Algorithmic storytelling

In 2011, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world” — Amazon ate Borders, Netflix ate Blockbuster, cell phone cameras ate Kodak. Old businesses that stuck around were the ones that integrated software into what they did: Disney bought Pixar for computer animation, automakers turned to building computers on wheels that do everything except steer, and that’s coming.

I’m sensing a similar shift in the art world.

To be clear, software art isn’t going to put older methods of art-making and presentation “out of business.” But the march of software has breached the borders of art. There’s already a gallery, run by Google, called DevArt. And a School for Poetic Computation in New York. And a conference called Leaders in Software and Art. Visual art has embraced code.

So where is the narrative art created and experienced with software?

There are games, which often give you the ability to experience the aspects of a story world in the order and pace you choose. But the goal and major plot turns are the same every time you play. Ditto character development, when there is any. (I vaguely remember hearing of one game that presented a forked path at the end, allowing you to choose whether the character became a good guy or a bad guy. Sort of a visual choose-your-own-adventure book.)

Likewise, with hypertext fiction, all possible paths are mapped out for the reader before she begins.

What I’m thinking of is what is closer to this dispatch by Sean Flynn from the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program:

Doug Aitken’s “The Source (Evolving),” a six-channel video installation featuring 23 evocative, fast-paced conversations about creativity between Aitken and an eclectic cast of artistic pioneers from various disciplines and generations. The installation creates an immersive experience that begins with the viewer standing in the center of a 2,000 square-foot circular pavilion, surrounded on all sides by six looping projections and a cacophony of overlapping sound emanating from each. As the viewer moves toward one of the projections, short walls separating each screen bring the sound of that conversation into focus.

The intention, according to Aitken, is to “allow the viewer to create their own narrative, to splice together a series of ideas” by moving through the space. One could imagine the same material being woven together into a feature-length documentary, but instead the artist chose to present these conversations in a way that is “unmediated and unfiltered,” so that each visitor experiences them in a slightly different order and duration. In this sense, “The Source (Evolving)” might be labeled a “database documentary,” an emerging interactive genre that was on display in a variety of forms at New Frontier.

Notice that, just like a game, people control the order and duration of what they see. But unlike a game, in which there is a most efficient way to proceed through a preordained plot or set of tasks, in this case playing with the order and duration of the parts changes the meaning. There is no fastest way to play this documentary—it’s a different documentary every time you watch it.

The articles continues about another, similar project:

Perhaps most striking about this algorithmic approach to storytelling is that there is no director commentary, no central narrative that ties the women’s lives together, no big documentary lessons to be learned. Harris characterizes it as an “experiment with story DNA,” a tool to unearth “sub-stories” within a larger narrative. In this sense, the experience of navigating “I Love Your Work” places the user in a role akin to the documentary editor sifting through raw footage, looking for a story to emerge. Yet even in the absence of a traditional storyline, we can find voyeuristic pleasure (and meaning) in the opportunity to gaze momentarily into the daily lives of others.

I love that phrase, “algorithmic approach to storytelling.”

I haven’t had a chance to watch any of these yet. I wonder how satisfying they are to watch once the thrill of the experiment wears off. A large part of successful writing, one hears over and over, is assuring the reader you are in control of your story, that you aren’t wasting their time, that your hand is there to guide them, carry them. With algorithmic storytelling, that is no longer true. It might be too extreme to say that the creator hands over her part of the meaning-making project, but improvised narratives with machine collaborators definitely open the door to the reader/viewer reacting with “So what?”

Despite the specter of “So what?”, experiments continue. The Tribeca Film Institute and CERN are hosting a storytelling hackathon to explore storytelling using “visuals and data.” As with the Tribeca documentary examples, the experiments begin with material reflecting the real world. What I want to know is, Where is the fiction? Is it possible to apply algorithmic storytelling to fiction? Or is it that without either the constant guiding hand of the creator or the anchor of historical reality, “So what?” becomes too likely?

UPDATE: Turns out I’m behind the times. In 2008 a novel written by a computer was published. Humans took eight months to write the software, and the software took three days to write the book.

UPDATE 2: Now we are as far back as the 1960s.

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