Storytelling, the future, overstated or infinite potential. Trying something kooky, like watching Marmeladov die in the street while Raskolnikov’s dreamed mare is beaten to death above him.
Or: Imagine your students in the center of an empty basketball arena, which you have filled with car-sized renders of astrocytes and neurons, flickering with chemical wattage, manipulable. Your students fan out, bringing axons together with hand-gestures, then take the whole space away with them to their individual dorm rooms, where the cells are now the size of golf balls but their dynamic features (and labels) remain.
One of those students ends up going to a medical school where they study a man’s brain through his skull. She asks him to tilt his head this way and that while she and her classmates step around him.
“He thinks I’m an alien robot,” the man’s wife says, standing with her arms crossed in the corner of the room.
“Silence, creature,” he hisses.
Our medical student doesn’t really pay attention because she sees the bean-shaped tumor putting pressure on his temporal cortex, thinks his hippocampus may be blocking direct surgery, is trying to find an alternative route, and anyway the man’s facial expression is entirely occluded by his brightly colored thinking parts.
Inevitable questions arise about how this changes the educational experience. Some concern, some optimism, some streaks of fantasy-rhetoric bulwarked by terms such as singularity and solution and downfall. The reality is that AR is already upon us, but it’s new enough that no one knows, entirely, what to expect from it. Cambridge is developing the brain overlay described above, next generation smartphones are getting dedicated AR chips, and then there’s Google Glass, already regarded for its creepshot potential. We feel that AR experiences are going to become more integrated into our daily lives, but how much will our experience of virtual and physical information bleed together, and what will that be like, and will it be useful, or will it not be very much of a change after all?
In our interview, Jennifer Moss said that the future is now. Which makes us educators antsy, because we feel particularly responsible for the future.
My coworkers and I have sat in our conference room debating just how excited we should be. One argument is that education changes in some fundamental way when, for instance, teachers can overlay the internal structures of buildings upon the faces of the buildings themselves, for architectural students to study as they walk around it, through it, putting their hands out and tracing the studs, the conduit, the glowing weight-bearing beams. The counter argument is that students can already do this at their computers, the only difference being that both the building and its components are virtual. Importantly, the skeptics feel that AR may well improve education; they just feel that the much talked-about thrill predicating a paradigm shift may be misinformed.
AR’s future is unclear like that, across all disciplines as far as I can tell. I’ve met a lot of people who are very excited about it and can rattle off a hundred examples of how it could be used in multitudes of awesome ways, like those I gave above, but their enthusiasm usually stutters when it comes to articulating exactly how those are fundamentally different from experiencing the same effects through a computer monitor, or in your imagination. What is changed by blending real-time experience of the actual with the augmented in physical space? That’s difficult to argue when we seem to hardly understand what we’re talking about.
Which is why the “Media Studies, Mobile Augmented Reality, and Interaction Design” article that Jennifer Moss writes about really stirred the pot here in our office. Bolter, Engberg and MacIntyre argue that AR is a polyaesthetic experience, being that it involves the “senses of sound, sight, and touch,” but more importantly because it locates us both “‘here and there’ … We see one world when we look beyond the phone and another when we look at the screen and move it around.” When we are “here,” in our own proprioceptive space — walking to lunch, say — we are not “there,” in a constructed story-space such as a novel, a painting, a film, or a videogame. These two conditions being distinct, the transition between them being jarring (authors strive to keep you in the novel, not to knock you repeatedly out of it), Bolter et. al suggest “that [AR] mobile apps may not provide a good storytelling medium, at least if we think of stories as absorbing, immersive experiences like those of a compelling Hollywood-style film.”
In her article, Jennifer disagrees with Bolter, Engberg and MacIntyre inasmuch as she believes AR could become an immersive storytelling tool in its own right, though she’s also careful to say that her conflict may be on a somewhat semantic level. I too think semantics are an issue here — the word “immersive” is problematic, for instance. I at the same time agree with Bolter et. al to a certain extent. However, I think the distinction between “here” and “there,” as well as between “story” and “narrative,” a distinction the authors of “Media Studies” don’t seek to make, are more complicated than have so far been laid out. I think AR will become a way to experience narrative in an utterly immersive manner, even if it never evolves into a storytelling device on par with hollywood movies (it might). The important thing, I guess is how I see the difference between stories and narratives.
Stories are narratives, but narratives are not stories
Everyone remembers that from geometry, right? About squares and rectangles? I’m sure there is a name for this kind of rule, I even think I knew it once, but that’s gone from me now along with the formula for the denominator of the quadratic equation. For some reason, the more complex formula for the numerator remains.
My understanding of “story” and “narrative” has always suited this rule in a vague kind of way. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end, a more unified theme, a target audience and a target (in a general sort of way) affect; the definition of narrative is far more permeant. A narrative can be any sequence of actions, events, thoughts, impressions, evolutions, relationships, etc. A mathematical formula has a narrative arc to it, so does the Nike symbol, but they are not stories. In college I learned about grand narratives, foundational patterns like religions or national identity or archetypes such as the monomyth. These could be said to be made up of stories, but are not a single story in and of themselves unless we choose to tell the story of Christianity, which is a transformative interpretation of the Christian narrative.
Recently, storytelling and narrative have turned to hot terms in academic chatter, a fad which is somehow nostalgic and futurist at the same time (or, maybe all fads are this way?). Countless new storytelling platforms and applications have come out in the last few years; the value of storytelling in the “real world” is regularly evidenced in the money and effort businesses put into telling affirming stories about themselves, which even some of the savvier departments in government seem to be doing. The best way to get a job is to tell a good story about yourself, so we should be teaching students how to do so in school. The excitement has put a greater strain on the terms “story” and “narrative,” resulting in an interchangeability that is, no doubt, driving my former English professors insane.
But it is useful for terms to become confused, every now and then, so that we may make some fresh determinations as to why they are, after all, distinct. In this case, John Hagel’s panel at SXSW, “Moving from stories to narratives,” has been particularly useful to me. His argument that businesses should move to develop narratives around their brands, as opposed to relying on stories, is predicated on a useful distinction: “Narratives motivate actions. In some cases, they motivate life and death choices. Stories don’t do this. Every powerful movement that has impacted our world has been shaped and energized by a potent narrative.” Hagel cites narratives such as the American dream, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, and Christianity. Whereas we enter into and then exit the “there” of a story, narratives extend into the “here,” the proprioceptive space in which we walk to lunch or study a man’s brain overlaid directly over his head while his wife is standing with her arms crossed in the corner of the room.
So if we’re debating the potential immersiveness of AR in story, it is useful to recognize that story is different from narrative. I tend to agree with the skeptics, for the moment, that AR is not ready to host stories of the same caliber as great novels and films, which, when we “enter,” do not have to compete with the countless distractions populating our “here” space. AR is meant to be experienced in conjunction with other experiences, that’s why it is “augmented” as opposed to “constructed;” there must be something to augment, to provide information about or to project upon, but it is not to be confused with “sample culture,” which takes from what is to make something new. The augmented exists in simultaneity with the object of augmentation, and that simultaneity will always provide a strain on our ability to put ourselves fully “there.”
In my opinion, AR is the ability to overlay portray subjective narratives directly over “objective” reality. When we view the world through AR we are not only consuming information in addition to what is already there, we are consuming the author of that information’s worldview. When we, for instance, view the world through Yelp’s AR program, we are viewing a qualitatively analyzed and scored perspective which is utterly different from the non-augmented experience. It may not be immersive in the same way that Titanic is immersive, but it is immersive in that it writes over what would otherwise be honest, blank naivete: I’m not going to that restaurant over there because it’s dirty, even though I’ve never even seen it with my own eyes; that restaurant serves great cannoli, but its seats, which I’ve never sat in, are terribly uncomfortable.
In itself, this isn’t a huge shift from how hearsay and rumors spread now. But as AR develops into a more common tongue, I wonder how our countless overlapping and counterpoint narratives will come to share the finite space we have to augment. Will AR of such well-known, public objects such as the Statue of Liberty develop singularly, democratically, as a Wikipedia article on the Statue of Liberty might develop? I doubt it. While the multitude of AR programs are likely to converge, at some point, into some kind of HTML-like common language, I think the future of AR will continue to carry the same fragmented narratives we see in media today. When we look at the Statue of Liberty, among countless other points of interest, there will be channels for Fox News, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, Brett Easton Ellis and President Malia Ann Obama (you know it will happen).
This is useful and it is scary. If AR is going to become how we experience the world around us, then information fluency and channel skepticism are going to become even more important tools for the students of the future to develop. And if we’re going to develop them, then I think AR is very important to the future of education, if not because the aesthetics of its storytelling potential, then for its narrative-sharing potential, its language which our students are going to need to speak well, understand the nuances in, add to and defend themselves from.