Tuesday, April 19, 2011

8 lessons from X Media Lab Perth: Storytelling in a digital age.

I find myself continually drawn to the intersection of history and digital media so jumped at the chance to attend X Media Lab Perth: Storytelling in a Digital Age. Technology has always shaped our relationship with the past and today it offers exciting opportunities to reach new audiences and communicate in more engaging ways.

A range of speakers from various disciplines shared their understandings of this paradigm shift. Their views were inspiring, thought-provoking and, at times, contentious. Though aimed at a broad audience, there were some valuable insights for digital historians:

1. No matter what technology you use, the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same.
Stories are central to mankind and humanity. They teach us about how the world works, how to live in society and how to get along. Both Marshall Vandruff (Artist) and Dominic Knight (The Chaser) spoke about storytelling as a craft. It’s not enough to express yourself. There are rules and they can be learned. While most relevant to those writing non-fiction, it is important for historians to acknowledge the structure and effects of a compelling narrative. Despite all the talk of crowd-sourcing, collaboration and co-creation, Dominic rightly questioned the ability of a committee to write a classic novel or make a TV show like The Wire. It’s all about balance.

2. The most engaging stories reflect our basic human emotions.
Marshall Vandruff has had an extraordinary career as an artist and knows a thing or two about storytelling having worked for clients including Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbara, Dark Horse Comics and MAD magazine. I was hanging off every word as he gave a lecture about classic storytelling (doing his best to condense 40 hours of lectures into 10 minutes). The most powerful stories are those which connect us with others, take us on a journey (not a tour) and give meaning to our lives. Vandruff’s focus on human empathy resonated with me - I recently read a fascinating article which cited empathy as a ‘universal solvent’ and ‘the world’s most valuable resource’. I believe good history is rarely without it.

3. Good storytelling conveys both the familiar and unfamiliar.
Another gem from Dominic Knight. Powerful storytelling treads a careful tightrope across our comfort zone. It is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar that can convey realisations about ourselves. I was reminded of a powerful quote by historian William H. McNeil (Mythhistory and Other Essays, 1986)...
“Historians can only expect to be heard if they say what the people around them want to hear—in some degree. They can only be useful if they also tell the people some things they are reluctant to hear—in some degree.”

4. Stories can transcend borders.
Peter Shiao spoke about his work adapting classic Chinese martial arts literature for the Western world. The themes of transformation and spirituality have a powerful ability to transcend borders. His work has a strong cross cultural appeal in USA and China - two countries are most often talked about in terms of differences, rather than similarities.

5. Digital storytelling can give a voice to the voiceless.
Emma Kaye spoke about the ways in which mobile phones are being used in South Africa to empower impoverished communities to tell their own stories. In Africa, oral tradition was central to building and maintaining of community and today digital platforms have allowed a resurgence of personal storytelling. Unlike traditional filmmaking, editing and broadcasting content on mobile phones has low barriers to entry, resulting in a renaissance of content being made by the community for the community.

6. People are already pushing boundaries.
Ana Serrano shared several examples of digital storytellers who are leveraging technology and social media to create more immersive experiences. Some of the results are more engaging than others however all are breaking new ground.

7. Don't fear a shift from sole creator to co-creator.
Social media has changed everything. It’s now possible to interact with a ‘story community’, build relationships and even maintain these over the long term. Just think about all the opportunities to use these tools to connect communities for local history projects! The new remix culture (legitimised by revolutionary new frameworks such as Creative Commons) can also be harnessed to fuel innovation.

8. Interactivity can increase the level of engagement - but tread carefully.
Professor Duane Varan from Murdoch University shared his 10 Commandments for interactive storytelling. His research at the Interactive Television Research Institute has proven that interactive stories can be better than traditional linear narratives – but only if we stick to the rules of structure. Varan noted it does not matter how small the screen is; if it is an iPhone, laptop or wide screen TV. Media platforms do not hold power – content is king and interactivity should be used to complement the story rather drive the narrative.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The future of stories.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about our past. I've written before about the complexities of writing history, and it suddenly occurred to me that the medium is just as important as the message.

Stories we tell about our history that have the power to send men to war, topple governments and empower minorities do not lie in journal articles or a few brilliant minds - they are possessed by the public and expressed through collective memory (popular culture, ceremonies, media etc).

The power of stories cannot be harnessed unless they are shared, and they way we have told stories has always been shaped by technology.

In oral societies people often lived their entire lives in the same place. The historic record was meagre but knowledge of the past was widely shared - factors that ensured the group also shared a common worldview. During the Renaissance the printing press revolutionised the way that ideas could be communicated and the industrial revolution allowed mass production of books for the first time – both facilitating cultural relativism. The development of mass media during the 20th century enabled those in power to broadcast stories to huge audiences.

Today websites, blogs and social media including Twitter & Facebook have democratised storytelling. Millions of individuals broadcast billions of stories on a global scale however, paradoxically, this also enables us to select and consume stories that enforce the world-view we already have, rather than challenge it. As we splinter into homogenous online tribes reminiscent of oral societies, have we come full circle?

Is the quest for historical ‘Truth’ obsolete? In many ways the internet is the embodiment of postmodernism - there is very little shared experience, just competing versions of experience. Perhaps now it is more important for historians to pursue ‘many Truths’. The production of diverse histories from different perspectives reinforces the fact that there is no universal, objective Truth, but many.

Digital technology also offers up exciting new narrative mediums from which to redefine 'Truth' and reconfigure the way in which it is conveyed. For the first time in human history we have an opportunity to escape the narrative. The aptly named ‘World Wide Web’ organises information and social connections in networks as opposed to straight lines; perhaps a more accurate reflection of ‘real life’ than traditional linear storytelling. Faced with countless interpretations of the past it is possible the role of Historians may shift from ‘creator’ to ‘navigator’ – providing essential methodologies and platforms to celebrate the diversity of the human experience.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lies, damn lies and history.

We have always told stories about the past to make sense of the world and ourselves. Not only does history provide the foundation for shared belief systems vital for social cohesion, it can also facilitate social change. Storytellers who claim the authority of truth over the past hold immense power but how can we be sure the stories they tell are True?

Truth is a fairly recent measure for evaluating the past - many myths and legends were once accepted versions of the human story. In many oral societies The Truth was judged on the reputation of storytellers or what majority thought worthy of belief. It is easy to forget too, that we have only recently become familiar with a multitude of different global belief systems. In a not too distant past individuals nearly always grew up in isolated communities to a more or less homogenous world-view.

Historians have long debated the best ways to turn ‘facts’ into ‘history and the stakes have never been higher, for today we navigate an online world that offers us countless competing interpretations.

19th century historian Leopold von Ranke developed a method of 'scientific history' by which he believed historical truth could be uncovered. His method? Harness historic evidence (documents, records etc) to prove undeniable facts... then arrange these into a readable narrative. That the true story could be accessed in this way remained largely unchallenged until the 1960’s when historian E. H. Carr stood in front of his peers at Cambridge University and proclaimed ‘this clearly will not do!’.

Carr rejected the idea that the facts existed objectively and independently of the historian, noting that in order to create meaning historians must decide which facts are considered important and selected and suggesting it more appropriate to study the historian before you begin to study the facts.

Despite acknowledging the effect that the historian had in ‘creating’ history, Carr was confident that historians could access the past. He believed that historians studying the same event might produce many interpretations - all with the potential to shed light on the past. Postmodern scholars disagreed. If history is as much about the historians world view and beliefs, they asked, how can any one version of the past be more True than another? And if this is the case, how can we possibly tell fact from fiction?

While raising important questions (and perplexing generations of university students) the complexity of post-modern analysis has, at times, risked isolating the general public from their own history. Historian David Lowenthal has noted that ‘the gulf between sophisticated chroniclers and the public seems to widen all the time’ - perhaps the single biggest threat to the quest for Truth.

Today digital technology has democratized the truth and allows storytelling on an unprecedented scale. Is this the greatest threat academic historians have ever encountered... or the biggest opportunity? Can the internet save History? I'm excited about the possibilities.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Horrible Histories - now a cult TV hit

If you know any school aged kids, you have probably heard of Horrible Histories. These are history books with a difference. Designed to enthral – this is history with the unusual, gory and unpleasant bits left in. Phenomenally successful, the series has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 31 languages.

In 2009, the BBC launched a children's TV series based on the books. Based on the insight that “when children go around stately homes all they ever want to know about is how the people went to the loo and how they diedit has quickly become a cult hit with kids and adults alike. And frankly, with sketches like the ‘The 4 Georges’ below, who could possibly resist?

More like an adult sketch show than usual children’s television fare, the creators have acknowledged that part of its success is based on the fact that kids “get that the tone is sophisticated and that it takes children seriously. It doesn't talk down to them."

But is it good history? The wide variety of sketches certainly raise questions of class, gender and power structures. Certainly, before kids can truly begin to question and examine history, they need to fall in love with it. Also - far from restricting the kind of discussions Horrible Histories can provoke, the use of satire is often intelligent and genuinely thought-provoking. Their sketch outlining the causes of World War One (with its comparisons to schoolyard politics) is a powerful representation of complexity and absurdity...