Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

Collaborative Narratives

Published: 16 Sep 2014

This is the third post of ruminations on the upcoming Future of Storytelling gathering next week. The first had to do with some narrative dynamics; the second about personal narrative and the overlap with science.

This also concerns personal narrative and the relationship to collaborative work, but focuses more specifically on the result from prior, well funded research on structuring collaborative creativity.

The chain of reasoning makes a couple unexpected jumps.

Enterprise-Supplied Personal Narratives

We each live in narratives absorbed from our environment.

Let's say that each of us lives in a fabric of narratives we have assembled around us, and that these narratives are at least the primary force in how we understand the world, define ourselves, reason about next actions and sustain various neuroses.

It doesn't matter here whether any of these narratives are unique to an individual, or whether they are coherent or manifold. What does matter is that most of these are selected from the narratives we encounter more or less as they appear to us.

This, I believe is generally acknowledged. Certainly, we can characterize some of these. Some come from films and associated deeper genre sources. Many of the most visible ones appear as engineered, lifestyle brand messages. Others emerge from religious and political institutions. All of these overlap and in each of us are interwoven.

Some seem to have deep roots, like national and spiritual narratives. I'll include conspiracy, revenge and the other in this class. A more elaborate class seems tied to temporal trends. There is a lot to say about all this, and many experts to consult. The important points here are that who we are is cobbled together from encountered narratives and one way or another these all come from groups that for convenience here we will call enterprises.

About Enterprise Integration

Toward a theory of how collaborative work is done.

A very large engineering discipline concerns how enterprises do their work, and a concurrent theory in management science follows. Most of the time this focuses on business enterprises. They are a bit simpler than generic organizations in some regard (everyone involved can be motivated by the same metric, money), but more complex in other ways (success is determined by fickle market forces that easily shift).

For our purposes here, all enterprises work the same way, whether the goal is explicit or implicit; whether they are knowingly assembled or assembled by cultural forces (like the fine arts marketplace); or whether the produced narrative is to promote a product or is the product itself.

Our ARPA/NSA projects focused on the way people and organizations form and collaborate to make these stories and products, especially if the story is unique. Some stories accompany the product, like what Apple calls design accompanies an iPhone. Other stories are the collection of roles and processes that go to make something like a muscle car. Yet others are the product itself, like films.

If You Know the Product

In our publicly published work, the starting, focus case had a desired product or specific product requirements and the job was to figure out who and how to make it. The large funding was justified because the military systems we looked at were exceedingly complex, the technology changed faster than the planning cycles and integration of the system and the system to make the system was eating up all the time and money. Many systems where we knew how to do every component individually simply couldn't be made as a system. Couldn't be made at any cost.

We called the resulting solution virtual enterprises. The idea caught on; it forms the basis of much of what happens in China and in this initial form is still robustly sponsored by EU research. What distinguishes an advanced version of such a virtual enterprise is small, creative groups who have never worked together, possibly doing things that have never been done before.

That research used the notion of building a story that was both the description of the product (or the product itself) and the story of how to make it. Such a story will have a larger arc across all parties and processes, but be seen locally as smaller different but still compelling stories by each active or potential collaborator.

The problem thus became one of catalyzing these smaller stories so that they self-organized into the larger ones.

About User Pull on Collaborative Narrative.

Involving the audience in unknown futures.

Okay, that was rich research and we learned a lot about what makes stories compelling and how multilevel stories can be folded into larger ones. We learned a few things about self-organizing stories as well and that took us once again into some foundations of logic. Along the way, I found the expert on compelling stories.

But this work was constrained in a way that has always bothered me. It assumed that some group somewhere knew what had to be made (or what service was to be delivered). For example, it assumed that someone (like Steve Jobs) knew that a next generation smart phone would be a good thing, even though the cell phone industry was huge and considered mature. Also that he knew how it would work. He didn't; he saw and expressed a potential story and created processes that let it write itself.

Writers and Readers

Using our metaphor of stories, this amounted to a separation between the people with skills to write stories, and those that consumed them. In an ideal world, I assumed, the users would be equal collaborators in the virtual enterprise. But the problem (as stated in business terms) is that users rarely have the vision to know what they will love.

In story terms: it takes a different set of skills to ingest a story than it does to create one.

But do those skills need to be as disconnected at they are now? When Ileft the DARPA projects, I posed a more agressive scenario: What if everyone were part of the virtual enterprise? And what if everyone's local story were equally powerful in the imperatives that build the enterprise's story? And what it the stories were always intended to be compelling?

And what if instead of one large story about a better computer in your pocket, the larger story were comprehensive over the all the urges and needs of a person and beyond, over a society? What would something like that look like?

It is better said that the DARPA projects left me.

This was an era when the products in question moved from complex electro-mechanical systems back to intelligence products; from open work that could benefit everyone to more secret work; from work designed to prevent conflict to work designed to kill.

And an administration that lied and tortured.

And meanwhile a Congress that didn't like our tinkering with market forces that favored the big guys and specifically the trillion dollar F-35 (now projected at possibly twice that).

So we left and matured the work into what you'll read about here.

A Focus on Film

How would next generation film fit into this?

So we are extending and building the underlying infrastructure that should allow this. It is what we do.

Our first focus is on film, fictional long form narrative expressed in the modern cinematic vocabulary. The reasons for this focus are explained elsewhere on this site, but they include the fact that film is where we collectively go to explore narrative introspection.

I have a deep respect for the high level of collaborative art one finds in the international filmmaking enterprise, but it time for the walls to come down between the community that creates films and that which sustains them.

It always has been a permeable wall anyway, and the growing use in films of self-reference and fourth wall techniques indicates pressure to break out.

Now we have the means to create a second creative, collaborative process among members of the audience to create metanarratives. Our initial examples will be collaboratively authored essay-like (wikipedia-like) constructions that are composed differently to every reader. But we expect that new means of expression can be enabled by synthesizing elements from existing films. Surely they will surprise us.

just as filmmakers use an expressive shared vocabulary and an evolving visual grammar, so too should consumers and reworkers of film narrative. All films are about other films, and all stories in life are extracted from art. It is narrative all the way down, so let's make the stairs less precarious.

Value Features

Well, that's easy to say. When we worked on this problem with manufactured goods, we came up with the notion of value features. These would be the primitive qualities that consumers would use in interacting with companies. More precisely, they would be the nouns and verbs that expert knowledge engineers would use to express what they found as consumer urges.

The idea was based on the existing rich vocabulary of product features that many domains use. Product features for a car would include explicit qualities like cost, safety, fuel economy and reliability. More important are the qualities that are less quantifiable: implicit notions about style and life narratives. Cars and other products start their lives being modeled in these abstract features. If it is not a consumer product as jet engines and semiconductors are, those implicit features include airline's confidence.

These get used on down the pipeline by means which we helped invent.

Clearly, many products do not start with this level of abstraction. Franchised film characters sold as toys are a good example. Other example class are mature products with the next instance simply improving some prior, settled design. But winning companies — usually via consultants — nearly always reregister product designs at this level.

Value features would be more abstract and directly pulled as structures from the narratives we use in life. We initially thought that these would be fairly easy to identify and map to product features. Our work on (partly) self organizing virtual enterprises did the job of dynamically mapping product features to process features (capturing the universe of taks to produce a product). This was hard, very hard, and involves some spooky math and slippery processes. But it was doable.

What we were not expecting that what we started calling value features would create a new career, become something of an obsession and extend far into other collaborative creative processes.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014