I Ching or Ifá or Tarot. I agree. Using raw stories for divination is going to result in more misfires, in the sense of stories being irrelevant to the situation at hand or just not very eye-opening. But there are ways to improve the divination-worthiness of a story collection. Here are a few ideas to wisdom-up your collection, in no particular order.

Add some purpose to your randomness. Use answers to questions about stories to extract those relevant to the situation at hand. This ensures relevance, but it is also a risky technique because it can be easily manipulated, sometimes without knowing it, to confirm assumptions and circumvent effective sensemaking. Still, there are ways to increase relevance while still allowing some serendipity. For example, if I want to read stories about passion, I might select those rated high on a passion scale, but I usually sample two or three times as many as I need and rearrange the selection randomly.

Screen out the no-shows. In any collection of stories collected from real people there are what I call no-shows, meaning the respondents didn't respond. They just got through the exercise so they could tick the box or get their candy bar or whatever. There are ways to remove those and to pull out only the stories most likely to be useful for divination. For example, only using stories with a text length of 500 characters (or an audio length of two minutes) removes all the too-short non-stories (although this could also remove some gems - sample to find out). You can also look for words of emotion, like "to my surprise" and "I discovered" and "stormed" and "screamed" and things like that. In general, the idea is that by doing some careful screening, you can use only the parts of your collection that show the most promise of being useful for divination. (Self-delusion warning: this also can be used to screen out challenges to current belief.)

Mix in disruptors. One of my favorite things to do, if a story collection is to be used for group sensemaking, is to mix in some stories that didn't come from the group of interest. To give an example, when preparing a story collection for a project on leadership, we added to the mix (of stories told by employees) some stories from old newspapers and historical accounts about famous leaders in a range of industries and ages. These were indexed by the same questions as the contemporary stories and appeared intermixed with them. When people encountered stories about themselves with stories about Lincoln and Napoleon and Keller, it got their minds moving in new directions.

Mix in abstractions. If you have collected some stories and derived abstractions from them - story elements, usually - you can create some new, more abstract stories and mix those in. For example, it is useful after deriving some character story elements to have people tell stories from their points of view. How did the "Independent free-thinker" see the recent company takeover? How did the "Money-is-power-monger" see it? Sometimes it is useful to set up stories where characters confront situations or values or themes. The "Pencil-pushing bureaucrat" might find herself in the "Blasted landscape," or the "Passionate perfectionist" might find himself talking to people who believe that "Life is a funny game." The stories that come out of those exercises are about the same things as the "raw" stories are, but they operate at a higher level of abstraction. Mixing those in with the raw stories creates a stronger divination base.

Add commentaries. One of the most useful aspects of the I Ching is its commentaries, a palimpsest of annotations added over the ages to each text. These bounce your ideas around some more after you encounter the basic "judgments" and "images" of the main text. In your story collection, answers to questions about stories serve as commentaries. If stories can be interpreted by multiple people, perhaps from different perspectives, it adds to the sensemaking utility.

Add transitions. The I Ching is called the Book of Changes because it is all about change. In addition to looking up the situation of the moment, you also look up what that situation might change to. This transition creates an expansion on the original sensemaking by helping people think about ways in which the situation might transform over time or as the result of actions. You can support such simulated transformations by incorporating transition links into your story collection. For example, something as simple as looking at other stories told by the same respondent, or by other people who answered questions in the same way, can give you additional insights. Your story collection might even contain answers to follow-up questions in which respondents were asked to describe the situation at a year's remove, say, or after some problem was resolved. Juxtaposing then-and-now stories can provide this element of transition and increase the potential for insight creation.

Poeticize. One of the reasons the I Ching works so well for sensemaking is that its essential texts are sparse and ambiguous. Poetic abstraction allows the stories and metaphors to pivot round to address many different purposes and needs. By poeticizing stories - that is, by removing detail and adding ambiguity - you can make your story collection work in the same way. There are two methods for poeticizing. First, you can simply ask your storytellers, in a question about their story, to render it as a short poem, a haiku perhaps, with oblique, ambiguous references and metaphorical displacement. If that is too difficult a task for your storytellers or you think they will refuse, you can do the poeticizing in a second step. Distribute the stories to people, ideally in the group of interest but at least strongly related to them, and have each person write short poetic versions of each. It is best if each story is rendered poetic by at least two people to increase diversity. Then the main texts of your narrative divination become the poems, and the stories with their details become commentaries. This is likely to increase the utility of your book of wisdom to aid sensemaking in a variety of situations.

Using your wisdom

How should you use narrative divination for sensemaking? Just the same way you might use the I Ching or any other divination method. In a group or alone, set yourself a situation to think about. Then select a story, either randomly or partially so. After reading the story, open things up and brainstorm freely about the associations the story brings up. Then distill the sensemaking to concentrated insights. Think of transitions. If they aren't already in the story collection, come up with some during the exercise. What might happen? What would happen in the best of all possible worlds? In the worst? What issues have come up? What feelings have been invoked? What conflicts are apparent? Have any elephants spoken up? Then think of another situation and go round again. Gather what you have learned, and see what you can make of it.

This kind of sensemaking has been taking place from huts to palaces for at least five thousand years. It's still as useful as it ever was. We have just forgotten how to do it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's not a puzzle; it's a piece of a puzzle

Those who have been reading this blog will know that I have long been puzzling over the relationship between the naturally occurring little-s story and the packaged, purposeful big-S Story in contemporary society. In particular, I keep coming back to this essential question: Why do people almost universally assume that recounting their own personal experiences does not constitute telling a story?

So I've been going on a little journey of discovery in the past few months, following my nose through the literature and the internet in the service of this question. I've come to a new realization about the question and I think you might want to hear about it.

We are all unqualified

Let me explain the progression of my thoughts on this. I started by thinking about what I had said to Kathy Hansen last year about this issue:
I don't think people have lost the ability to tell stories as much as they have lost the expectation that it is their place to tell stories. I don’t know how many times I've heard people balk at being asked to tell stories because they don't think their stories are good enough to be "real stories."
At that time I put the italics on expectation, but lately I've thinking more and more about the word place. I've seen many people respond with something akin to fear when I've asked them to tell stories. It was as though I was asking them to cut out a tumor or build a skyscraper. They seem to react as if they were unqualified to tell stories. I've been puzzled by this reaction every time.

The division of labor

So then I started thinking about what it means to feel that one has a "place" or doesn't, and what leads one to be qualified or not, and this led to thinking about specialization. So I started looking up narrative and specialization to see if anyone was putting those terms together. Then, through the magic of imperfect search results, I fell into some articles about the division of labor.

This was an unexpected connection. The term "division of labor," for me, conjures up the booming-voice 60s education guy saying something like, "As man learned to divide his labor, the weaving to the weaver, the pottery to the potter, his quality of life increased and progress was achieved," and so on, yada yada. So I went on a little journey through what has been said about the division of labor.

I'll just throw out a few tidbits to give you some context. Plato was one of the first division-of-labor fans:
[A]ll things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.
Adam Smith had these nice words to say about specialization:
It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labor, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.
Hume chimed in:
By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability encreases: And by mutual succour we are less expos'd to fortune and accidents. 'Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.

The dark side

On the other hand, Rousseau pointed out the tendency of specialization to lead to unfairness:
[A]s long as they [people] applied themselves to tasks that took no more than one person to perform them ... their lives were free, healthy, happy and good for as long as their nature would allow.... But the moment one man needed the help of another; when someone perceived it was useful to have the tools of two men; then equality disappeared. Property was introduced, work became necessary, and the vast forests were changed into glowing fields that had to be watered with the sweat of men, where one could soon see slavery and misery germinating and ripening along with the crops.
He also said (I cannot find a direct link for this quote, but it is quoted in this interesting paper):
Thus [as division of labor becomes established] does natural inequality imperceptibly manifest itself along with contrived inequality; and thus do the differences among men, developed by those of circumstances, become more perceptible, more permanent in their effects, and begin to have a proportionate influence over the fate of individuals.
I like the phrase contrived inequality. It reminds me of how people think their stories are unequal to "real" stories, but the difference is contrived, artificial.

Even Adam Smith had reservations about the division of labor:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. ... But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
It is otherwise in the barbarous societies, as they are commonly called, of hunters, of shepherds, and even of husbandmen in that rude state of husbandry which precedes the improvement of manufactures and the extension of foreign commerce. In such societies the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity which, in a civilised society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people.
Invention is kept alive. That phrase more than any other made me think of what I've been seeing related to storytelling. It brings back that moment sitting with my mouth open staring at the advertisement (wish I could find it again) I saw in the doctor's waiting room. It was in a magazine called Parents or Parenting (or Your Kid or some such thing), and it said something like "We have all faced the problem of having our child ask for a story and coming up blank." And then it went on to try and sell you "story cards" that took that horrid task away from you. First, what's the point of being a parent if you can't make up stories for your kids? And second, can people really not make up silly stories for their kids? The requirements are minimal, and by the time the requirements increase kids start making up their own stories.

By the way, Smith's answer to the problem of dehumanization, which he elsewhere says amounts to "mental mutilation," is to force the "inferior ranks of people" into constant military-style education. (He doesn't seem to consider that the costs of carrying out and enforcing this solution might wipe out the "civilized" gains in productivity created by the division of labor.)

Then we get to Marshall Sahlins, who churned up the soil by suggesting that primitive, non-specialized, hunter-gatherer tribes were and are the original affluent society. In his seminal paper on this topic, he quotes the anthropologist Lorna Marshall (the parenthesized comment is, I think, Sahlins'):
Except for food and water (important exceptions!) of which the Nyae Nyae Kung have a sufficiency - but barely so, judging from the fact that all are thin though not emaciated - they all had what they needed or could make what they needed, for every man can and does make the things that men make and every woman the things that women make... They lived in a kind of material plenty because they adapted the tools of their living to materials which lay in abundance around them and which were free for anyone to take (wood, reeds, bone for weapons and implements, fibres for cordage, grass for shelters). or to materials which were at least sufficient for the needs of the population.
(He then goes on to say that even of food and water most hunter-gatherer tribes have enough most of the time, which is probably better than too much all of the time - visit any American mall if you question that.)

There is also the idea that garden-of-eden stories, which are widespread in many cultures, refer to the original affluence of hunting and gathering, before agriculture and the division of labor took hold. This is an idea popularized by the novel Ishmael, which is on my "really should have read years ago" list. This is the part in Genesis about "by the sweat of your brow" and "you shall eat the plants of the field." Scientific evidence confirms that
Contrary to what we would intuitively expect, fossil evidence confirms the conjecture that human health went into a serious decline with the advent of agriculture.
What it comes down to is that there are two competing stories being told. One is that we were saved by the division of labor; the other is that we were condemned by it. Both have been told for a very long time, so probably both are true. I love reading folk tales, and as I've read through compilations of them I've come across both versions of the story. In a Dutch folktale I encountered the magical wild boars who showed the people how to till the soil and plant seeds, from which saving agriculture was born. However, in other stories there have been unmistakeable references to the plenty of foraging and the hardships of agriculture. One thing I've noticed is that the saving-agriculture stories seem to appear more often in places that have winter, and the condemning-agriculture stories seem to appear more often in places that don't. That's just a hunch, but it makes sense.

The division of ... life itself

So, what does all this division-of-labor stuff have to do with people telling stories? Stay with me. While exploring the division of labor, I started to find mentions of the division of labor spreading outside of labor into what was previously not known as labor but as simply being alive. It turns out a lot has been written and said about this division-creep, which is variously called the commodification, commercialization, monetization, privatization, or specialization of everyday life. And here is where things start to connect to storytelling. The main authors in this area are Marx, Lefebre, Boudrillard and de Bord. (And before anyone says I'm a blundering amateur as far as political philosophy goes, I'll cut you off by saying: yep, I know it.) From de Bord:
Through its industrial production this society has emptied the gestures of work of all meaning. And no model of human behaviour has retained any real relevance in everyday life. This society tends to atomize people into isolated consumers and to prohibit communication.
According to de Bord, we know that our everyday lives have been impoverished by too much specialization, but we put that painful thought away from us:
Awareness of the profound richness and energy abandoned in everyday life is inseparable from awareness of the poverty of the dominant organization of this life. The awareness of this untapped richness leads to the contrasting definition of everyday life as poverty and as prison; which in turn leads to the repression of the whole problem.
These are precisely the terms in which I have been talking about natural storytelling - that the richness of everyday storytelling has been leaching away. A quote in Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre by Goonewardena et al. caught my eye:
Marx describes the worker's feeling of "indifference" toward a specific type of work, which cannot provide him or her with personal identity any more.
That reminds me of how people have reacted when I ask them to tell me a story - with indifference, as though telling stories is "not their thing." Something other, alien, different. Something that does not provide us with our personal identities - any more.

Okay, so let's move on. As I was reading through all this, things started to click in my mind about everyday life and specialization. I like reading old novels, as I've said before, and it's simply amazing all the things people assumed everyone knew how to do back then. I was listening to Robinson Crusoe Written Anew For Children from Librivox with my son, and I came across an amazing juxtaposition. Crusoe says this:
So I set to work. I had never handled a tool in my life. But I had a saw, an ax, and several hatchets; and I soon learned to use them all.
He has set himself up as ignorant in the land of tools. But here's the thing. In the chapter before that statement, he said this:
One morning I saw an old goat feeding in the valley with a kid by her side. I crept along among the rocks in such a way that she did not see me. When I was close enough, I raised my gun and fired. [gruesome details] The flesh of these two goats lasted me a long time; for I did not eat much meat, and I still had many of the biscuits that I had saved from the ship.
About a month later I shot at a young goat and lamed it. I caught it and carried it home, dressed its wounded leg, and fed it. Its leg was soon as well and as strong as ever. The little animal became quite tame and followed me everywhere I went. I thought how fine it would be if I could have a whole flock of such creatures. Then I would be sure of food when my powder and shot were gone.
So being able to prepare and load a musket, creep up on a goat, kill it with a single shot, skin it, dry the hide (he mentions that elsewhere, in passing), cook the meat, tend a wound, tame a kid goat, feed it, and contemplate taking care of a whole herd of such creatures qualifies as - never having handled a tool in his life? And being able to do these things is so commonplace as to be not worth mentioning? To children? How many adults today could do any of this? How did he even know what to feed the goat? Was there Goat Chow there?

I've come across many other examples like this. People talk about making butter and cheese and soap and cloth the way we talk about making lasagna. We might make the dishes, but people back then made the ingredients. People assumed that many, many things we have no idea how to do today were so commonplace, so ordinary, so everyday, that they need not be mentioned. Another similar experience was when I was reading something in Gogol and I came across a passage - I can't find it again - in which he mentioned a mountain ash tree, in the same way you or I would say "Google," as though everyone would instantly understand why he mentioned it in that context. I only discovered such a tree exists last summer when I found some in my yard and figured out what they were. The point is, people used to know different things than we know now. And one of them was how to tell stories.

Buying cooking, buying grief

Still with me? Okay, just a few more threads to pull together here. After I read all this stuff about everyday life and division-creep, I started looking for other references to the division of labor and everyday life, or the privatization or commodification of everyday life. And of course, mentions started popping up all over, the same way every single house has a new roof when you need one. I'll confine myself to only two examples (see, I'm trying).

Recently, Michael Pollan published an article on how people have stopped cooking and are just watching people cook on television. I had to laugh as I realized that his questing after the reason people are turning cooking into a spectator sport paralleled my own explorations so perfectly. For example:
The historical drift of cooking programs — from a genuine interest in producing food yourself to the spectacle of merely consuming it — surely owes a lot to the decline of cooking in our culture, but it also has something to do with the gravitational field that eventually overtakes anything in television’s orbit. It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances....
Maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely. Why? Perhaps because cooking — unlike sewing or darning socks — is an activity that strikes a deep emotional chord in us, one that might even go to the heart of our identity as human beings.
Sound familiar? Might telling each other stories go to the heart of our identity as human beings? Homo narrans and all that?

In The Careless Society: Community And Its Counterfeits, John McKnight examines the takeover of public bereavement and other traditional community functions by well-meaning service professionals. To do this he makes a wonderful extended soil-science-based metaphor (a man after my own heart). According to McKnight, the Wisconsin prairie had "provided maize, beans, and squash for the [native] Sauk people for generations reaching back into unrecorded time." When the European settlers came, their iron plows could not till the prairie soil, until John Deere invented a steel "sodbuster" plow that could slice through prairie grasses. The sodbuster opened up the prairie, but the Europeans didn't know how to take care of the soil and quickly depleted it.
It took the Europeans and their new technology just one generation to make their homeland into a desert. The Sauk Indians, who knew how to sustain themselves on the Sauk Prairie, were banished to another kind of desert called a reservation. And even they forgot about the techniques and tools that had sustained them on the prairie for generations. And that is how it was that three deserts were created - Wisconsin, the reservation, and the memories of a people.
McKnight then likens that story to the invasion of a new sodbuster, the professional service of bereavement counseling.
It is a tool forged at the great state university, an innovative technique to meet the needs of those experiencing the death of a loved one, a tool that can "process" the grief of the people who now live on the Prairie of the Sauk.
In the traditional ways,
The bereaved are joined by neighbors and kin. They meet grief together in lamentation, prayer, and song. They call upon the words of the clergy and surround themselves with community. It is in these ways that they grieve and then go on with life. Through their mourning they are assured of the bonds between them and renewed in the knowledge that this death is a part of the past and the future of the people on the Prairie of the Sauk. Their grief is common property, an anguish from which the community draws strength and which gives it the courage to move ahead.
The sodbuster of counseling starts quietly, assuring people that it has come to help. But as the authority of service becomes more and more dominant, it displaces the natural process of communal grieving:
Finally, one day the aged father of a local woman will die. And the next-door neighbor will not drop by because he doesn't want to interrupt the bereavement counselor. The woman's kin will stay home because they will have learned that only the bereavement counselor knows how to process grief in the proper way. The local clergy will seek technical assistance from the bereavement counselor to learn the correct form of service to deal with guilt and grief. And the grieving daughter will know that it is the bereavement counselor who really cares for her, because only the bereavement counselor appears when death visits this family on the Prairie of the Sauk.
Doesn't want to interrupt. Only the professional knows how. The proper way. Technical assistance. The correct form. Who really cares. This sounds exactly like how people react when I ask them to tell me stories.

The result is devastating:
It will be only one generation between the time the bereavement counselor arrives and the disappearance of the community of mourners. The counselor's new tool will cut through the social fabric, throwing aside kinship, care, neighborly obligations, and community ways of coming together and going on. Like John Deere's plow, the tools of bereavement counseling will create a desert where a community once flourished.

The protector is unprotected

Now here is the saddest irony of all. McKnight counts stories as one of the things that supports genuine rather than "counterfeit" community (along with collective effort, capacity, informality, celebration and tragedy):
In universities, people know through studies. In businesses and bureaucracies, people know by reports. In communities, people know by stories. These community stories allow people to reach back into their common history and their individual experience of knowledge about truth and direction for the future.
Professionals and institutions often threaten the stories of community by urging community people to count up things rather than communicate. Successful community associations resist efforts to impose the foreign language of studies and reports because it is a tongue that ignores their own capacities and insights. Whenever communities come to believe that their common knowledge is illegitimate, they lose their power and professionals and systems rapidly invade their social place.
Here I am connecting these threads of specialization to the decline of community storytelling... and it turns out that countering increasing specialization relies on community storytelling! Is that not tragic? Is that not alarming? In the ecosystem of community survival, storytelling is not just a cute koala. It's the keystone species that holds the whole system together. And it's in danger.

This fascinating audio program put together by George King and Associates explores the issue of the decline of community storytelling. There isn't a transcript, so I just typed in a bit of it as I heard it (note that two or three voices are mixed here):
Is there a family storyteller anymore? Well. We are told stories by professionals. Instead of having, as there was in the old old days, ordinary people singing and dancing and writing for themselves, we have slipped into a world in which everything is done by experts and by stars and by so-called spokespeople. They don't speak for me most of the time, and I do not think I am alone in this. I think I am one of the alienated multitudes.
Note the phrase "slipped into." We did not plan this state of affairs, and few would choose it. But we have it now. At the very least we should begin to be more aware of it.

Poverty and wealth

So there you go. People not telling each other stories, and people thinking they have no stories to tell, is no longer a puzzle to me. It's a piece of a bigger puzzle. It's not just that we aren't telling each other stories. We aren't doing anything we used to do anymore. We are outsourcing our lives.

Now, I'll wrap up this journey with two stories about my own stupidity (always a font of abundance) and one about the way I think community storytelling was once and should be again. I tell these stories about my stupidity because I think they actually have very little do with me and a lot to do with our society.

The first story started innocuously enough. I was washing my hair, and I used the last dregs of a bottle of shampoo. As I put the shampoo bottle down, a thought jumped into my head, unbidden. The thought was:
There. That's taken care of. That's done.
And then the rest of my brain said: What? What did you just say? I had just represented consuming something, using something up, to myself, as an accomplishment. I've pondered over that consumption-as-accomplishment incident for a while now. Shouldn't the accomplishment be making the shampoo stretch as long as possible? Shouldn't using up a bottle of shampoo be a failure, or at least an unpleasant fact of life, instead of an accomplishment? Have you ever caught yourself congratulating yourself on using something up? Isn't that creepy?

The next stupidity story is about the door mouse. As an older parent I was more susceptible than most to the you-are-a-bad-parent magazines and catalogs that flood the mailboxes and consciences of new parents. So I bought everything I thought I should have, and covered the house with plastic barriers and locks and safeguards of every sort. One of the things I bought was a "door mouse," a little plastic-foam thing you put on a door so that if it happens to get slammed it will not crush tiny fingers. Thinking, ooooooh, must protect those tiny fingers, I bought two of these idiotic things and placed them on the doors between rooms.

The door mice were beyond useless. They got in the way so much that they caused more danger than a simple slamming of doors could have. In fact, as I realized (too late), it's actually important for little kids to find out that doors slam. They need to know that about the world, and parents need to show them that.

So then the next wave of the catalog invasion comes, and I'm looking at it and trying to be dutiful, and suddenly a wave of understanding washes over me. This is not the things you need when you are a new parent. This is the things people think they can get you to buy when you are a new parent.

Now, I am not a stupid person generally. I read things, I converse with data, I consider myself a scientist. Why in the world did I think what was in a catalog was what I needed? Here is yet one more quote from McKnight's Careless Society book, describing the first assumption of the professional takeover of the personal (his italics):
As you are the problem, the assumption is that I, the professional servicer, am the answer. You are not the answer. Your peers are not the answer. The political, social, and economic environment is not the answer. Nor is it possible that there is no answer. I, the professional, am the answer.
I, the catalog, am the answer.

After the door-mouse incident, my attitude toward this assumption was fundamentally altered. I began to see catalogs and advertisements not as helpers and information sources, but as supplicants, petitioners - beggars, even. The information and support they provide is counterfeit. In fact, they need us more than we need them. When you look at it that way, when you start to see the producers of the things you buy as hangers-on to your life, the whole dynamic changes and you start to notice things you hadn't seen before.

For example, I started inventing things, discovering things. Here's one. Guess what you need to keep your house clean? Vinegar, baking soda, soap, and lemons. Amazingly, it all works pretty well. I've also realized that most things you buy for your house are interchangeable. You can use dog shampoo on people and people shampoo on dogs. You can use bubble bath on your hair and shampoo in your bath. Dog shampoo makes pretty good sink cleaner. Dish soap makes great hand soap. And it goes on and on.

One of my greatest discoveries was my new absolute, hands-down, best cleaner for an old grungy real-linoleum floor. Ready? Bubbles. Kids' bubbles. We were blowing bubbles in the kitchen and making a mess, and then when I went to clean it up, lo and behold, the floor there was cleaner than it had been in a year. I took out all of the tried-and-failed experiments I'd used to prolong the life of the ugly old floor - you know, all the neon-colored liquids in bottles with pictures of patronizing, condescending experts, or glowing examples of what you yourself might be like if you use their product - and gave them a square of linoleum each to work their magic. The bubbles won by a mile. So now when I want the kitchen floor extra clean, I get out the bubbles. (And you can make your own bubbles, too, and a lot cheaper than "real" bubbles.)

Now look at this quote from Adam Smith again:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
It was only when I stopped performing the "few simple operations" I was told to do by the specialized world that I started finding occasion to exert my understanding and exercise my invention. And I'd say not being able to clean your house or take care of your child without a commercial entity telling you what to do is... as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. (I can say that because it's me I'm talking about. But it's not just me I'm talking about, it's us.)

Now for the counterpoint, and the last bit of this very long essay (no point calling it a "post" at this point).

I was poking around the web reading about "uncontacted peoples" (no reason) and I came across this fascinating story. The anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya knew the Ongee people, who live on Little Andaman island near India, and worried about them during the 2004 tsunami. A year later he finally talked to an Ongee elder, who told him, as he relates in this article:
Why do you get so concerned? Earth tremors are frequent, you should know, you have lived with us long enough in the forest to know that... it is just a thing that happens again and again, its just that on the day when giyangejebey (tsunami) came, the water went away from the land very quickly and like the breathing-in-and-out-of-the-body the sea water had to come back very rapidly and in a big way! We saw the water and knew that more land would soon become covered with sea and angry spirits would descend down to hunt us away.
Note how he says "frequent." He doesn't mean frequent in his lifetime, he means frequent in the lifetime of the Ongee. Would anyone in our contemporary societies say that? Could we?

The article goes on to describe how the Ongee had an elaborate ritual in place, presumably for centuries, by which they dealt with periodic disasters. In other words, they have a real, working collective memory. Says Pandya:
So unlike the settlers the Ongee did not wait to wonder at the earth quake, which to them is a normal order of nature, but they did take their cue from the daily observation of water levels. According to most of the non-tribal residents of Little Andamans, the earth quake was experienced around 8 in the morning but the 6 to 9 meter high waves in two spurts came nearly 30 minutes after the tremor. Many lives were lost because they were looking at the damage done by the tremor, oblivious of the killer waves coming behind. The Ongees say that "if the water goes away quickly it will rush back even more and with greater speed as the good spirits want to provide the order to the sea and forest on which their descendent Ongees depend". What we rely on is installed 'scientific' instruments to record the abnormal tremor but Ongees maintain a record of the normal water level to signal the start of abnormal phenomena - a different way to organize the knowledge and systematize observations.
Now, please place those two stories next to each other in your mind: my door mouse realization and the Ongee reaction to the tsunami. I've been doing it, and it's painful. It's more than painful, it's frightening. If the Ongee are feasting at a narrative banquet, we are subsisting on gruel. (Or maybe "edible foodlike substances.") And we are supposed to be the ones who know things.

My dad always says "You pays your money and you takes your choice." We've paid our money, and we've taken our choice. But is this really what we want? When I explained to my six-year-old son what I was writing about, he said, "Well, of course we need to put it back the way it was."

The next post will be about things I think will help to put things back, and hopeful signs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

From the Island of Misfit Story Ideas: Universal Story Translator

(This is the first in a series of posts on misfit ideas for helping people work with stories. I think they have potential, but they have not yet found anyone who wants to fund their completion. I'm posting them here to see if they can find good homes with people who need them.)

The idea of a universal story translator came about around 1999 when I was at IBM Research working with John C. Thomas. It wasn't any one person's idea but arose in conversation, as far as I recall. The question we posed then was:

What would make any story, told anywhere, at any time, understandable to anyone else, anywhere and at any time?

The idea links in my mind to four things:

  1. The plaques on the Pioneer spacecraft that announced our form and intelligence to other life forms;
  2. the universal translator on Star Trek and elsewhere;
  3. the Darmok episode of Star Trek, which addresses the issue of cultural structures far above the level of language, specifically metaphor and story; and
  4. the footnotes on old novels that explain things such as why "He lived in a wooden house" is a put-down rather than a simple description. (Actually, that isn't in the footnotes in old Russian novels, but eventually I figured it out. I've noticed that the level of detail in footnotes corresponds to the year of publication; some things that were obvious in 1920 aren't so obvious today.)

In each of these cases context annotates content so that the content can be better understood. The first is minimal; the second fanciful; the third a near failure; and the fourth only a partial success. The reason this matters is that, as I said back in the first of my eight observation posts, most projects that involve helping people work with stories involve the paradoxical elements of narrative compression (which requires context trimming) and narrative distance (which requires context for translation). Manipulating the interplay and tension between compression and distance is important to maximizing the utility of story projects.

This is the sort of thing I'm talking about: on this site, the students of Copper Giloth at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have created traditional and modern versions of many of Aesop's fables, exchanging the troubles of foxes and birds for the dilemmas of today's young people. The fox invites the stork to a baseball game; belling the cat is starting a neighborhood watch; sour grapes are a potential girlfriend. This is a perfect example of narrative translation and shows the potential of the idea, which could go much further.

Consider for example the division between city residents, usually immigrants, who butcher livestock in their back yards and residents who have their butchering done by others in remote locations. Each has a story to tell, but important elements of context are left behind, and the gaps are filled by assumptions on each side.

Our original work on this idea revolved around tools that might give people easier ways to annotate and view stories with contextual information added, to make what is unsaid in the story explicit. At the time I built a very simple Flash prototype to play with the ideas, which simply displayed some "canned" contextual notes I had added to a fable from Aesop. I've tried to duplicate it here using the "title" attributes of links. The links go right back to this post, so don't click on them, but if you hover over them you should be able to read the annotations.

A shepherd once found the whelp of a Wolf and brought it up, and after a while taught it to steal lambs from the neighboring flocks. The Wolf, having shown himself an apt pupil, said to the Shepherd, "Since you have taught me to steal, you must keep a sharp lookout, or you will lose some of your own flock."

From playing with this idea I learned a few things.

  1. The process of adding context annotations is both difficult and useful. Both attributes are important, and neither can be taken away by automation without losing something. It's difficult because it's hard to see context when you are in it, and it's useful because you find out things you had not realized about the story by forcing yourself to make context explicit. This less obvious utility complements the more obvious utility of communicating context to story readers.
  2. The technological part of the task is much the smaller one, and we already have the tools we need to do it. Everything is hyperlinked today, and with services like diigo, adding "sticky notes" to content is easy. At this point it's more about habits, social cues, and group techniques than anything to do with technology.

Full realization

If the idea of a universal story translator was to be made fully real, it would be a set of ideas and techniques people would use for several context-requiring purposes, including:

  • conflict resolution - helping groups understand each other
  • international understanding - helping people understand and appreciate other cultures
  • group sensemaking - helping people surface hidden assumptions
  • persuasive communication - helping people reach a disagreeing audience
  • ethnography - helping researchers understand people in context
  • education - bringing out the context of learning

Software tools could embody understandings and social cues about story context annotation for translation and sensemaking. But my feeling is that people are so overwhelmed with helpful tools that they can't keep up with the scaffolding they have already. My rating of what would be useful in this area is techniques first, habits second, and software tools a distant third. Group exercises that more explicitly address drawing out context for translation might be a helpful addition to the body of techniques for narrative sensemaking. For example, perhaps two groups with different backgrounds could come together and pick apart each others' stories, asking questions like, "Why do you say he is an outcast?" and so on. This could be revealing for both groups and for the combined community.

In practice

Without full realization of this idea, whether in tools or techniques, how could you use it today in your work with stories?

First, just try out the idea of context annotation, by yourself or in a group. Take a story you know well -- a favorite folk tale, something from your childhood, the story of your wedding -- and pretend you are telling it in the year 1200, or on the planet OOpahN, or in an ant colony. Explain everything, the way you did when "explicating" poems in English class. If you can get some naive outsider to help, that's even better. Why do people throw rice at weddings? (Or why don't they anymore?) Why do little pigs go out into the world and build houses? Why do wolves blow houses down? And so on. It's a great way to understand more of what is riding along unstated in a familiar story. Sometimes you can come up with some amazing insights that open your eyes to what is in plain sight.

I've been doing this a lot lately because my son loves to have long conversations with every character we read about. Lately Gulliver (he of the Travels) has been asking a lot of questions about the crazy things we do every day, like put our dishes into a box and talk into a stick and poke our fingers into boxes of little marked buttons. (He knows a lot more than we do about leeches, though.) Kids are in fact great helpers when it comes to bringing unspoken context out into the open. Tell a kid your story and ask them if they have any questions; you may be surprised by what you didn't tell them.

For eliciting stories, think about possible areas of context: character, plot, setting, conflict, subtlety, subtext, for example. Look at any book on narrative form to find areas you can think about. Then during interviews or when planning story collection forms, ask follow-up questions that fill in any annotation gaps you see. Pretend to be ignorant about the subject you are asking about, even if you are not. Think what people will need to understand it. If you do this well, you will not annoy your storytellers, because they will gain their own insights during the process. Make the storytelling a sensemaking session for them, and you'll get better stories as well.

For facilitating narrative sensemaking, think about the needs of the group in question and what areas of narrative context might be useful to bring out. For example, if the subject matter is full of taboo topics, help people bring out story subtexts. If people need to think about players in a situation, ask them to annotate elements of character. Plot elements can be useful if you want to help people think about knowledge use or decision making. One way to do this is to ask people to write out a story on pieces of paper, one word at a time (leaving out "a" and so on), and then think of what they would need to add to each word to make the story fully intelligible to someone from a century ago, or from another profession, or from another country, or anything that will draw out detail. Going through this process will not only help people surface issues they have not noticed; it will also bring out taboo topics with an excuse that allows them to be more freely talked about.

So in coming back to this idea, I'm not sure a fully universal story translator has any real utility, because the boundaries around human groups do have beneficial uses. But there are times when bridging boundaries has great utility in context, and for that this idea can come into useful play.