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Last update: 25th July 2008

Stories

As a communication process, storytelling seems to be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It is a form of remembering and explaining with which children become competent early in life. Stories are many things to many people but always suggest the relating of events that take place around one or more protagonists. Of course, the sorts of events, and the perspectives on those events, vary as widely as the human imagination can reach. Nevertheless, the way they are recalled and retold depends upon the abilities of the storyteller to sequence and ascribe relations between agents and objects. I am interested in stories because they can serve as a powerful way for people to draw on their experiences to make sense of a situation. Especially when one considers the business of storytelling as a conversation between a storyteller and those to whom the story is being told.

There is skill in the telling of a tale so that the narrative thread is not lost to those who listen. Storytelling is an accessible mechanism for constructing, conveying and interpreting ideas, regardless of educational or cultural background. They are capable of conveying sophisticated and powerful ideas through the events and the characters they involve. To illustrate this, I have linked to a couple of digital stories from www.bristolstories.org:

Storytelling involves the reconstitution of elements in a sequence and adjusting the inclusion of detail in relation to the persons to whom the story is being told. The reconstitution of these things into sequences (people, cars, buses) in places (city, road, living room) relies upon structural knowledge of the world and of familiar patterns of action. It can accommodate side sequences ('meanwhile Tom was running for the bus') and temporal and spatial discontinuities ('two months earlier, that same car had been driven by Mary two streets away').

Stories are powerful mechanisms for organising information for the purpose of communication. Stories can be told with or without the use of materials but may benefit from the availability of things that help represent what is going on. Salt and pepper pots can become football players, in the retelling of a football event, or racing cars, for fans discussing an overtaking manoeuvre. Stories are about the past but frequently reflect on the future: they can become devices for considering what might be better done next time, or to countering suggestions by expressing prior knowledge.

I have been working with computer vision and machine learning researchers, John Collomosse and Graham McNeil, to see how research on episodic memory can help people search for video clips. We have investigated how people draw on their experience of seeing a video clip to construct a sketch. We have used our observations to derive a sketch-based retrieval algorithm.

I am interested in how stories are used by people to help organise and relate their memories of the things that they have experienced. I am also interested in them as a fundamental mechanism for sensemaking that relates to temporal structure and agency in relating events and serving purposes to articulate concerns and agendas in difficult situations. Matt Billings and I have been investigating conflict and conciliation strategies in Alternative Dispute Resolution. We have approached the problem in terms of articulating and responding to and developing alternative narratives. We have been asking whether communication technologies can provide new opportunities for reframing conflicts by offering a risk-controlled environment within which alternative narratives may be formulated.

Digital media are empowering people to consider themselves in a new light, and reflexively to position the use of digital media and language as a mechanism for self expression.

Technology and Social Action

There are many elements that make up society. Citizens, businesses, governments local regional and national, service organisations ... the list is long. Society requires involvement of civil groups and factions if it is to remain relevant and vital. I am drawing upon my work on participation and contention through computer media to research new ways of engaging people with activist groups so that they empowered to take social action. In 2005,

The Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council sponsored an initiative to investigate new ways of thinking about designing Technology and Social Action. The majority of HCI and CSCW research has been aimed at commercial or service (e.g. hospitals) organisations. There are some significant opportunities to ask relevant questions and to find meaningful answers about effective technological support for not-for-profit groups. It's an overgeneralisation but by and large these groups are focused on achieving some measure of societal change. The TSA Cluster sought new ways of giving ordinary people a voice and a platform, to underpin their stake in society. I worked with members of the cluster, in particular Clodagh Miskelly and Ann Light , to consider the potential of storytelling with this in mind.

At the final TSA event, I did a presentation on how narrative and drama had been treated in our work within the cluster. Copies of the presentation can be downloaded in three formats:

Attempts to make sense of a narrative concept for social action can be seen as a story concept grid.