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February 24, 2011


Phil Gyford

I'll have to think about it more, but I'm not sure about some of the things you think are the wrong tools for the job. Or why you think a quill is the right tool for the job? Isn't it just an older tool?

If you want to only use "natural tools" you should probably be telling stories orally, or acting them, rather than writing them down using man-made implements, on man-made materials. Either way, you'll still have to rely on a language created by man (unless you use mime) but it's probably as natural as you'll get. (This paragraph sounds facetious -- it's not supposed to be.)

I guess I'm just not sure why you feel that *different* ways of telling stories are the *wrong* ways of telling stories. I'm not saying you're mistaken, just that I don't understand what your argument is.


Hey Phil

I'm not sure I have an argument. Yet.

I've used the word 'wrong' here in the way it might be 'wrong' to use my shoe to bang in a nail rather then bother to go and get a hammer. You've correctly called me out on the fact that this actually doesn't mean therefore 'ineffective' or 'uninteresting' and could just mean 'different'.

I guess what I'm getting at is that sometimes we do seem to be using modern technology to complicate a process that could be simpler. Again, this isn't 'wrong' or A Bad Thing. I find it intensely interesting to complexify and nonsensicate things that should/could be straightforward. But why do I do that? Why?! Can I like a bad workman blame my tools?

What concerns me more is this idea that we're trying to create personal works with tools that are quite often business machines. Does this change the nature of the stories we can tell? Am I just some kind of unknowing stooge of the military-industrial complex if I write within a system that is based on Arpanet? (I'm joking here, but you can see that Curtis got to me).

I just wonder what would it be like to go back to a world where we make our own tools for writing rather than let IBM or Microsoft or Apple or Wordpress make them for us? Did people have this debate when they turned from pens to typewriters? I don't know.

As it goes, Phil, I thought your presentation about the mighty Pepys project did the best of anyone in explaining why it was worth going from the books to the blog and beyond - how things like linking and commenting and character mapping and tweeting etc actually enriched the reading/writing experience beyond what most people could hope to get from simply ploughing through the printed pages. In a sense, you've opened up what might have been a 'closed book' to a modern networked audience.

So in your case I can see how complexity and modern technology are not 'wrong'!

I guess I need to find a project and process of my own that really addresses my anxieties in this area.

Thanks for commenting!


try this... http://bit.ly/ehk0Wd
(last (bottom) thing on page)
Sadly you cant save it (I'm not that clever) - but could screenshot results. Also better with pen/tablet, like I got.

Mary Hamilton

Interesting thoughts. I'm intrigued by your suggestion that "froth" is somehow a reduction of narrative - I find it more a pure form, full of redundancy and overblown chaotic strands, that needs reducing itself in order to become coherent.

Like you, I enjoy the incongruity of using peculiar tools to tell stories - I've been playing with alt text on pictures, title text within hyperlinks, undecipherable codes, as well as things like NERF guns and foam fire axes. I'm not sure, though, that they're "wrong" tools - more that they're unusual, ambiguous, and the stories that come out of them often share those characteristics, I suppose? Hm. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


This is an interesting post Tim. I like the form following function aspect of your work. Your stand is like that of Walter Gropius at the outset of the Bauhaus when faced with the overblown ostentation of the Victorian era.
Like in the world of shrink wrapped creative software, if you use the complex tools that someone else has made, you write with their voice to an extent. I think narrative using web does misshape you, and I hate the hegemony of story and narrative at the moment, like narratology is the only game in town. I fantasise about putting on an Antistory event, one in which fleeting experiences are freed from the yoke of hypertextual interwoven (blah blah blah and so on and so on), one in which people do as you say, analogue or digital, through carving or coding, make their own creative tools. Thanks for sharing a thoughtful and erudite piece.


It depends what "the job" is, doesn't it?

I mean, I'd genuinely get a kick out of someone doing a rom-com in the form of an Access database. That doesn't mean it's the best way to tell a moving story.

On the other hand, maybe "telling a good story" isn't necessarily "the job" that's being done. But I think when we talk about digital narrative it's worth distinguishing between "good" meaning "novel, amusing, technically clever" (quite often, and is why I like these things) and "good" meaning "a good story, told in the best possible way." (Happens rarely.)

I'd argue that the Pepys Diary thing actually qualifies under that last interpretation. But, I mean, does ivy4evr *really* pack more punch than an episode of Skins? This "Pine Point" thing ( http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint ) is pretty neat by online standards but, seriously now, wouldn't it have been more powerful as a tightly edited linear video?

(Although, worth considering whether art is even about delivering impressions by the most efficient way... otherwise we might swap out Hirst's shark-in-a-tank for some writing on a wall, "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE AND IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPREHEND ISN'T IT?")

OK, here's a thought about "the job" that digital tools might be genuinely best at: when the notion of editing is either abandoned entirely or delegated to the viewer. When you want to get across a whole bunch of content without constraining it to a particular story (that theme again!) then doing things digitally is great. Maybe you create a fuzzy, impressionistic take on something by doing so. Or maybe you challenge the audience to create their own edits and tell their own stories with the content. Or piecing it together is a challenge for the reader. Or maybe you just can't be bothered. When there's no limitations and narratives and facts can happily sprawl out in all directions.

It's like, hey, now we can replace "The Shining" with a few thousand hours of CCTV footage from the Overlook Hotel.

I think all this transmedia stuff gets confusing because it's at the storm front between art and bizness. I love daft, ambitious experiments. There's a novel called Gadsby [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsby_(novel) ] which doesn't use the letter E. Brilliant idea; not necessarily the best way to tell a story. But if the technological equivalent came out today then bloggers and social media consultants would probably rave about how it was the future of literature and predict that 10 years from now, most books would use no vowels at all.


Doh! I see now from your various blogs that you clever people have been thinking about this story thing a lot more closely and carefully than I have.

Both Guy & Mary, in particular, have written really good posts recently:



There's *something* in all of our thoughts about fragmentation, no? And I'm intrigued about how drawn I am - a bit like Phil with Pepys? - to other writers' texts rather than creating anything of my own. Kidnapped, Riddle of the Sands, The Song of Urizen...

Coincidentally, I was interviewed about http://www.oldton.com recently and wrote this:

"Well, with Oldton I could still hide behind my screen, hide in my room and retain control over the work in some way. I think in the last few years I've been trying to challenge myself to get out in the world and talk to people face to face, allow the work to go wherever it will, allow it to be a bit shit even, and then try and make sense of it or 'script' it either on the fly or with simple authored outputs after the fact. So the physical fact of being out and about and of communing with people in real time, of being alive right here right now, is becoming important to me. So since Oldton the work has become more networked, a bit more 'live', a bit more social, less 'authored' and 'formatted' - and I sense I'm trying to disappear into the landscape - just leave ways and means for others to think about writing and creating and sharing rather than desperately wanting them to see *me* and *my* work."

I think this is relevant? Thanks for sharing your splendid thoughts, all.

p.s. Mary - my one-line reference to your fab presentation did indeed misrepresent the potential for 'froth'. forgive me.

p.p.s. sign me up for the AntiStory!!


oh this is an interesting post too!


go katy!


Fascinating discussion here - and Tim, thanks for this great blog post. It's wonderfully provocative - for me, in much the same way as Adam Curtis's talk was provocative. I'm intrigued by the way the discussion has progressed - from "wrong tools" and appropriating dominant media/culture/process. I think you and Guy really get to the heart of it here:

And I'm intrigued about how drawn I am - a bit like Phil with Pepys? - to other writers' texts rather than creating anything of my own.


When you want to get across a whole bunch of content without constraining it to a particular story (that theme again!) then doing things digitally is great. Maybe you create a fuzzy, impressionistic take on something by doing so. [...] Or maybe you just can't be bothered.

So much of the anxiety about narratives in the digital space seems to be focused - not on the storyteller - but the audience, the experiential I who is, to use Mary's lovely image, the story machine. It does feel like there's a genuine tension there - digital spaces offer endless curation and opportunities for collaboration, co-creation, fact-checking, undermining and annotation but shadowing that possibility is the hall-of-mirrors effect, the echo chamber in which everyone else starts to look a bit too much like ourselves. Does the focus of many eyes sharpen or blur?

I have to wonder as well, whether some of this discomfort with what constitutes good storytelling in the digital space (and I firmly include myself within the, uh, 'discomfited', oh dear) - has to do with the complexification of "authority" - if the story is edited, shaped, reassembled by each participant then this authority is diffused - and ownership is diffused as well. 20th C. notions of art are linked so closely with authors/auteurs - even in the film and televisual space, where the work must be created collaboratively, critical acclaim seems to follow auteur-creators. It's intriguing that our interest in behind-the-scenes, in the narrative of production and process has spiked as meaning multiply in the digital world. Do we really just want someone to tell us what they mean(t), are we trying to resurrect the cold corpses of the author because we are anxious about the responsibility? Can art really "belong" to us?

I think I've thoroughly diverted from the discussion by this point - but your post has made me think in fourteen different directions at once! Ultimately, I'm really loathe to admit that there are any wrong tools for the job - I see the digital space, and the kinds of things that the speakers were doing as a form of bricolage, tinkering, using materials at hand. Remix. But maybe the location of the problem isn't in Twitter or Excel or even the digital space particularly, but in the self, the I that is the ultimate narrative tool?


Do you mean the tools or the medium? Dickens wrote with a quill but published in magazine and novels. Einstein published papers and gave lectures. I guess you could argue that with the web the tools and the medium are sometimes the same.

Really interesting though, and I think you're all beginning to explore this medium of the web and its potential and it is only going to get better.

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