Narrative Engines and Personal Identity

09/16/2010

I receive a daily RSS feed from the Scholarly Kitchen. Today I read Kent Anderson’s post The “Me at the Centre” Expectation.

Kent concludes his discussion about the personalisation of web experiences with the observation that:

the Web is both mobile and omnipresent in some ways, but the way it’s being deployed is about each user. It’s the antithesis of broadcast, yet it requires broadcast. And the “filter failure” we’re worrying about requires traditional filters, but then gets filtered further.

His post was prompted by Nick Bilton‘s book I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. Kent links to this post by Nick Bilton in which Nick points out that  “Now you are the starting point. Now the digital world follows you, not the other way around.”

A few days earlier on one of my drives to Canberra I had been listening to Ramona Koval‘s discussions with William Boyd about his new book Ordinary Thunderstorms and the use of a narrative engine to discuss personal identity.(Transcript of the interview.) William points out that the idea for the book is the the hunter and the hunted. He adds that:

it’s a very powerful narrative engine for any novel, and I happily cherry-pick genres for narrative engines as I require them. In this case I was mainly interested in what happens when you lose everything. It’s not so much about Adam escaping, he has to escape, it’s about the process that this involves, that he sheds everything that makes him a modern citizen; mobile phone, credit cards, passport, home, job, reputation et cetera. He runs, but instead of running away north, south, east or west, he goes down, he hides himself in the lowest reaches of society, and in so doing has to lose his identity. And that’s what really intrigued me about this story.

During the course of the interview, William notes that:

It’s extraordinary to me that the population of the missing in England is some 200,000 people. We just don’t know where they are, we can’t find them …  So 600 people a week just walk away from their homes, their families, their jobs, and disappear, 200,000 people, that’s a big provincial city. Where is this population? They’re like ghosts wandering the streets, you occasionally see them as you walk about London huddled in doorways or passed out on park benches, but there is a great population of the missing in this city and it just shows you that you can, even in the 21st century, disappear off the radar completely.

Without forcing the link too much I do think there is an interesting juxtaposition between Nick Bilton’s and William Boyd’s books. In pursuing this idea I came across David Ventura and David Brogan’s (2002) paper on Digital Storytelling. They explore a heuristic for interactive narrative development that aims to deliver a compelling story. Their narrative engine enables users to choose branching of stories whilst constraining these choices to make the story feasible.

Whilst William Boyd uses the craft of authorship, David Ventura and David Brogan explore an optimised constraints-based system. I take Nick Bilson’s point to be that the user-centredness of narrative is embedded on our everyday lives and will be so increasingly. It is an opportunity to move on our digital practice as Luis Suarez and Kevin Jones have argued recently “adoption has to do with context not age”.

Adoption and non-adoption, personalised and personal learning, social connectedness and social isolation are important issues for me in my work. I think volition and intrinsic motivation are keys to engagement and hope that advocacy and support can encourage participation in a digital world. I recognise that there are lots of people, as William Boyd points out through the character of Adam, that do not wish to engage.

For my part I am fascinated by the ubiquitous opportunities many of us have. My next step … I am off to re-read Bryan Rieger’s Rethinking the Mobile Web (another RSS feast from the Scholarly Kitchen).

Photo Credits

Istanbul Market

Phone Walk