Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Oct. 23rd
StoryWorld! Land of experimental multi-cross-trans-media storytellers, studio executives, tech wunderkinds and defense contractors!
I took home a lot from this year’s StoryWorld in Los Angeles. Not the least of which was a bad case of ConSars (the nasty head cold that comes from staying too long under recycled air with the same group of people). But my respiratory issues are the least interesting part of this dispatch, even if it does explain why it’s taken days to get around to filing this.
While there are a lot of interesting side stories– like the one about the “gentleman thief” whose business card has a magnetic strip which he uses to clone hotel card keys with– for this dispatch I want to talk about the two biggest take-aways from the last day of the conference. One shows just how serious all this talk about multi-platform, transmedia experiences is. The other, I believe, unveils the artistic heart of an emerging movement.
WHEN DARPA CALLS
DARPA: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Institutional godfather of the Internet. Developers of the most gee-whiz technology on the planet. And the deadliest. Avid ARG fanatics.
Most people don’t get that there really is a Military-Entertainent Complex. The Defense Department mines the creativity of Hollywood types as if it was a rare radioactive isotope. Sometimes it’s to imagine scenarios that a career military mind just wouldn’t come up with. Other times it’s to get their insight on that whole “winning the hearts and minds” thing. Better known as propaganda.
You might be familiar with the old Disney cartoons from WWII… but what was discussed at briefly on the dais during one of the panels was something far stranger. Nor was it uncontroversial. The invocation of the word “DARPA” led to a quick exchange of words between three of the panelists. One admonished the panelist who brought up DARPA, asking him if he was sure that the project didn’t involve war fighting. (He assured that panelist and the room that it did not.)
The project is oh-so-brief question: a program that would model social media distribution in a manner similar to weather patterns. The military and diplomatic applications are pretty obvious: if you had a sufficient understanding of the way that information disseminated in volatile part of the world you could place resources and assets in the proper place to deal with leaks, panics, and blowback. Before they spread. You could also sew disinformation in the most fertile ground.
It’s an interesting metaphor, if it can hold up.
There are also non-military applications. Imagine a marketing firm with that kind of insight into the public’s behavior. Knowing just where to inject messaging into the market so that it would go viral. It’s a publicist’s wet dream.
I’m going to take the long road here for a second, but bear with me.
I got exceptionally frustrated with the state of online “film criticism” in the past few months. Many “critics” are really just practicing the art of consumer reviews, entertaining their readership without bothering to understand what it is the filmmakers are trying to communicate. Fitting every film into a template they gleaned from school or one of the countless “how to” books on movies.
Of particular interest would be the reaction to films where you could see the opinions of filmmakers and film critics become diametrically opposed online. The more ambitious the filmmaker, the more likely they were to land on the other side of the opinion scale from the more pedantic bloggers. Something was shaping up in my head about the difference between makers and self-styled critics.
I settled on the following as my starting point for exploring this territory: the final film isn’t assembled by a director or editor, it’s assembled by each member of the audience. In their head. I had landed in the realm of phenomenology, and it took Brian Clark to point this out to me.
Clark is the head of the experience design firm GMD Studios, former publisher of IndieWire, and has worked on a range of projects in the fields of game design, brand journalism, and transmedia experiences for the last 16 years. Clark saw that the academically infused community of creatives working across disciplines were “tying ourselves into knots” while trying to talk about the work they have been doing.
He believes he has found the sword with which to cut that knife in the philosophical underpinnings of phenomenology. The philosophical thread that puts experience at the center of reality, audiences at the center of art. In a blog manifesto sketch from before StoryWorld Clark writes:
I’m excited that because these techniques are based on how people experience anything and everything, they are the most universal principles of design. I’m part of a heritage of artists, philosophers, scientists and designers who have been inspired by this idea, called phenomenology, for more than a century. I choose to follow in their footsteps and re-awaken people’s sense of wonder.
The talk Clark gave at the conference had the room rapt and concluded with a standing ovation from a good part of the crowd. This was the only time I saw that room full of creatives, marketers, and executives react that way. Clark hit a nerve: a framework that became a call to start an art movement from the work that experience designers in all disciplines have been doing.
But why take my word that Clark’s talk was, well, phenomenal? Scott Walker of Transmedia LA, who we have had the pleasure of talking with before, recorded a live stream of the event and has archived it online. The talk kicks off with some in-jokes about the state of “transmedia” as a term, and then leapfrogs past that into a solid ground floor for future conversations about the bleeding edge of media and design.
Note: the video IS an lifestream archive, so you’ll need to speed forward a bit to get to the talk itself.