Category Archives: storytelling

New ways of seeing

Storyline threads

My husband has sometimes wished for a way to track characters in a book as he’s reading. He often reads several books at a time, so progress through one is slow, and it’s easy to lose track of events or who’s who. Today he came across an example of one way someone did that for several films (it should work equally well for books, I think). It traces intersecting story threads in a simple but effective way. We’ve both wondered whether authors use such devices for themselves when plotting a book.

Looking at the top map, for Lord of the Rings, the creators used different colors to represent hobbits, elves, men, and other creatures. Time flows from left to right, and important events and locations, such as Bilbo’s party and Isengard, are represented in different places on the map.

It’s interesting to compare maps of different stories, on the bottom row. The map of 12 Angry Men shows 12 parallel threads. Without seeing the movie, this is ambiguous, because it could be interpreted either as all interacting together the entire time, or having no interaction. (Adding context, such as an enclosing space labeled “Jury Room”, could help.) It looks like Primer would be confusing: Just three characters, whose lives intertwine messily, with no landmark places or times, and whose final fates are unclear! I suppose some lives feel like that at times. (I found out it’s about time travel, from this Wikipedia entry.) From xkcd, via Flowing Data.

Evolution of thinking

I have trouble, sometimes, committing myself to a conclusion, because I recognize that my understanding is always evolving as I get more information and consider more points of view. Many scientists and others seeking “truth” can probably relate. The evolution of one scientist’s thinking over the course of 13 years is traced in a visualization of changes in six editions of one of his books. With different colors representing each edition, if you let this play out, you see how words are added and removed, and, dramatically, how an entirely new chapter is added. I also discovered that if you hover your cursor over a section, you can read the words, in the color representing the edition in which they were added. The work traced is Charles Darwin‘s famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, first published in 1859, with the 6th edition published in 1872. From Ben Fry, from this CNN article, “A new way of looking at the world”, via Flowing Data.

Plowing the Dark

Here’s a description of an economics simulation made visible in a virtual reality room:

A crimson comet, at ten o’clock, just above the horizon, paints an upturn in third-quarter commodities. A rose of starbursts means stubborn unemployment.
Hidden relations spill out, suddenly obvious, from a twist of the tabular data. Tendencies float like lanterns across the face of a summer’s night.

In this room of open prediction, facts flash like a headland light. The search flares burst around you where you stand, lost in an informational fantasia: tangled graphical dances of devaluation, industrial upheaval, protective tariffs, striking shipbuilders, the G7, Paraguay, Kabul. The sweep of the digital – now beyond its inventors’ collective ability to index – falls back, cowed by the sprawl of the runaway analog. Five billion parallel processors, each a world economy, update, revise, negate one another, capsize the simulation, pumping their dissatisfied gross national product beyond the reach of number.

(From Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers)

This is from a book I’m reading in which the author imagines the power of visualization which may soon be available through further advances in computing technology. The beauty of this is that it is a NOVEL, not a dry technology forecast, or glossy marketing brochure. The power of storytelling triggers our emotional and imaginative response, allowing us to connect with this future as a reality. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, in which people interacted in the online “metaverse” via “avatar” personas – a vision of Second Life (“SecondLife is a 3D online digital world imagined, created, & owned by its residents”). While Plowing the Dark is strictly in prose (no graphics), it paints a vivid picture of the power of visual representation to extend our awareness and understanding. I’m not far enough into it to know whether he explores the potential of the technology to further our wisdom, or explores its downsides as well as its benefits. I suspect he examines both sides, as there was already an example of one programmer developing a black eye from a “collision” with a virtual branch!

This book illustrates the principle behind scenario building. A vivid, multi-sensory, plausible scenario causes us to feel the impact of a situation, motivating us to take steps to bring it about, in the case of a desirable outcome, or prevent its occurrence, in the case of an undesirable future.

By the way, you don’t have to be a computer geek to enjoy this book. The technical details are described at a high level as an artist character seeks to understand her role in the project, and to contribute to it, and to explain the excitement and dedication (or obsession!) of her fellow researchers.

The bottom line: Whether through story, or scenarios, or graphical representation, visualization is extremely powerful for an individual or group to create a desired outcome, whether that is a new product, a solution to a tough problem, or a better world.