Trying to digest The Story, a visit to CERN and a talk by James Bridle in the space of 10 days has left my brain a bit boggled. It’s also made me think a lot about writing stories (which is kinda my job...)
After last year’s The Story I became slightly anxious about the tools I’ve been using for digital writing – a computer rather than a quill, a phone rather than my own voice etc. This year that anxiety bloomed into a full-blown worry about who gets to write stories at all.
It was noticeable at The Story, for example, that there weren’t that many writers on show at all. Instead there was a parade of artists, politicians, journalists, musicians, magicians, designers and datamongers all with extremely interesting stories to tell and various different ways of telling them.
Perhaps not surprisingly in these times, there was a distinct political edge to the stories that were being told – Tom Watson & Emily Bell ran us through Tom’s experience of doing battle with News International, Jeremy Deller picked away at the Miners Strike, Ellie Harrison explained why she’s tried to stop being a data addict in favour of bringing back British Rail, Danny O’Brien talked of anarchist hackers and billionaires sharing the same boat.
Beyond the obviously political angle, there was also quite a lot of talk of art - or indeed any of the other amazing forms of meaning-making that were on show at The Story - being not *enough* in itself; that every project needs to have a wider social purpose or some kind of utility.
Phil Stuart & Tom Chatfield told of a game that also helped teens come to terms with death and dying; Matthew Herbert likes to make music out of the sounds of life as we live it (or more specifically out of the sounds of a pig’s life as it lives it); Liz Henry’s story about the fake Syrian lesbian blogger seemed to express an anxiety that more important ‘real’ stories were being drowned out.
Ellie Harrison was the speaker who most directly spoke of 'art for art's sake' when she talked of abandoning her personal projects based on measuring herself and collecting & analysing personal data in favour of social activism and projects that required the presence and action of other people. She moved from telling stories about her world to stories about our world – or perhaps more accurately a future world that we could share (one with trains in it).
What has this got to do with CERN and storybots, you may ask? Well, I went to CERN on a trip organised by the Science Museum with a view to seeing how people from different creative backgrounds might try to make sense of some very big (and sometime very small) science. I guess the idea was to find a really good way to explain what CERN does, what the large hadron collider is and why things such as the Higgs boson, muons, neutrinos and the gluon plasma really matter.
Don’t worry – I’m nowhere near being able to talk clearly about this. But the key perception I came away with was that this is a story that may best be told by the physicists themselves and almost certainly will involve the mahoosive and complicated machines that have been built at CERN telling their own stories too – using the impossibly huge amounts of data that these machines generate to tell us what they ‘see’ when particles collide.
In other words, the machines and people that do stuff will also be in charge of the telling. And the telling will somehow involve the instructions and the theories and the equations and the engineering manuals and the code that lie behind the delivery of the project (or ‘experiments’ in the case of CERN). What will be left for an actual writer to do is open to question.
And this is where Bridle’s spambots come in. He gave a talk in Geneva last week at LIFT12 entitled 'We fell in love in a coded space' (and he then went to visit CERN – I swear the guy is following me around). It was basically a version of a blog post he wrote about his excellent Ship Adrift project but it also broadened out a bit to discuss the business of 'writing like a spambot'.
His point (I think) was that all the artificial systems that we’ve allowed into our lives, whether it be the stuff that processes passengers and their luggage in and through airports or autogenerated comments about Russian porn on our blog posts, they all deserve to have a voice, and indeed are trying to tell us something (perhaps telling us how much they love us?!). “They have agency. They're doing something,” says James.
And there we have it again. Having agency and doing something commands a respect that writing or telling a story just doesn’t.
James is imagining a future where we work with bots - the generators of spam, code, data, call it what you will - in order to help them tell their stories. CERN wants to use its machines, its experiments, its data to tell what might just be the greatest story ever told (about a particle). The speakers at The Story communicated a group concern about being 'of use' or being an active citizen.
And writers? Well, they need to find a use for what they do, I guess. Because a story for its own sake written from a single point of view – digital or otherwise - is increasingly looking like it isn't enough.