Well, we went. This will likely be an important meeting series soon, on par with TED in terms of fame. We will almost surely go for the next few years. Here are some observations on the meeting and some higher level comments. Both Beth and I attended, splitting days, so these are comments just from me. Beth wrote her own report; it’s good.
This is likely the best organization I have seen in an event, and thanks for that; it would be very easy for problems in the complex logistics to become the thing we see. The focus of the event, reflected in the name, is an important one and central to our interests. If you omit the entertainment, the organizers kept the focus so far as they understood. The number of attendees was limited and they were generally interesting to talk to. All that is good, even superb.
When I used to go to many conferences, a goal was to encounter ideas that were not those I embrace. A good presentation gives the kind of challenge I need to keep myself honest and sharp. There was much of that at this meeting and here are some notions that FoST 2014 prompted.
Even though the meeting was collegial and discussion was encouraged, it still boiled down to separation between attendees and those chosen by the organizers as innovative storytellers. This asymmetry is inescapable, because unless some basic nature of storytelling is changed, you have a storyteller and a listener.
(We attempt to do this in our project, which uses a conventional narrative — a film — as the basis for a metastory that forms the template and material for a self-organizing collaborative meta-narrative.)
Long Form Narative (FoST)
Most of the ‘stories’ at FoST were short and crafted by the ad community. I suppose you *can* call these stories.
My interest is long form narrative: situations matter and change; characters evolve; the world is dynamic; the viewer (if the story is film) has the potential to be changed should she risk it.
Nothing I saw from the ad world qualified, quite the opposite. These were well crafted to engage, the idea being that if you engage an audience and that engagement somehow promotes your mission (like brand enhancement or actual purchase), but engagement is easy. It is the difference between sex and love; I think the analogy is strong. It is desirable to have engagement through the long form, but it has to be enriched by a set of qualities Beth calls unputdownability.
But rather than blow off these ad guys, they intrigue me. What they do is contribute to the writing of the internal stories we use to identify ourselves. That’s what brand management is, the idea that in buying something it carries value beyond its function by becoming part of our story about ourselves. Their measure of engagement is whether they can affect or maintain this change. Collectively, all such brand changes are significant.
That is, an effective ad guy has to understand the personal narratives of his target well enough to affect them, so there is a long or superlong form in the picture. And there is change.
Is this the kind of change that I want in long form? Probably not. I think what differs is the notion of introspective layering. These are diverse and what I study in the filmsfolded work.
I heard two speakers use the same definition: innovation is doing something ordinary but in a different way, and what they meant was doing something in a different but engaging way. These are engineers and not scientists, so it would never occur to them that stronger innovation is doing something different.
I think the difference here is in goals. The weak notion of innovation starts with a specific goal, and then finds a better, presumably more innovative, path to it. If the goal is to increase shoe sales, then what innovative techniques can be applied? This gets back to engagement and in the cases I saw it meant innovative engagement.
But suppose you looked further down the food chain. Suppose a goal was to make a viewer’s life richer? We know stories can do this, but we filter out much and have become immune to much else. How do we innovate here?
Jump a bit with me. We spend an immense amount on medical research. Many hard problems are better understood than before but solutions to many pervasive conditions with profound consequence elude us. We know why, because our models are inadequate. We need better models of how things work in the body. (We wrote a paper about this in a journal issue dedicated to the problem.) Said another way: the stories we use to describe what goes on in our bodies (and interactions with the environment) aren’t good enough. What innovation can we bring to bear here, strongly suspecting that there is an overlap between this, science in general and what we tell ourselves to get through the day?
Cinematic Narrative (FoST)
Everyone seems to get this in some way. The future of stories is cinematic. Most everything I saw was influenced by this. Either it was directly cinematic in the sense that the media was video, or it was cinematic copy, images, narrative tropes.
Some stuff was just dumb in this regard. A lot of people are excited about virtual reality headsets. What seems to get lost in this is that good storytelling — and almost every component in it — are effective at conveying reality by presenting things using conventions that we perceive as real. Actors don’t act the way someone would in life; they act in clean, exaggerated manner in such a way that we perceive it as real. It is the same with every element of the craft.
Similar cinematic conventions have been developed for graphic media and books. I have yet to find anyone working in VE who has mentioned the need for this. Everyone seems to think that real reality, something extended from the gamer world, or something similar extended from movies will do.
The TED Meme Machine (FoST)
TED is successful. Snippet journalism on the web is also, together with its cousin anger-driven cable news. TED works. People are entertained. Some of them are edified. Most of them feel they understand the key issues of what is presented.
It is a form of snippet journalism, where the actual thing (in this case the idea) is not central. Instead we have a description, an explanation of that thing — a story about the thing. Some TED talks are just stories with no ideas. Some of these are successful in communicating something about the idea. A talk by someone working on immortality tells me almost nothing about the reality of the possiblility other than the guy believes it and he has a costume-like beard.
The problem is that understanding something is hard. Often, the more valuable the insight, the more it costs. The more like TED that FoST becomes, the deadlier. I see some movement in FoST to turn it into a community. That’s the right direction, I think. Use the event for meeting people and advertising some central concepts. Let the collaborations work as collaborations do. FoST could find itself not just reporting on the future, but making it.