Interactive Personal Narratives

The Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) conference kicked off in Vancouver today with an excellent keynote from Peter-Paul Verbeek. In addition to Verbeek's fascinating thoughts on the mediative nature of technology, there were a lot of interesting presentations throughout the day. There was one paper in particular that really caught my attention: "Interactive Personal Storytelling: An Ethnographic Study and Simulation of Apartheid-Era Narratives" by Ilda Ladeira and Gary Marsden. 

Ladeira (who now works at Microsoft Bing) presented an ethnography from her PhD at University of Cape Town. She spent several years observing the "resident storytellers" at the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Just to give a quick history of the area, District Six is a neighborhood in central Cape Town and during apartheid in the 1970s everyone who lived there was forcibly removed and the neighborhood was razed. To this day, the area remains vacant. Near the edge of the land, there is a museum dedicated to telling the stories of District Six and its residents. Ladeira observed two museum guides who told their personal stories to the museum's visitors. The focus of her research was to think about what would happen when all of the District Six residents have died, which will happen within the next 20-30 years. What will happen to their stories? This isn't an uncommon concern. As time moves forward, we lose generations who have first-hand experience of historical events and, often, their stories die with them. 

District Six Museum, Cape Town

District Six Museum, Cape Town

One might argue that we could simply record all the personal narratives and keep them forever. In a sense, this is true. We can maintain a kind of record of these narratives, but one of the key facets of the District Six stories is that they are somewhat interactive. The guides engage the visitors by asking questions and inviting questions and encouraging a back and forth conversation. That kind of experience is very difficult to capture. During her research, Ladeira discovered some key aspects of the narratives, and pulled out 5 repeated narratives, which the storytellers shared with every group that came to the museum. She then created an interactive storytelling prototype to evoke the same kind of experience that one might get in-person at the museum.   

What was so strange about this paper is that I remember having this exact conversation about ten years ago when I lived in Cape Town. I visited the District Six Museum, and afterwards talked with a few friends about personal narratives and we wondered what would happen to stories after the storytellers died. Of course, at the time, it didn't occur to me to replace these people with interactive technology (honestly, even now, that wouldn't occur to me) but it was so exciting to see Ladeira's research. She is trying to solve a very important problem. But I am left with a lot of questions. Understandably, her prototype was a bit primitive and she admitted as much, but even looking beyond that (I could certainly imagine a snazzy, polished version of her software) there are some fundamental aspects of human storytelling that are excluded from the digital experience, such as the individual personality of the storytellers, their sense of humor, their ability to capture details, and shape their own memories in unique ways. How can a computer do any of this? How can a computer field questions when it doesn't have the experience ingrained within it? I'm not convinced that we can replace a human storyteller with any kind of digital tool, or that we would even want to. Nevertheless, this paper was really provocative, and even though we don't yet have the capabilities of fully capturing the human experience via a digital system, we must consider new ways to maintain interactive personal narratives. Will be very interesting to see where this research goes in the future.