Category Archives: authorship

Offsetting the digital sales experience with stories

Oblique narrative pathways seem more than ever necessary to us as we want something more than a hard sell.   Take this Toast podcast which is a special Christmas project of book and podcasts intending, I suppose, to distinguish Toast from other online retailers. We want something which has been touched by human hand, or voice, and these kinds of slightly offbeat digital narrative projects help to put a face, a voice, a personal stitching hand, a sense of richness to the encounter which offsets the inhuman and functional aspects of the experience.

This is part of a bigger story called in a recent magazine article ‘The birth of nu-craft’. Writing about two exhibitions (one just past, called ‘Hot Craft’, and one just started at the V&A called ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’Fleur Britten writes about how craft has moved from being a ‘nesting pastime’ to an expression of creativity. Craft nights are springing up everwhere, including in unlikely places like working men’s clubs (a subject worthy of another blog sometime). The boundaries between craft, art and design are being blurred. We want the trace of the potters hand on the pot, both as potter seeking meaning in work expression, and as purchaser, seeking meaning in what we surround ourselves with. One of the interviewees in the article, Kate Westerholt (who co-curated Proud) sees is as akin to the Arts and Crafts movement, with people tiring of industrialisation and craving individuality.I don’t think it’s just that. I think there’s more too it, but it is a sign of an important trend.

I’ve been writing elsewhere about negative space, and, by inference, about the necessary slowness involved in the ambiguity of making your own meaning.This struck me too the other night when I was watching Pan’s Labyrinth, quite a chilling mix of fact and fantasy set in the Spanish Civil War. As with all Guillermo Del Toro’s films, there’s a great big allegory in there. What’s great and big about this one is that like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ the fusion of both fantasy and fact make for a whole new personal narrative journey. And you have to park your analytical mind because the meanings are not, as my friend Markie would term it, isomorphic. The surrender to ambiguity and random resonance during the experience is what makes it meaningful.

This all seems to me to be part of a bigger search for personal meaning. Which Doris Lessing was also saying in her Nobel Prize Speech at the weekend. We need storytellers and writers don’t come out of houses without books in them, she says. But beware: 

“The inanities of the internet have seduced a generation, and we live in a fragmenting culture where people read nothing and know nothing of the world, the new Nobel laureate novelist Doris Lessing warned yesterday…. “We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.” I’m off to read and write real fantasy now

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The man’s labour that did the work is in the work

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a little while. A by-chance thing about construction and knowledge and ownership. Cormac McCarthy’s play ‘The stonemason’ came in a batch greedy buy from the Oxfam shop down the road a while back. I’ve not finished it, but it’s been haunting me while I’ve been looking into knowledge and construction. It’s a play about 3 generations, in which stonemasrony becomes a metaphor for spiritual wisom somehow.

BEN: So who owns the stonework that’s not paid for?
PAPAW: Well, under the law you can get a lien on the work. You can claim it, but you caint take possession of it. The man you built if or, he can take posession of it, but he caint calim it. The law dont have no answer. Where men dont have right intentions the law caint suppley em. You just at a dead end.
BEN: Then no one owns the work?
PAPAW: The man’s labor that did the work is in the work. You caint make it go away. Even if it’s paid for it’s still there. If ownership lies in the benefit to a man then the mason owns all the work he does in the world and you caint put that claim aside nor quit it and it dont make no difference whose name is on the paper.

This deeply spiritual version of work must in my view be the version that we, the privileged educated cocooned, should hold onto in our search for meaning. And encourage for the generations to come.

The triadic relationship between persons, tools and a new collectivity

There was a recent article in the Observer about how French policemen, who have taking to writing novels and poetry, drawing cartoons, and rapping in an attempt to voice their grievances.

‘This is a totally new phenomenon,’ said Frederic Ploquin, a crime correspondent and police expert. ‘Before, the only people writing books were retired senior commissioners and your average plod was just a worker or peasant. Now a new generation of police with university degrees and culture are finding ways to express themselves while still serving in the force.’

(I’d be keen to know what ‘your average plod’ was in French.)

But it doesn’t suit everyone:

‘If the cops start rapping, what’s left for us?’ said Ahmed Messaoui, a teenage aspirant hip-hop star in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. ‘If he doesn’t like being a policeman, he should leave. Otherwise he should stick to arresting people and let us do the music.’

The article was brought to mind this morning by an interview on the Today programme on radio 4 about a new exhibition just opened by the National Army Museum. Thought to be the first ‘heritage display’ of an ongoing conflict

“The interactive exhibition depicts the troops’ experiences from the start of their tour of the region in April 2006.
Personal items, including worn-thin combat shirts, “contact” calendars, mugs made from mortar bomb packaging and pieces of shrapnel kept as mementos of war wounds, form part of the display.”

Objects and small items, containing personal stories of all kinds. Not just physical objects but media objects such as assaults recorded on mobile phones and posted to YouTube. Which takes me right back to yesterday’s draft blog, never completed, which was all about objects as it happens. If I can manage it, I’ll come back round at the end to what seems to be going on with these new kinds of voices and oral histories.

Yesterday was full of gifts, and if I were feeling cleverer I’d no doubt spin off into a nice philosophical detour about gift economies. Another time.

The first gift was an email from a client, who sent me a link to this New Scientist blog on Sherry Turkle’s new book ‘Evocative Objects’. Sherry Turkle has coined, or borrowed, the phrase ‘objects-to–think-with’ and talks of the way objects can evoke and contain memories and ideas. This is not a new idea, but I’m sure it’s well handled by her – she’s a good and thoughtful writer. Plus it’s interesting to see how many posts the blog has sparked off, which gives you a clue as to how intuitively people understand and appreciate that

‘just asking yourself what they mean to you can unlock a rich stock of memories, associations and insights into your thought processes that you may not be able to get at any other way’

We’ve used objects right since the very very beginning of sparknow’s work, in fact in the pre-history of sparknow. Partly in that evoking-and-containing way – and for developing this I owe a great deal to Steph Colton, the anthropologically inclined storytelling who no longer works with me. We’ve used them, for example, at lessons learned workshops at the end of knowledge pilots, as a way of accessing some real insight and emotion. People bring objects (a conker, a postcard of a swimming pool, a packet of chewing gum) and use these to say how they feel about the pilot. The conker ‘at first I thought it was just a game, like the children’s game, then as time went on I realised that actually it was also the start of something, a seed and the conker says both’. The swimming pool. ‘I felt as though I was diving off at the deep end.’ We take polaroid pictures and make a kind of postcard display immediately to create a kind of evocative lessons learned environment through having the exhibit both of pictures and of the objects themselves. And digital pictures which allow us to make a kind of object story book which can act, for them, as an aide-memoire later and in some unobtrusive way provide a closing ritual or touchstone as a memory for the whole experience.

Or this, for fun, which led to a 5 year engagement with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation:

“A few years back Sparknow attended the Knowledge Management Europe conference in Den Haag. In among a sea of laminations, screensavers and glossy brochures about technology, we ran a couple of workshops on story1. Transforming a previously neutral space – a ceiling-free pen in an aircraft hanger-style conference centre – we strung up washing lines, pegging to them objects and assets developed through our story work. To open our session one of our associates – a traditional storyteller – performed a story we had commissioned from her a couple of years previously about our first knowledge management project. Performing in this space she filled the whole exhibition hall with sound and music. People came to find us from all over the conference.”

Our client, Manuel, found us because of the singing and the objects and gave us great backing to work in all kinds of ways with story as a knowledge instrument in SDC over the next few years. I’ve attached probably the best object story which came from that time. (It’s at the end of the pdf if you want to speed things up).

Tales from a Bedouin Tent

The other gift from yesterday was from Clive.

I whipped down to Cass to have an emergency potboiler session and pick his brains about this 7,000 words I’m supposed to be cooking up on knowledge workers (again, if only I knew what a knowledge worker is). Anyway, after updating me on his marvellous Mystery Business MBA elective, on which I’ll write another time, I asked the normal question about whether I should do a PhD. No, but he put me onto the most glorious one done by a woman called Daria Loi, who presented the entire thing, objects, in a suitcase. She had to make 5 copies, so 5 suitcases:

‘lavoretti per bimbi – Playful Triggers as keys to foster collaborative practices and workspaces where people learn, wonder and play

The thesis explored ways to foster organizational spaces where collaborative activities can be undertaken using design tools and methods. I argued that for co-design activities to emerge participants have to be linked by ‘meaningful relationships’, hence emphasising that, before embarking on co-design processes, participatory design activities require participants to feel comfortable with each other, to be able to collaborate and to communicate shared languages.

Within this context I developed a series of tools called Playful Triggers and proposed them as effective tools to elicit relationships among their users so that they can learn together how to work together before undertaking co-design activities.

Due to the participatory methods and tools proposed in the research, I explored the opportunities for a thesis to become a place for participatory practices to emerge and to be an artefact where readers can physically, emotionally, and conceptually experience ideas rather than just read about them.

The thesis was consequently articulated adopting an anomalous format that: enables readers in constructing extra layers of meaning; includes them in asynchronous dialogues with author and future readers; lets readers appreciate the tools described in the thesis by touching and playing with them besides reading about them; and expands the thesis content beyond what words can define using textual and non-textual means.

A cardboard suitcase is the main container of the PhD research – a complex system incorporating textual and non-textual content that complement and amplify each other using metaphors as converging points.’

Now this line of thinking about containers and contents, objects, play and tools, must lead past Ivan Illich and his tools for conviviality (1973):

‘To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.” 3M (039)

After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen “convivial” as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools.’

A society in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers. Exactly so. I think that takes us rather nicely back to where we started. To our politically interrelated French rapping and poet policemen, to our serving army officers. Whose managers and chief superintendents and commanding officers are no doubt quite nervous at the loss of grip on the channels of communication. We now see the underbelly – work as it really is, our institutions and their authority as they really are. It puts me in mind of John Berger’s glorious post on Open Democracy a while back.

‘The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.’

There’s something else here about the implications for authority and leadership in a world where the voices of those lower down in the system can no longer be shut up because the new ‘tools for conviviality’, the loss of relationship of trust between the front line and the top (which means the deterrent to sharing your own story is no longer there), and the growing conviction that individuals can have their say, make organisational systems so leaky and vulnerable. Of course, in vulnerability lies the greatest strength of all. But most leaders aren’t ready to go to that place. Yet.

But before I finish I want to hang onto the idea of the container, the suitcase as it were. A suitcase, not a black box or a strong box. nothing which needs a combination. A suitcase which is easy to open, full of objects which evoke and contain memories and ideas. I need to get a bit messy and theoretical here and point out that I’m constantly trying to yoke together my two great intellectual loves when it comes to objects.

The first is the avant-garde. The notion that art, artistic performance and objects are to unsettle the status quo. But after the first wave of futurism, dada, surrealism, situationism, whatever, the wave inevitably crashes on the shore of bourgeois acceptance, the shock settles, and a new movement of disturbance starts. The the artistic ‘object’ is embedded, like a piece of grit in an oyster, in a place where it can rub things up the wrong way and get something happening.

The second is exchange-traded instruments. Here the container (the notional suitcase if you like) must be described in such a way that it contains objects (bonds, equities) which are similar enough to each other to create some kind of coherent experience which can be wrapped in a legal description which will allow the bundle to stick together and invite traders of all kinds to come and exchange transactions with each other.

I always bear this in mind when we design a piece of work. We always look for the ‘objects’ (reified, boundary objects, depending on whose terminology) which might be negotiated by individuals into becoming a collective definition of that particular community. I get confused at this point because I really that I’ve taken Jane Jacobs Guardian and Trader Systems of Survival and laid them over each other in my thinking in a way which I can’t quite pull off – and thrown in a little avant-garde disruption for good measure.

I think Ana Antonio Gill might be able to help me here. Her project ‘the value of memories’ points up very nicely the gulf between the sentimental and the financial value of a posession.

Whatever is going on here (whether community is one end of a spectrum and market at the other, both destructive at their extreme tendencies, or whether one can be laid over another in ways which hold onto their distinctively good qualities) , my instinct tells me that while I fumble to describe what it is I see when I lay out the programme for a piece of work in my mind, I’m heading in the right direction, even if I must for a short period be bundled into the woodshed and left there undisturbed while I think it through.

Fiction as a place of truth

I’ve written on this before and I’m bound to write on it over and over again because it’s at the very heart of our work as narrative enquirers in an organisational context.

It comes up for me again now because of the literary festival currently going on in London which has the theme of saying the unsayable A session I missed was with Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam. In an article preceding the session in the Guardian Kamila Shamsie writes of growing up in a censoring dictatorship in Pakistan, an era when the ‘absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies.’. She writes of the thrill of the effect of Shame, by Salman Rushdie, a book about politics in Pakistan:

‘Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10 too young to read the book – it was the first indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworth than the news.’

She goes on to say that fiction writers can go to places which news reporters and historians fear to tread. And all the same, the emotional truth which becomes possible through fiction is not possible without facts:

‘You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it.’

Another take on the truth and fiction comes in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. The subversive women’s book club she sets up reads first ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Nafisi says:

‘I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novles provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.

So for Nafisi, rather in the Chinese way, the dislocation of time and space and examination of the big stories of birth, death, love, freedom, oppression, through literature creates a freedom for the reader to see their own life through the window of another experience.

But what about another challenge of the truth – it’s relative dullness. In his brilliant book ‘Stuart, a life backwards’ Alexander Masters starts, in chapter 0, with a disappointed conversation with his subject (Stuart, Shorter: thief, hostage-taker, psycho, addict, raconteur):

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.”

And he suggests
‘Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’

And so that is what Masters does. Triumphantly. It is an extraordinary story. Stuart’s life backwards, and Alexander Master’s own growth and change through the challenge of grappling with both finding out this life and struggling with a way to structure and convey it. And not only that, in the background, as he learns of the bigger issues of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and the institutitions involved, an extraordinary, vibrant, informed picture grows of this whole issue of homelessness which transforms the reader’s insight. So fact, fiction, story structure, biography, autobiography all blend to convey a far greater truth than either the facts or the story on their own. An embrace of narrative and analysis.

Dave Eggers faced the same kind of issue in trying to share the story of Valentino Deng, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. In the Guardian Review of 26th May, there is a long, fascinating article called ‘It was just boys walking’ which details his struggle to wrestle the facts, gaps and partial recollections of his subject into a form which would engage the reader:

‘Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Franciso, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth…..I had been working on a book of oral hsitories from the lives of publics chool teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemlbe the book from his words. I even imagined for a while – much of our first year together – that I would simply be the editor of the book, not it’s author.’

But at the end of the first year Eggers realised that the material he had ‘did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaer articles already avaialbel to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes.’

After huge labours and an emotional rollercoaster, Eggers finally did four things to make a window through which the truth and strength of the story could be conveyed:

1. He did source research himself, going to Sudan to fill in the gaps and increase the richness of the description
2. He wrote it as fiction

This raises some interesting issues for Thomas Jones, reviewing the book in the London Review of Books. In a genuinely favourable review, he raises some pertinent questions about authorship and ownership, which I’ll write more about another time:

‘And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a ‘variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.’

3. He used the more recent experiences of Deng, being mugged in his own home in the US by people he didn’t know as a framing device:

‘It was at this time I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino’s expeirences in Sudan ajd the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US.’

And finally, he underpinned the structure with an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan, which gave the book it’s final title ‘What is the What’

And then this today from Knowledge at Wharton on Michael Crichton’s new book ‘Next’. The article is called ‘A Novel on Genetic Research: It’s ‘Fiction, Except for the Parts That Aren’t’

A few extracts to get the juices rising, my bold:

‘In Next, published in November 2006, Crichton takes up genetic engineering again, this time from the vantage point of the law.

Next weaves together several storylines in order to trace the complex and confusing interplay of scientific innovation, legal loopholes, moral limits and economic opportunity.

Together, these real and imagined stories create a troubling portrait of a teeming biotech industry marred by corporate greed, legal confusion and moral uncertainty. Crichton’s is a world in which marketing executives promote the idea of using genetically modified animals to sell their products. It’s a world in which lawyers debate whether one’s body parts might actually be the highly profitable property of someone else. And it’s a world in which no one knows how to think through the biological and ethical dilemmas posed by a science that can rearrange natural boundaries at will. What people in this world are left with, in the absence of scientific and moral clarity, is the corrupting promise of unlimited economic opportunity and a legal system that is frighteningly ill-equipped to cope with the kind of ethical puzzles genetic research raises.

Crichton’s point is that as science outpaces the understanding of lawyers, judges, and government officers, our ability to maintain a coherent legal position on it is being radically compromised. And, as the examples cited above show, he has written convincingly on this point for some time. In Next, he crafts a novel around this argument as a way of painlessly developing it (a fast-paced story is always easier to follow than a complicated analysis). This might sound like cheating. And from an analytical viewpoint it does leave something to be desired. But a novel offers Crichton something nonfiction does not: It provides him with a way to help readers use their imaginations to grasp the implications of the law as i now stands

.’

it’s evident in new kinds of scientific research, futures work and horizon scanning, this kind of blend of fact and fiction, present reality and future imagined states will become a necessary form, because only through hybrid vehicles of this kind can we have the kinds of debate and be moved to the necessary actions which we need to have as a society, a nation, and beyond national, cultural and educational boundaries. It’s worth taking a look at some of the work done by Defra (and in part commissioned from Sparknow) in their Horizon Scanning and Futures unit to explore this further.

I feel strongly that all these structural devices, the blend of fact, fiction, biography, autobiography, metaphor, myth, folktale, legend, traditional stories, the reorganising of time from liner to parallel to reversed, must all be explored by us who seek to do work using story and narrative in the context of organisations, to find ways to show people themselves and others, the worlds and systems they live and work in, the differences they can make. We must not be sucked into the pointlessness of the business case study in our attempts to render our lives, and the lives of others, truthfully. I’ll just keep on coming back, over and over again, to Clifford Geertz but Clifford Geertz plus.

‘In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.’

[From the introduction to Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, 1968]

In our narrative enquiry, we must hold onto our role as miniaturists and act as custodians who find ways to get people to see and hear and feel those tiny moments which hold huge difficult truths. And to do this we must play with new forms of representation to make sure what we make tears in the fabric that has been so cunning woven, which deludes us that the way organisations report on themselves, because apparently factual is truthful. It is not.

I’ve always liked, in this respect, the Buddhist notion of having a deep grasp of the past and taking a long view of the future in order to understand the now.