Via The New York Times today comes this story about the creation of a new mini-lab hosted by MIT’s Media Lab to attempt to “revolutionize how we tell our stories, from major motion pictures to peer-to-peer multimedia sharing” — as the press release describing the new effort modestly proposes.
It will do so, the announcement goes on to declare,
By applying leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational and social, researchers will seek to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process, bridging the real and virtual worlds, and allowing everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web.
And lastly the nascent Center for Future Storytelling is down with the tech side of the issue:
Center research will also focus on ways to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including developing next-generation cameras and programmable studios, making movie production more versatile and economic.
I mostly post this for general interest reasons: there may be some of you for whom news of a tech-centered approach to narrative will stimulate ideas, projects or even a possible collaboration or visit to 02139.
But I do have a couple of quickie reactions, born of no more knowledge than the two sources linked above. The first is that it looks to me like the Times reporter did not quite grasp the significance of MIT culture and the specific history and practices of the Media Lab. The NYT piece emphasizes what it sees as the destruction of narrative produced by Hollywood blockbuster productions, and uses the Media Lab announcement as a kind of validation to suggest that eggheads and members of a Hollywood-diaspora are coming together to rescue storytelling from Jack Sparrow’s mincing embrace.
At the top line, the Future Storytelling people are happy to play that role. But dig down into the MIT initiative and something that more seasoned observers of my home institution could have predicted starts to become clear.
That is: MIT is first and still most an engineering school. The Media Lab itself is part of the School of Architecture, but the basic approach to media is technology and not content driven.
You can see that here. The headline may be the ambition to revolutionize the making of narrative, but the details as described so far all about process, not the actual act of engaging some one or many in a new tale.
To put that another way. We are already experiencing the fact of technological change in the creation of mass and interactive media. Movie making is already cheap. $5,000 cameras and professional laptop editing systems that add maybe a grand or so to the cost of a computer bring video narrative into the realm of the possible for almost anyone. (Even if not an individual — you can still find this tech at institutions like public libraries (for the computers) and public access cable outlets. If you really, really want to make a movie, nowadays, the gear itself is not the impediment.
Interactive story-telling? All sorts of free platforms exist to do so in text, spoken word, still and moving image. They may not be perfectly tailored, but the spreading tentacles of what began as the blogosphere show that the forms of interactive and community conversation are alive and well.
And so on. There are some amazingly cool things going on at the MIT media lab — see for one example among many Ramesh Raskar (one of the new center’s co-directors) and Dennis Mlaw’s project to create a wearable motion capture fabric. Such research and much else besides holds out enormous promise for the creation of tools with which to advance communication through any number of genres.
But I guess it is the claim of insight, or even interest in storytelling as a form rather than as an ongoing engineering practice that leaves me a little uncertain. When project co-founder David Kirkpatrick tells the Times that “The idea, as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling, is to try to keep meaning alive,”I don’t quite get it. Bluntly: technology and its deficits does not constrain good story telling in Hollywood or anywhere else. Rather, it all rests on the quality of the script or its genre-appropriate equivalent.
This isn’t to say that the Media Lab or its funders shouldn’t try to make the most innovative cameras imaginable, or come up with software that permits things as yet undreamt of to connect individuals in this world of pain. It’s not even to argue that new technology does not play a role in the evolution of new forms; self evidently they do.
Think about the emergence of the novel as a major form after the adoption (in Europe) of movable type — and then the rise of genre fiction enabled by the less noticed innovations that created a supply of cheap paper on which the penny dreadfuls could be printed. But in the end storytelling comes back to the quality of story creation, which at bottom is platform agnostic. I’m glad the Media Lab has got a new pile of money in this benighted time with which to pursue the kind of technological sweet spots that have always animated that group’s greatest passions. I just quarrel with the implied (and occasional explicit) conflation of the tools with the thing to be made.
I guess I qualify as a fogy. When I and my grad students start thinking about storytelling, we begin back at the beginning, here. For a view of the problems Hollywood creates for would be storytellers in film, you could do worse than read this. Its author, David Mamet, has no shortage of views. But he understands the telling of tales a bit, I’ve heard — and this other brief, three part essay precisely maps the classical structure of narrative drama.
Image: Albert Bierstadt: “Campfire Site, Yosemite,“ 1873.