I was flattered to be invited to talk at Matt Locke’s “The Story” conference recently. ‘Conference’ is probably the wrong word. It’s more a Confluence – of thoughts and ideas about narrative in all its forms; its proponents, its enemies, its wise old heads, its enthusiastic upstarts and the technologies and methods that influence them.
I missed the morning sessions because I was on a plane returning from Seattle but heard many people talking positively about what had transpired, most notably a presentation by Karl James of The Dialogue Project. (Luckily Karl recorded a rehearsal for his talk and you can download it and read his thoughts on the event here).
The brief, as provided by Matt, was achingly simple and vexingly open-ended – essentially “tell us a story, or tell us about stories”. Due to that flight I only caught the final few sessions to see how other people had interpreted that brief but liked what I saw.
I’m was blown away by the stories Martin Parr captured in his photography (a medium I’ve never really been a big consumer of) and have vowed to look up more of his work. Sci-fi storyteller and Boing Boing mainstay Cory Doctorow in conversation with comedy writer Graham Linehan was a hoot. It’s always nice to see a quick wit in action – and Linehan has a preternatural ability to find a jokey tangent or punchline bullseye with seemingly no effort at all. His self-effacing dry humour almost (almost) distracts you from the realisation that the man is clearly one of the sharpest knives in the draw. (And as one tweeter remarked, it was nice to be at a conference where a reference to ‘Ted’ wasn’t citing Chris Anderson’s Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, but the magisterial sitcom Father Ted, which Linehan co-wrote).
My positive experience seems to chime with the general reaction – although not everyone was happy. One blogger found the event cliquey – (“the whole thing felt like a rather incestuous social media circle jerk, rather than a thoughtfully curated and coherent event” she wrote). It certainly was the case that a lot of the speakers know Matt (and each other) quite well – after all, it’s Matt’s event and his CV rather insists he knows lots of people interested in storytelling. (For my own part there was no incestuous jerking. I only met Matt when he called me to ask if I might take part and I had never met any of the other speakers before)
On a personal note I was pretty nervous to be going on stage last, trying to be funny (after Linehan), talking about the future (after Doctorow) and using photos I’d taken to illustrate some points (after Parr). I was also only surviving on adrenalin having not slept for over a day while crossing time zones. The most obvious result of this was I managed to talk very fast, even for me.
Naturally I chose to concentrate on the narrative of the future, this being my key interest (and I suspect why Matt asked me to take part) and re-iterate one of the biggest bees in my bonnet – that we can’t make a better future until we can imagine it. I elected to throw in as many of the inspiring ideas and technologies I’d found in my research into my allotted twenty minutes. The problem, of course, in doing that is that I neglected (somewhat out of necessity, but now on reflection, also by oversight) to balance that with the true immensity of the grand challenges we face and the troubles that inevitably lie ahead with all our technologies. That’s all in the book of course, but the omission caused one tweeter to accuse me of being ‘ahistorical’ – which given my approach was probably fair from where she was sitting.
My own personal mission is to promote an optimism of ambition about our future, and couple that with our best creative and critical skills to realise those ambitions. It’s obvious stuff but not enough people are saying it. Going into the future thinking it’s rubbish could become a dangerous fait accompli. I don’t mind pessimists (I like to call them ‘critical friends’ who keep you sharp and raise all the important challenges) but I refuse to let any of them even dare take the idea of a better future off the table. It’s as lazy an attitude as wishful thinking, that allows you off the hook of the responsibility we all have to improve things for each other.
A final thought on stories. They’re only one weapon in reclaiming the future. Not everything is a story and nor should it be. Systems are not stories, although stories live in systems (and sometime influence them). For example, the climate is one system we won’t understand (and the consequences of it changing) only by telling stories.
My colleague Katherine Rose at Flow Associates pointed me in the direction of this talk by Philip Trippenbach, who says “Maybe journalists shouldn’t tell stories so much. Stories can be a great way of transmitting understanding about things that have happened. The trouble is that they are actually a very bad way of transmitting understanding about how things work.”
So, The Story made me reflect on when stories work in building a better future – and when they are a distraction. Overly optimistic stories from a wishful thinking crowd do as much damage as pessimistic ones that crush our ambition.