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Narrative, Science, and Unpredictability

Science, and

Anne Dalke

August 2007

"We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our...thirst for...patterns: the narrative fallacy.

" genre, you’re...buying a guarantee that you are going to have essentially the same experience again and again. It’s a novel. It won’t be too novel. Don’t worry."

--William Gibson, "Back From the Future,"
New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2007

Randomness and unpredictability are two important themes running throughout Serendip, an on-line site for science education that presumes both that variability is intrinsic to the brain, and (following from that), that the disorder of the Web is one of its greatest virtues. Many of the on-line exhibits featured on Serendip are interactive games that allow viewers to explore the consequences of randomness in (for example) segregation and integration, in social organization more generally, in thinking about "purpose" most generally of all.

I have spent most of my life thinking about narrative: the various forms it takes and the various purposes it serves. The many new developments in emergence theory have recently gotten me to think differently about these things, about Why Words Arise—and Wherefore; about the Emergence of Genres; about (most generally) Learning to Live with Uncertainty.

I picked up and continued that conversation with a student who had a "transcontinental obsession" with the topic, and now pick it up here again with Brian Clark, an experimental narrativist who's been leading me further down this path....We've been talking about narrative, genre and improbability--and, improbably, science-- in ways that we hope others might want to join in. Let's see where we can go, and how we might get there....?





Anne Dalke's picture

the role of shared experience

So my turn for a question: in the collaborative reading experience that you're describing, one that increases inquiry ... what is the role of shared experience? Can a group discuss Moby Dick without having read Moby Dick ... or only having read it a decade ago in college? Does that change the nature of the experience?

Interesting question. I think in lit classes, the text is often used as a club to stop group exploration. "Bringing it back to the text" is the gesture literature professors frequently use when the conversation gets too...

random, or out of hand, or politically dice-y. Insisting on "shared experience" (i.e. you can't participate in the conversation unless you've done your homework/your reading) can be a very effective way of limiting exploration.

The sort of layers and grain that Ron talks about might come into play only if the various players have not shared experience, but rather bring different experiences into the game...

Why do you ask?

Ron C. de Weijze's picture

tracts through the layers

Anne, "I'd say, rather, that the layers, per se, give us the traction we need to see what we can't see, when we're in the midst of it all..." -- I fully agree. These layers I consider to be like concept-maps, literally almost, describing and explaining the relations between the (modeled) objects from one point of view. Each layer is one way of 'connecting the dots' and making sense of them, giving each intension in relation to the others and giving them their role in their midst (in the thick of it). So each layer is one perspective and their combination, in the tracks (again a nice metaphor, like Melville's 'balancing the ship' elsewhere) through all of them at once, combines the perspectives in the dots, or in the model-objects, as 'linking pins'. Thus not only get all these layers extra meaning, but also, get these objects more 'grain', a less tacit/more explicit role in their context(s).

Brian Clark's picture

my hat belongs to them

Of more interest to me would have been the possiblility that we can use the different ways that different people think not in order to arrive at consensus, but rather to encourage further inquiry (and so extend her claim that "given an answer, we stop thinking").

Anne, I totally agree, and I think the above is a good summary of what we find interesting about community media forms in general. Maybe I'd in one more element, which is creating a "love of inquiry". I'm backing away from ARGing here for a second to broaden out to other forms, but back DURING the Clinton impeachment we did a small group dialog exercise ABOUT the Clinton impeachment. We knew the goal wasn't to get people to all have the same opinion: in fact, we stacked the deck in each of the small groups (geographically, politically, ethnicly, etc.) to ensure that consensus was nearly impossible to create. We gave them starter topics, but they were free to ignore them and talk about what they wanted.

The biggest learning from that, the most common experience (so the closest thing to a consensus) was "I haven't changed my opinion, but I understand how a rational person could have the opposite opinion." We worked as facilitators more than deliverers of "correct answers". What that project ( didn't have was a fictional narrative, it was a news or documentary piece.

Certainly don't take my description of why the ARG community finds puzzles engaging as anything less than being an ambassador of a good description of the genre. There will be some practitioners who feel very strongly about puzzles. I personally find the puzzle aspect relatively un-interesting, or just one example of an "activity that can be done collectively." I have been criticized from time to time my some community members for developing what they call "non-puzzles" -- something that they mistake as a puzzle but for which there isn't a solution.

I find myself wanting to say back, loudly and clearly, that I'm very much interested in community-buildiing, but not if it stops thinking, and the having of wonderful ideas.

If I conveyed anything other, my apologies. The value of a community experience is never consensus. Or perhaps I should say, the Internet is full of those kinds of "communities" (formed out of consensus of perspective) and they seldom if ever produce surprising results.

Instead, I always explain to collaborators and team members that the audience is smarter than we are. Always. If you spend 8 hours as a team hunting down and hiring someone to translate something into Urdu, you can rest assured that the audience community will recruit someone similar in about 8 minutes (probably from India, probably calling them and waking them up) who will translate it in 1 minute and catch 4 poor choices of the other translator to boot.

This is MUCH more closely related to what I personally find interesting about the style, learning to tell a story with a group that is relentless like pirhana and smarter than any team of storytellers you can put together. This creates the need to treat that audience community as a collaborator, as a joint author in something collective, as someone with which you as an author are exploring a topic and a story.

why is this range of connectivity, and the necessity of such a range, a *sad* thing?

I think I used "sad" with more of a wry wink and rolling of the eyes. In the world of the practitioner who has to secure funding from somewhere, the really complex ideas that seem to fall into the border zones between disciplines are the hardest ones to sell. It also means that even the smartest practitioners in the space really should be well outside of their comfort zone of expertise when exploring this, but the natural tendency for people to look for their lost keys under the street lamp is a universal human experience.

Now, if I could find a nice academic conference that focused on "chaotic group processes in fictional narrative expressions" I'd be set. And we certainly are seeing more and more academics showing up at ARG-related events (which used to be dominated far more by the audience-bonding-with-audience-bonding-with-creators dynamic), but it is just as likely that a conference puts a really brilliant theorist from our space on a panel alongside a corporate suit who dreams of filling call centers in Second Life and convincing that staff they are just playing a game. At the same time (at least from my perspective here in Orlando) that space is also being filled by more military/industrial complex concerns as well -- "strategic simulation" as a way of training troops through immersion (I hear researchers building tank simulators tell me, "Oh, we're storytellers too, just like you".)

So the space has a lot of growing to do fast, or it will get swallowed up into a hundred little unrecognizable pieces. We're seeing part of that go on right now. When we've managed to convince major brands to fund these kinds of art pieces by building their brands into it (yup, art as commerce ... oh the tradeoffs we make as practitioners), it has never been without trepidation. Part of that about the word "game" which to them implies zit-faced kids with PS2s. Now, those ad agencies and marketers are starting to call it "alternate reality branding" -- get rid of that pesky "game" word that gives us ulcers and replace it with something sexy for our ad award submissions and ebook titles.

When a community has problem defining its own terms, they typically wake up one day and find that idiots who aren't a part of the community have cemented the definitions for them ... and gotten them horribly, terribly wrong.

So my turn for a question: in the collaborative reading experience that you're describing, one that increases inquiry instead of just collapsing to right or wrong answers ... what is the role of shared experience? Can a group discuss Moby Dick without having read Moby Dick ... or only having read it a decade ago in college? Does that change the nature of the experience?

Brian Clark's picture

Cementing a Narrative Genre

Forgive my email out of the blue, but I stumbled upon something you wrote online. You'll probably be amused to hear that it was via Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
I'm sort of an experimental narrativist ( gives you a little glimpse at an attempt to describe what I do), a large part focused around interactive forms of narrative that have a high level of randomness involved: the phrase "alternate-reality game" is sometimes applied to some of our work, but the phrase "Chaotic Fiction" is starting to gain a broader acceptance in the community (as "game" sometimes sends the wrong implications.) From my perspective, these forms of narrative are way of trying to rediscover what made the oral tradition of storytelling important and harnessing our new "many-to-many" media toolset to play with those implications.
I offer up the above primarily as a way of describing why I found much of what you're writing about (esp. the role of narrative in grokking meaning) to be of the same rootstock. The conversations taking place in this community of practitioners and theorists are very much about absorbing in the concept of "chaos" into the definition of genre. I've been offering up Taleb as one of looking that (ie, the relationship between narrative, probability and heuristics.) So I've ended up using your posted review of "Black Swan" as another way of showing that people who are thinking about narrative can extrapolate from Taleb's assumptions (and thus, really, from the statistical models that Taleb invokes.)
Then, after I did that, I started to realize you might be one of the few people I've encountered on the Web who was focused on that aspect of Taleb's writing (which for me started sparking with "Fooled by Randomness" because he described the heuristics we try to utilize in interactive storytelling.) So I thought I would send an email of introduction and ask you if you had thought any further about Taleb or found in it any other insights about natural narrative behavior.
Thanks again for your writings: they were instrumental in discussions that could help to cement a narrative genre
Brian Clark
Founder/CEO, GMD Studios (
Publisher/Manager, indieWIRE (
407-657-8990 x40

Anne Dalke's picture

transformations of genre

Dear Brian,
I was tickled to get your letter, have been mulling it over, and am
finally writing back to say that I don't--@ the moment!--have anything
further to say about Taleb/insights I might have found in him either about
"narrative and probability" or about "natural narrative behavior" (as you
asked). But you have given me an opening for something I'd like to think
about further, something maybe you can help me with...

I'm scheduled to teach a new course @ Bryn Mawr this spring on
"emerging genres" (find draft description @
/exchange/courses/genre/s08 ).
Though you'll see from the overview that I'm not interested in joining you
in "cementing a narrative genre," your description of your work with
"chaotic fictions" and "alternate-reality games" --"interactive forms of
narrative w/ high levels of randomness"--has provoked me to think some
more about how I want to think, talk and teach about the transformations

of genre. Work with me on this? Let's keep on talking...?

Brian Clark's picture

who defines and populates a genre?

It would be my pleasure, Anne. I need a good dose of theorists in my life to keep the new questions flowing.

One of dearest friends and ex-employees did his Master's thesis at UCF in English on the implied relationship between author and reader in "Moby Dick". There was a period of about three years where nothing under the sun wouldn't make Dan go, "That's just like Moby Dick where." J I have a deeply geeky obsession with how creative synergies get fired between people, how a loose group of artists become a school or a movement. The "Tangiers Period" (Bowles/Keroack/Burroughs/etc.) is one good example and how instrumental it was in cross-fertilizing Beat, another is the "Year Without A Summer" (Mary Shelly/Lord Byron/Polidori/etc.) producing the scientific horror thriller, another is the community of fans that kept Lovecraft's "Weird Fiction" extension of Poe alive.

ARGing might shape up as a similar kind of moment: genre is an interesting way to ask that question, isn't it? In independent film, I'm always arguing "indie isn't a genre, it's a movement." And yet I use genre to describe what ARG is. Curious. In reality, we never set out to make "alternate reality games" - we do immersive narrative, play with the conceptions of storytelling (create ACTUAL relationships between author and audience instead of implied ones.) It was only 4 years that this community of fans suddenly looked at generation 9 or 10 of that and went, "You make ARGs, you are a puppetmaster." Apparently because we told a story that was about puzzlers (so the embraced a non-linear narrative for Sharp Televisions as an ARG, but didn't really think of "Blair Witch" or "Nothing So Strange" as ARGs because they lacked a clear "game".

If you look at most of the accidental practitioners in that space, they tend to have emerged from one of two spaces: game design and filmmaking. It might be that until the Web came along there wasn't quite enough shared language of experience between the two to really make hybrids of those concepts work. So you have people like 42 Entertainment and Dave Szulborski who come at it very much as game designers: narrative emerges from the rule set of the interactions. Others, like Haxan Films and Xenophile and GMD Studios, come at it from the point of view filmmakers: the gameplay is only that you're playing with the boundaries between author/audience/participant/character and embracing some of the emergent aspects from the audience back into the narrative.

The only reason why it feels at all like a genre is because there is a well-networked community of people who have played one "game" or another, and their guts label "what is similar about each of our fandoms of the games we played" as being the definition of ARG. Which means there is NO definition of ARG, or perhaps that ARG is just a flavor of some broader concept. It is that fan community that is in the process of redefining the label to Chaotic Fiction. They have a whole theory they've baked up, hardly a "professional ARG developer" among them - the main architect of the theory is a paralegal! Despite that, they might have very well hit on something · something that tries to define the sub-category as "cohesive narratives that emerge from joint authorship between the audience and the creators that have a level of persistence and leave behind an artifact that other's can experience is that functionally similar to the community experience of the live theater".

Which means they have stumbled smack dab into the swirling rapids of media art versus performance art - what counts as "documentation"? What suffices as mere documentation? A wiki entry? A news article? Oh, how I've seen some knock-down drag-outs between academic performance theorists and, say, filmmakers on the difference of the importance of documentation. What is intuitively brilliant about their proposed structure is that the live gaming experience is "chaotic play" or "chaotic theater" · and the fixed artifact that emerges from joint authorship is the "chaotic fiction".

I guess the meta question really becomes, "who defines and populates a genre?" Have an indie filmmaker who's been corresponding with me - he made a gay Cthulhu movie, and he's been getting a lecture from film festivals and distributors that they don't know what genre he is · will horror genre fans embrace a gay protagonist story? Will gay audiences embrace a Lovecraftian horror story that might in part be about the gay experience? If you asked those festivals and distributors, they'd tell you that no filmmaker can really start or define a genre. It seems, though, that is a definition of genre that relies heavily upon the existence of gatekeepers between the audience and the creator in order to facilitate both revenue and marketing.

What connections are you drawing back to blogging? I'm fascinated by that concept - I've argued blogging isn't a genre so much as it is a collection of tools. Might be another term that isn't really defined too well - I've been accused of making "fake blogs" before, when all I was really doing was using a blogging technology platform for telling narratives (so whether or not or are "fake blogs" or "storytelling using blogs" depends far more on the reader's state than on the author's intent.)

Just rambling there, and probably using genre in a much looser sense than any individual narrative theorist, aren't I?


Anne Dalke's picture

defining alternate reality games

Fun questions, Brian, and some interesting answers.

The question you asked that interested me the most was "who defines and
populates a genre?" And I was struck by three of your answers, want to
think aloud about each of them

* "that a definition...relies heavily upon the existence of gatekeepers"
this is old style: the way English literature used to be taught, the way
the canon used to be managed--a group of experts decided. No go, no more.
Why the internet is so exciting for so many of us; we're becoming our own
gatekeepers (Friedman writes compellingly about this:
/exchange/bookshelves/friedman )

* "depends far more on the reader's state than on the author's intent"
this is modern style, akin to what we in the lit-crit business call
"reader response theory":
it's not til a reader--many readers, actually--encounter a story and make
meaning(s) of it that it lives, becomes the text that is valued and passed

*might be just "a collection of tools"--
this is where we are now, I think, in the making (up) of new genres. I've
learned from evolutionary theory that a species can only be defined
retrospectively. You never know ahead of time what you are going to
get/what you've got. It's only looking back that you can see how any
particular assemblage (of "tools") is differentiated from other

So your account of the current definition of the genre of alternative
reality games seems right on the money to me. Accurate, useful. But how do

--"cohesive narratives that emerge from joint authorship between the
audience and the creators, that have a level of persistence and leave
behind an artifact that others can experience, that is functionally
similar to the community experience of live theater"--

differ from the way a literary theorist (of the reader-response
persuasion) would define a novel? Or a blogger a blog? And hey: what's
your definition of blog, or the definition that was used to club yours as

So, no, I don't think you're using genre in a too-loose sense. Maybe your
sense isn't loose enough. What's the use of all this policing, anyhow? Why
does it matter who's in, who's out? Revenue? Marketing? Hm...not so very
interesting to me....
 to you?
Brian Clark's picture

meta questions

I suspect there will be some people wanting to jump in - Jane McGonigal SMSed me last night saying that her work with the Institute for the Future is looking a lot at Monte Carlo and narrative. But there seem to be precious few people I've found in the academic space that approach this from a narrative perspective (I find myself surrounded by game theorists.)

Love your break down of the question "who defines and populates a genre" in this email - you've captured the meta-meta question perfectly:

Question: what is an alternate reality game and what makes it different from other forms of gaming or narrative?

Meta-Question: what is the role of chaos in all storytelling processes, and how does The Question reflect what academia is already pondering?

Meta-Meta Question: who gets to define what the genre is anyway?

Love your definitional questions too. I think part of what seems different about "chaotic fiction" is the high degree of uncertainty in the narrative outcomes. As an author, we know we'll be significantly rewriting the story as we go alone - the comparison might be to improvisational theater or jazz, but one in which the audience had an implicit role. Sometimes we hone in on the definitions of theater genres like "theater of the oppressed" or "invisible theater" in an effort to find something similar, but there is peer of mine who claims the only real comparison is 18th century "science in the round". So the outcome, the artifact, the documentation - that's collaboratively authored with the audience, who are also characters in the story.

Here's the interesting wrinkle on why this seems like such an important definition to the player community. Jane McGonigal would describe it as "alternate reality gaming is in part about gaming the barrier between what is in game and what is out of game". There is a sense of discovery - that a pay phone might ring, or a strange package might arrive in the mail. In fact, that is how we started our current story - with strange packages mailed to about 48 people, all of whom we were able to research on the Internet (and thus make the packages very personalized and thus just a little bit creepy.) That creates a trail they start following and investing energy in, but without ever having an explicit statement from us as creators that it is okay to trust us, that their investment of energy will pay off.

At least half the time, the community seizes upon something as the "next big ARG" only to discover that it isn't. That it lacked player agency. That it didn't have a storyline. The sponsor does a press release about how great their viral marketing stunt was, and the sense of betrayal among the fan community that cemented around it (primarily because they were hopeful of what it MIGHT UNFOLD INTO) is so palpable, so personal. They are left with the gut sense that, "This was never an ARG in the first place, was it?" Most of their guts agree with that statement, but like a film goer can describe the film as "not good" but not be able to put their fingers on the aesthetic reasons why, this sense of betrayal gets funneled in a meta discussion Š about the genre, about what defines, about how to communicate that expectation to others. By people with no real language or theoretical structure to frame that back into the rest of creative theory.

Can't wait to here your thoughts on genre, let me where you want us to continue this.


Anne Dalke's picture

Front Porch Space

So, Brian, I feel as though you and your friends are taking me traveling in a new land, strangely like the one I already live in.

I've just realized that our conversation is not just about new forms of narrative. It's also about new forms of science. It's a resurrection, in a new location, of the old conversation about two cultures.

I realized this when you spoke about alternative reality games being like "science in the round"--a phrase I've never heard before, though I like the three-dimensionality of it. It puts me in mind, not only of the "pre-disciplinary" science of the eighteenth-century, but also of much contemporary work on "science with a social dimension," the sort of science that attends (for example) to gender, or that pays attention to the specifics of location, of the "somewhere" that science is practiced.

Sean Steward actually goes so far as to say that, in creating alternative reality games, you guys "just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment"; that science was "the first, or greatest, example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and problem solving." Whoosh. That comment just expanded the range of our discussion ten-fold, from one located in the humanities to one that incorporates science--really all of inquiry.

I spent some time this morning with Sean's very acute and astute description of Alternate Reality Games, and I want to talk a little bit here about what I noticed, about both what seemed very old, and what seemed to me very new, in his account. The humanities part comes first. What struck me most is how much your all's new art form resembles what we do in traditional college literature classes, where reading a book is NOT a private activity, but rather a fundamentally interactive project: "presented with the evidence of the text," students "tell the story as they see it," and then we re-write it together, incorporating all our different perspectives. This is reader-response theory, again: readers have a key role in creating the fiction, "influencing
what happens to Narnia" by means of their interpretations of what's been written. Readers have always done this. Seems to me that alternative reality games make this activity visible and physical. But it's always already been happening in the readers' imaginations, and always already happening collectively when groups of readers get together, when readers of a shared text share a "sense of the communal discovery of a new world."

So, all that seems very old, and I now find myself quite interested in this new version of practices that seem to me well worn in time. But of course what is new here is the communication platform. I'm very struck by Sean's argument that "every communication platform can (and eventually will) create an art form. The novel is part of what the printing press means," and alternative reality games are exploring "what web-based story-telling wants to be." How nicely that sets up my upcoming new course, from novels to blogs!)

But I think that what you are doing goes much further than trying out a form of story limited to a certain communication platform. I think you are actually exploring what story-telling can be, and refusing it the limits that conventional narrative theory (not to mention more contemporary postmodern theory) has accorded it. This is where your work moves beyond the humanities, into science, and into inquiry more generally.

Sean insists that, "when there is no frame around a story, you have to be really careful about reminding the audience that it is, after all, 'just' a story." But once you begin thinking about all processes of inquiry as forms of story-making, and even about science as a particularly disciplined version of story telling and story revising, then the distinction between your communication platform and the world in which it resides gets seriously eroded. In their refusal to be "bound by a communication platform," in caring primarily "about the story, not the platform," alternative reality games are of course highlighting this elision.

The other thing they are highlighting is the fundamental sociality of story telling and sharing. "The world of the infosphere," Sean says, "the web and google and email and instant messenger and cell phones, is about two fundamental activities: searching for things, and gossiping." So much has been made of the power of the internet to perform new, extensive searches (Thomas Friedman is great on this), but it's combining the power to search with the power to talk about what you've found with others, to pass on the gift, that is making the 'net such a strong force in our lives.

This became crystal clear to me when I heard Sean describe your platform as a "front porch space":

"In a Canadian winter, there is a sharp distinction between the Interior (private, personal) space of your home, and the Exterior (public) space outside your front California, I spend a lot of time between those two places, in what you might call Patio Space, or, in the South, Front Porch space... personal, but can see the people on the street, and they can talk to you. Perhaps they will come in and sit a spell....The contemporary web-based culture of blogs and livejournals exists in Front Porch space ...ARGs exist there too in the
personal-but-shared space of IRC channels and community sites. The front porch and the irc channel exist for the mingling of work and gossip."

This image made suddenly vivid to me why I have found the web such a compatible space for my own intellectual and professional work. Growing up in the south, I spent lots of time on front porches, learning about life by listening to stories, and learning to pass it on by telling them. In adulthood, it's clearly this speculative, storytelling, "humanitizing" aspect that has drawn me to and kept me on the web.

So: that's what I learned today. Thank you!

And here's my next question. Sean says that the first basic strategy of interactivity in alternative reality games is "Power without control: Give players power over the narrative in carefully defined situations." What I understand this to mean is that (for example), one of your projects might involve getting your players from A to B. They get to chose the route, but where they end up is decided ahead of time.

If so, this may be where we part company. So much of my own teaching has had to do with giving students increased power over their own education, increased control over the making of their own product. And I've been increasingly drawn to the position that--for example, in assessing what a student learns--we need not identify, ahead of time, what the goals are, where the endpoint of the exploration needs to lie. That it is possible to give our students experiences, and measure what they have learned from them, without measuring it against a pre-determined rubric of what is "right" and "wrong," without saying ahead of time where it is they need to go.

What do you think?

Brian Clark's picture

Models of "control"

We don't have to part company yet, but there are definitely some aspects of the space you'll find more interesting than others. Yes, there are some people who think about the nodes of interaction as being pretty tightly controlled -- the illusion of an open system that really guides you to a single choice. I'm not sure we should throw out that thinking completely.

One example is the historical fascination with puzzles with the ARG genre. Puzzles have one solution: the audience knows when they got it right, it isn't really an issue of interpretation or choice. That seems to have an important benefit, though, for the community -- they are goals that can be set, assaulted by a group, that come with a built in reward of "getting it right" at the end. This can help produce a sense of achievement and advancement that more interpretative aspects are muddier with.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, are models from theater that are exactly like what you are talking about (such as Jeff Wirth's work at the iPlay interactive theater lab at the University of Central Florida.) In those models, everything is almost exactly the opposite as an ARG -- the main "power" in authoring is concentrated into a single "spectactor" who doesn't know what is happening, and a broader set of "interactors" who help keep the spectactor from derailing. In that model, if the spectactor says, "I'll have to check with my police contacts," the interactors scramble around and make that happen -- the spectactor will end up getting a call from their police contact, who will pretend that they've known each other for years.

I shouldn't present this as a dichotomy, though. I tend to approach these things from the direction of community, which are techniques and tools not confined to fiction (do a Google for Barry Joseph's essays on "the Delimna of Invisible Man Culture".) Under that model, the most important thing to accomplish is participation, to break down the traditionally passive consumption model of the Web which turns static media into living, breathing dialogs. The elements that make up a piece of chaotic fiction or interactive theater or alternate reality game are really just "activities" that the group can participate in. Those activities create shared experiences. Shared experiences help a community bond with each other, and that increases the synergy of that collective experience. Theoretically, at some point the author could walk away completely and the community could entertain themselves -- author become moderator and facilitator.

All of those things, though, tend to rely upon casting the audience members in one of a few kind of roles, and experimenting with that is a state of the art issue in the community. Many of those rely upon what I've started calling "forensic narrative" -- the narrative assembled by the people trying to piece together another story (like the narrative of the investigators in C.S.I. as compared to the narrative of the crime they are trying to unravel.) This makes some kinds of role natural -- researcher, investigator, collaborator, defender, archeologist, etc. That, of course, starts to create narrative cliches (so many ARGs start with "I don't know you, but I need your help!" or "Help! I've been kidnapped! Only you can save me!") Granted, though, if one of us figures out how to tell a massively collaborative romantic tele-novella ...

You'll also get no argument from me that part of this is really ancient. I've flippantly argued in the past that storytelling started getting messed up as soon scribes and writing got involved, each layer of technology after that has tried to mediate the reach of our voice with the intimacy of the oral tradition. We are wired for storytelling, it might in fact be one of the key methods our brains use to store and sort information. We've got a "suspension of disbelief" gene :)

Web geeks, though, love to think they invented things. *yawn* That why the community of practitioners need to make as many connections as possible to academics (and, sadly, in like a ton of different fields to cover all the strange wrinkles of the form, like its similarity to both the novel and the stage play.)

Speaking of Web geeks, I'm going to invite some of them here to this fascinating conversation (so don't surprised if more people start showing up.)


Anne Dalke's picture

Opening the System

the illusion of an open system that really guides you to a single choice. I'm not sure we should throw out that thinking completely.

from the perspective of an educator: let me push back hard on that one?
A couple of years ago, Eleanor Duckworth gave a workshop @ Bryn Mawr,
in which we were asked to explain to one another--without using numbers--that 3/4 is greater than 2/3. Her goal was to get us to think very deeply, to really understand--and really articulate to others--the fundamental concept of proportional thinking, without using any shorthands.

Eleanor Duckworth did ultimately function as the arbiter of when the problem was solved--and there was a challenge to her insistance that only one logic was appropriate. But, claiming that "given an answer, kids stop thinking," she did not, in the course of 1 1/2 hours, ever use her authority to stop the discussion. She observed that, if kids are really working, it's important to pay attention to what they are thinking, to invite them--as in the title of her book--to Tell Me More, because "the more you know of what's really going on in their minds, the better a teacher you can be." Eleanor Duckworth suggested that, although "there is not an hour in the school year to do something without immediate payoff," the most important way to deal with important problems is to make them important."

But the real problem here, as I saw it and experienced it, was that Eleanor Duckworth actually wanted us ultimately to come to a particular solution.

Of more interest to me would have been the possiblility that we can use the different ways that different people think not in order to arrive at consensus, but rather to encourage further inquiry (and so extend her claim that "given an answer, we stop thinking"). In this exercise about proportionality, for example, we could have

* kept the exercise going with different people offering a range of views, until the whole group is comfortable with a single solution
* tested the various predictions (that is, done some empirical science, made an observation: would that show that what is "numerically correct"--for instance--is relevant to how a proportional mixture tastes? would it raise a range of questions about the subjectivity of taste? concomitantly: about the ways in which math de-contextualizes questions, in order to arrive at right answers?)
* acknowledged that there are several different and verifiable logics for answering questions about proportionality, each of which apply in a different circumstance?

The reason I'm taking so long with this is to say that the value of community you celebrate is not one I want to buy into unconditionally. So when you say--

I tend to approach these things from the direction of community...Under that model, the most important thing to accomplish is participation...activities create shared experiences....Puzzles have one solution: the audience knows when they got it right, it isn't really an issue of interpretation or choice. That seems to have an important benefit...for the community....This can help produce a sense of achievement and advancement...

--I find myself wanting to say back, loudly and clearly, that I'm very much interested in community-buildiing, but not if it stops thinking, and the having of wonderful ideas. On that same score, when you say that you've

flippantly argued in the past that storytelling started getting messed up as soon scribes and writing got involved, each layer of technology after that has tried to mediate the reach of our voice with the intimacy of the oral tradition.

I find myself wanting to push back on that, too. Where I'm coming from is that the whole point of storytelling is to get some distance on experience, to shape and organize it into patterns that help us to make sense of it (and so provoke further exploration, further stories...). The optimum distance is always going to be debatable of course, but why do you think that the layers, per se, "mess it up"? Why valorize the experience itself? I'd say, rather, that the layers, per se, give us the traction we need to see what we can't see, when we're in the midst of it all...

the community of practitioners need to make as many connections as possible to academics (and, sadly, in like a ton of different fields to cover all the strange wrinkles of the form

why is this range of connectivity, and the necessity of such a range, a *sad* thing? seems to me the fun and generative about the whole project...(back to your community-based approach, surely...)

And back again to you--

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