Narrativity, Cross-media, Multi-Surface Computing, more Proliferation of Real-Time, Chladni Plates as metaphor, and why we (or at least me) should, perhaps, think less and do more…

31st December, 2007

Three years ago I gave a talk to some students on narrativity. I didn’t pick the topic and it was hard work. I ended up explaining that narrativity is the degree to which a specific element within a given structure advances the goal of that structure. In a story, narrativity is the ability for specific elements to move the story along.

In a cross-media form like an Alternate Reality Game (link is to a .pdf – it is concise and an excellent introduction) the specific technologies employed in the various actions can be understood as having levels of narrativity – specifically, the relationship between the goal of a specific action and the technology used to reach that goal, and how those elements work together to reach the ultimate intention of the project.

As an example, the ‘beginning’ of the Alternate Reality Game “i love bees” featured a brief shot of a url at the bottom of the last frames for the trailer for Halo 2. As the ARG was part ad campaign for the upcoming release of Halo 2 this was an appropriate choice, and as the game required keen observation skills placing it in such a way made it available, primarily, to keen observers and, as the game required people willing to participate, showing just a URL, briefly, would require someone with the necessary motivation to go home and visit that sight. The fact that the URL was hard to see required, perhaps, a few viewings of the trailer so that both persistence (another trait essential to a successful ARG), and a willingness to spend money on entertainment (an essential trait in a potential consumer…) were also required. Jane Macgonigal’s choice to snail mail jars of honey with letters (spelling out “i love bees”) inside of them to a highly active ARG player (here for more details) thereby announcing the game to a wider audience let people know that the project would be highly cross-media, etc. Each of these technologies was used to advance specific elements of the overall narrative of the project in a highly skillful, very intelligent way.

Over the intervening years since my talk, and inspired by seeing this interview with physicist Lee Smolin (middle of page), where he talks about some string theorists favoring a discussion of area over volume, my thinking on the narrativity of objects has developed into a metaphorization of objects as surfaces, where each specific surface conveys different concepts/different information, more efficiently than other surfaces.

I’ll explain:

Imagine a chladni plate with, instead of salt or sand, different three-dimensional objects on it. As different frequencies vibrate the place, different objects on the plate respond to those frequencies by vibrating more or less. At any given frequency one or more objects will vibrate more than others – those objects can be understood as optimal forms to convey those specific frequencies. If, instead of frequencies you imagine ‘vibrating’ the plate with certain elements of a given story or project, you get the idea.

During a class last semester I described this as Multi-Surface, Cross-Media Computing, and I feel it is an important concept to wrap one’s head around if the goal is a cross-media application – ARG or otherwise. Some students seemed stuck on the word ‘surface’ and thought I was suggesting that this sort of activity was ‘superficial’ and, hence, shallow. I wasn’t.

I also feel that this sort of narrativity/resonance exists within objects that are not explicitly designed for this purpose.

I think that the objects we embed in our environment resonate with the concepts that are important to our culture. The web is such an ‘object’ or ‘surface’.

Even further explanation:

Imagine again the chladni plate, and this time it is wrapped around the surface of the earth and we, and everything else in our environment, is resting on it. This time, our ideas are what make it vibrate and our ideas are passing through our feet. As before, there are objects on the plate, and as before some objects vibrate harder – let’s say twice as hard, than others in response to the different frequencies (ideas) rippling from our minds, through our bodies and across the plate. The ideas we’re feeding into the plate are varied, obviously, and many ideas are rippling across the plate at any moment, just like at any moment people’s minds are considering all sorts of things. In my analogy people’s thoughts are ‘freely’ their own, so they run the gamut of whatever people happen to be thinking about at any time.

After a while we would begin to make connections regarding thoughts we had and objects that responded strongly to those thoughts. As consummate tinkerers, we would begin to build and assemble things that would respond to various thoughts/vibrations. Sometimes these objects would be designed specifically to respond to a specific idea, and sometimes that would work. Sometimes there would be unexpected consequences in the form of the object vibrating to some frequency that we hadn’t really been paying attention to.

If the object that vibrates to this unfamiliar frequency vibrates long and loud enough we’d have no choice but to pay attention to it and an aspect of our paying attention to it would produce a change in our focus and behavior. We would probably stop what we were doing and try to understand what was making this thing hum. Some people would explain it, and other people would listen and think about the explanation and test it out by incorporating it into other things. Eventually we would ‘understand’ it well enough to use it, at which point it would have been classified and probably named.

In this example the ‘new’ object would have a high level of narrativity for a concept that has evolved to be utterly real, prominent (it responds to a strong vibration emanating from us) and useful, but that seemed to emerge from our collective tinkering, and was not explicitly understood and designed first in our heads, and then projected into the environment where it was embodied in a specific resonant object solely via our explicit intentions. We certainly had a lot to do with it but its origins were not explicitly predicted by previous understandings.

If we were smart enough to accept the ‘new’ thing, listen to it, and integrate it into our collective toolkit our collective experience and future tinkering would be enhanced.

If we chose tell it what it is rather than listen to it by, for example, giving it a bizzaro nonsense description like, I don’t know, ‘alternate reality’, or ‘augmented reality’, or ‘virtual reality’, or ‘cyberspace‘ then our future tinkering and experience with and around it would be complicated…

As an aside, I just got this via email from transmediale that mentions their upcoming event which features a talk by Timothy Druckery (who I work with at MICA:

From ‘real’ to simulation, from simulation to virtualisation, the
assimilation of the reality function has haunted the continuing debates
about images and intelligibility. This, of course, is predicated on the
assumption that there is a stable, describable, ‘real’ that shares an
objective affinity to the world. Shattered by psychoanalysis, quantum
physics, semiotics, cybernetics, and, increasingly by computation, the
fiction of the ‘real’ is the indispensable conspiracy. This talk will
take aim at the ‘reality principle’ as the core tragedy of a culture
inebriated by a desperate illusion.”

A few months ago I heard the author Nassim Taleb say, “we are better at doing than understanding.” I feel that my analogy describes an evolutionary process based on, to put it simply, ‘doing’ (or, more accurately, ‘tinkering’) and then, when the sound gets loud enough, so to speak, and we can’t ignore it any more, applying an empiric (how things really are) point of view to understand the story we are collaborating on.

To me, we seem wired to pay attention to significant change. Sometimes the quality of the paying attention is a change in our tinkering (when the kettle squeals you go turn it off), and sometimes it requires intellection and understanding (choosing a candidate to vote for). I feel that the web has become loud enough (strong frequency) and it is one of those times when empiric (seeking to see things as they are) understanding is appropriate so that our tinkering can be more in tune with what our culture is trying to express.

I feel that the proliferation of streaming media is, as Caleb Waldorf declares in his work The Artificial Moon and The Post-Human and as I mentioned in my previous posting, presenting a different model of temporality, and I feel that if we consider that model empirically we will notice that other objects on our collective plate are resonating to the same frequency.

Here is, to me, is another example, from the offline world:

New Hair Follicles Created For The First Time, Mouse Study
Science Daily — Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have found that hair follicles in adult mice regenerate by re-awakening genes once active only in developing embryos. These findings provide unequivocal evidence for the first time that, like other animals such as newts and salamanders, mammals have the power to regenerate. A better understanding of this process could lead to novel treatments for hair loss, other skin and hair disorders, and wounds.

“We showed that wound healing triggered an embryonic state in the skin which made it receptive to receiving instructions from wnt proteins,” says senior author George Cotsarelis, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology. “The wnts are a network of proteins implicated in hair-follicle development.”

Researchers previously believed that adult mammal skin could not regenerate hair follicles. In fact, investigators generally believe that mammals had essentially no true regenerative qualities. (The liver can regenerate large portions, but it is not de novo regeneration; some of the original liver has to remain so that it can regenerate.)

In this study, researchers found that wound healing in a mouse model created an “embryonic window” of opportunity. Dormant embryonic molecular pathways were awakened, sending stem cells to the area of injury. Unexpectedly, the regenerated hair follicles originated from non-hair-follicle stem cells.

“We’ve found that we can influence wound healing with wnts or other proteins that allow the skin to heal in a way that has less scarring and includes all the normal structures of the skin, such as hair follicles and oil glands, rather than just a scar,” explains Cotsarelis.

By introducing more wnt proteins to the wound, the researchers found that they could take advantage of the embryonic genes to promote hair-follicle growth, thus making skin regenerate instead of just repair. Conversely by blocking wnt proteins, they also found that they could stop the production of hair follicles in healed skin.

Increased wnt signaling doubled the number of new hair follicles. This suggests that the embryonic window created by the wound-healing process can be used to manipulate hair-follicle regeneration, leading to novel ways to treat hair loss and hair overgrowth.

These findings go beyond just a possible treatment for male-pattern baldness. If researchers can effectively control hair growth, then they could potentially find cures for people with hair and scalp disorders, such as scarring alopecia where the skin scars, and hair overgrowth.

This research was funded in part by the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskelatal and Skin Disease and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Other co-authors in addition to Cotsarelis are Mayumi Ito, Zaixin Yang, Thomas Andl, Chunhua Cui, Noori Kim, and Sarah E. Millar, all from Penn.

Cotsarelis and Ito are listed as inventors on a patent application related to hair-follicle neogenesis and owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Cotsarelis also serves on the scientific advisory board and has equity in Follica, a start-up company that has licensed the patent from the University of Pennsylvania. Cotsarelis was also a co-founder of Follica.

These findings are published in the May 17 issue of Nature.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

To repeat: “Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have found that hair follicles in adult mice regenerate by re-awakening genes once active only in developing embryos. These findings provide unequivocal evidence for the first time that, like other animals such as newts and salamanders, mammals have the power to regenerate.” To me, this seems to resonate with with Caleb’s statement “as real time media took over at the turn of the 21st century, a paradigm shift occurred in which humanity realized that time had ceased to exist. With everything happening all at once and available to everyone, the idea of linear time lost hold. Time became a flat surface and history no longer existed. At this moment, what had long been seen as the paradox of time travel was no longer viewed up as illogical and the concern with traveling back in time to change things in the future ceased to be of concern.” I understand that the context of Caleb’s quote is fictive, but I feel he raises a very real implication of current technology.

I feel that we have tinkered ourselves into a very interesting place where some potential forms are being realized that haven’t been prominent in a while, and we need to work to observe and understand these changes and potentials just enough to inform our tinkering so that we can benefit from the interaction of, specifically, two different temporal models existing simultaneously.

a brief note: Some people view evolution as a fight to the death, survival of the fittest, and winner take all. I see it as an interaction among elements within an environment where conditions favor the proliferation of different forms at different times – and nothing is ever, truly obliterated. Some form [species, etc.] may be dissipated to the extent that they exist as a potential outcome of a combination of other elements, but nothing ever literally and thoroughly ceases to exist. To me (and others, I’m sure), evolution can occur in elements other than genetic materials, and can affect change in any environmental property [gravity, speed of light, etc.]. I feel that there is an evolution of ideas that goes on in our species and what I’m writing about now is but one example.//

The potency (the degree to which the form can generate change) is in the synergy that results from the interaction of the two, their co-presence, their simultaneity – not in the struggle for dominance by one over the other, not in the illusory either/or, winner take all format. We’ve certainly lived through a lot of that, haven’t we, and how has that worked out for most of us?

I think we can manage this interaction of simultaneous and different synergistic elements if we carefully manage and balance our tinkering and thinking.

Now we’ll see if I take my own advice.

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