The Magic is In Your Head


On January 8 I took part in an event at Watershed in Bristol around the Stories of Change project, along with Mandy Rose,  Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE Bristol and Joe Smith from the Open University.  It was a fun evening. These are the notes I pulled together before the talk, but what I said was not what’s written here. I’ll post audio when I get it…

The Magic is In Your Head

A good story, well told, is the nearest thing to magic we know.

It can change the way the world is perceived, transform our understanding of a situation, turn inertia into action and optimism into despair. It can make you love, or hate, or change from one to another.

We always use the latest technologies to tell the oldest stories, from cave painting to television to Popcorn-based interactive documentaries and Vine.

So can we use the newest tools for good or are they more likely to limit our imagination and turn us into ‘hearers of many things’ who learn nothing?

The Power of Stories

Let’s begin with a story I wrote at the Stories of Change weekend conference last year

The world moves

She reached over and touched the door,

which disappeared. Magical. Impossible.

A trick.

Then she whispered into my ear: ‘he doesn’t love you;

he has betrayed you.’

The world shifted around me and the

reality in my head was transformed.

Shutters came down.

We do magic when we tell stories.

Telling The World

The world is a story we tell ourselves. As Joan Didion put it, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live

It isn’t turtles all the way down – whenever you dig deeper you find another story. It’s stories all the way down

And in this age of electronics – there are also pixels all the way down… used to tell the stories[1].

Over time we find new ways to tell stories, capturing them in

Oral tradition

Epic poems

Holy books



Feature films

Interactive documentaries

Do we tell stories with the tools or do the tools tell the stories for us?

Each medium offers different affordances, and the medium massages the message. The new machines constrain our stories and the ways they are heard.

They create their own tropes, constraining the forms a message can take, and every medium expresses a different language game.

As well as the philosophical difficulties there are simpler, cruder economic realities. The media become gatekeepers: controlling the channels, shaping the communication, and the technological innovations behind new forms of storytelling may create the opportunity for capture by an interest group, and changing this requires radical innovation.

Consider printing, where religious or secular authorities controlled presses for many years.

The emergence of printing led to the creation of an apparatus for censorship which eventually devolved to a system of licensing for printing and the effective monopoly in the hands of the Stationers’ Company: a member of the Company would register a book, and would then have a perpetual copyright over its printing, copying and publication, which could be leased, transferred to others or given to heirs upon the member’s death.

This locked works away, and in 1709 the Statute of Anne created copyright as an author’s right, a transformative reinterpretation of the rights framework. In this light the invention of the modern form of copyright was a response to the capture of the means of reproduction by a particular interest group.

Another approach is to escape regulation by running away, like US filmmakers in the early twentieth century, responding to the way that patent laws were used to limit their creative expression. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Motion Picture Patent Company:

Many independent filmmakers, who controlled from one-quarter to one-third of the domestic marketplace, responded to the creation of the MPPC by moving their operations to Hollywood, whose distance from Edison’s home base of New Jersey made it more difficult for the MPPC to enforce its patents. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, and covers the area, was averse to enforcing patent claims.

Today the legislatures have been bought by the rights holders, and radical reform of copyright seems impossible.

And we have ceded control of the channel to a new generation of gatekeepers whose powers only grow.

The ways we tell stories today fall under the control of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google

Apple: Serious games not in App store

Facebook: no personas only one ‘identity’

Amazon: too many hyphens and you can’t publish your ebook

The means of distribution is now owned by commercial organisations with no interest in free expression.

Emily Bell pointed this out in 2014:

In a world where we navigate our daily lives through social platforms, just how this information reaches us, what is on a ‘trending’ list, how these algorithms work, becomes not just of marginal interest but a central democratic concern. Even the obscure issue of equal access to the internet, or ‘net neutrality’, can affect how we get our news and information.[2]

What’s the danger? The danger is that we constrain our thinking and the available narratives to those that are served/served up by the tools we choose.

In his new book on automation, The Class Cage, Nick Carr talks about the dangers of allowing the algorithms embedded in our machines to make what should be human, creative, decisions.

One of his milder examples – it doesn’t involve aircraft falling from the sky – concerns the design tool Autocad and how it corrupts the work of architects[3].

This one is dear to me as my wife Katie is an architect, and she endorses Nick’s view. She’s also told me that you can sometimes tell which version of Autocad was used to design a building by looking at the detailing, because firms use the standard component libraries and they change from version to version.

It’s not too late. Things do change. John Walter invented the modern newspaper when he founded The Times, Eisenstein made film work when he cut between different points of view, and the network can be remade to support freeer expression.

Today’s Tools

What tools do we have? What can we build with them?

Does Storify do anything new?

Is Popcorn anything more than a website with animations?

What about the great innovations[4] like

Bear 71


Quipu Project:

Is Serial radical[5]? Or just a mannered, authored piece of work – an In Cold Blood for the podcast world? Does it matter?

It might. Because we may need a new set of metaphors for what we do when we tell ourselves stories. In The Cathedral and the Coffee House (2007) I wrote:

Modern mass media, whether print or broadcast or online, is built around the same information processing model as the Catholic church in the medieval age, and the nearest analogy to a newspaper, news magazine or TV news show is a gothic cathedral, with a team of acolytes working to embed the message in the stone, the stained glass and, above all, the word of the priest speaking from the pulpit.

This model emerged along with the profession of journalism in the eighteenth century and has survived vast technological, political and societal change in the last two hundred years. One reason for its survival was that it relied on the perceived or real scarcity of channels through which to reach large audiences. The barriers to entry were very high, and in a mass embrace of cognitive dissonance most of the audience came to believe that if someone was clever or powerful or rich enough to gain access to one of these scarce channels they must, merely by virtue of their ability to address the masses, have something important to say. Walter Kronkite, Robin Day, Jeremy Paxman, Anna Ford and the rest were believed to merit attention because they had managed to climb into the pulpit, and only those who deserved it would ever be allowed to do such a thing.

Early websites, filled with static pages which brooked no argument and offered no space for discussion, no opportunity for links or trackbacks and no way to challenge the views offered, were just the latest version of pulpit media, using the screen as a one-way channel to the audience just as print or radio or television had done for so long.

Today the cathedral doors have been forced open, the pulpit torn down and the carefully wrought stained glass windows smashed. The priest’s voice cannot be heard above the hubbub of voices shouting out from the pews, and the gospel is only one view among many. In a world where anyone can speak and be heard, thanks to blogs, social network tools and the public Internet, the mere fact of publication or broadcast is no longer enough to merit trust or attention.

The long decline of Christianity can be traced, in part, to the spread of the ability to read and the translation of the gospels into the vernacular. The church was no longer the only place that the story was being told, and people found that the skill which unlocked the Bible also unlocked other sources of knowledge and made other points of view available.

Today the cathedrals of the mass media are empty because the people have a new skill, one that goes beyond the ability simply to read and understand what others are saying. Now they can speak as well as listen, and this new form of literacy is the real wellspring of the revolution in news journalism that we are currently experiencing.

We have abandoned the cathedral, and moved away from the burning wreckage to congregate in a nearby coffee house, where entry is free to anyone who can afford the price of a drink. In the coffee house anyone can speak, and instead of the clearly enunciated and carefully considered tones of the priest echoing off the stone columns and over the heads of the congregation the conversation is open to all. Credibility comes not from occupancy of the pulpit but from one’s actions, from what is said and done today, what was said and done yesterday. In the age of conversational media, the voice from the pulpit can barely be heard over the hubbub, and anything said can immediately be challenged, questioned, taken out of context, criticised, dissected and absorbed into the zeitgeist.

Living in the Liminal Space

If the net can take us

Beyond preaching

Beyond journalism

What will we find on the other side?

Something imporant is happening: we can now tell stories in the liminal space between offline and online, the new space that has emerged in our consciousnesses as we integrate the network with our older minds.

Once you were alone in your head.

When you read a novel you animate the characters, and the world you make belongs only to you.

Once you had company in the world, constructing a shared reality, intersubjective and external.

Now there is a third space, a consensual hallucination grounded not in physics but in the imagination of the programmers, a shared space in your head where you can engage with others.

This is not an audience, who may share experiences, but something much deeper. The voices in your head are those of other minds.

It is unprecedented.

It is unexplored

It is ours to make and remake until we get it right.

Words and images in a particular order are very very powerful.

They are the main machine for moving ideas around.

The things we do with them are astonishing. Look around you.

And it’s possible to construct industries, careeers, ideologies, religions and science on the back of them.

So far, so good.

But not every collection of WORDS IN ORDER is the same, and not every SEQUENCE OF IMAGES does the same work.

In particular, words in order that have been printed and bound in a BOOK do something different from words in order that have been captured in a FILE, and images that have been constrained into one sequence on film or a film-like medium have lost their essential dynamism.

I think that books, ebooks, apps, enhanced ebooks and every other neologism define ontologically distinct entities with different characteristics and different affordances.

And before you ask, the affordance of ‘making money for someone’ is not an essential quality.

So a model of the universe that sees the BOOK as an object capable of being translated into a FILE is bound to fail because it does not respect the essential difference between the two.

The real distinction is not between print and pixel

Or betweeen linear and hypertextual

Or between digital and analogue

It is between passive and active.

A book sits there.

It will contain the same words every time you open it.

A film waits to be exhibited.

The same images in the same order every time.

A book and a film are outside the stream.

Like a neutrino, they rarely interact except with the thoughts of a single reader or watcher.

This is their merit and their damnation.

Guides to Tomorrow

It is about time we engaged with the technology. After all, this is not a new world. We have had

seventy years of digital computers

forty years of ebooks

thirty years of the internet

twenty-five years of the web

ten years of facebook

nearly eight years of iPhone (and five years of iPad)

So why are we so slow to adapt?

Where can we look for help?

Not to newspapers: the business model is completely broken.

Not to music: they still don’t truly believe in the world of bits

Not to cinema, where they are making too much money to be truly concerned about the future – and where the spectacle will always be profitable for some.

So it’s going to be down to you all not just to tell new stories but to find new ways to tell old and new stories, taking the things that these digital tools make possible and inventing new things that storytellers can use, making new things possible.

Ask yourself:

What are the affordances of the screen

How do we secure and maintain attention

Can context and content work together?

And how can the book, the film and the file coexist and support each other?

Can we understand the separation between the object and the digital asset in the ways we accept the distinct spaces occupied by Grand Theft Auto and Angry Birds?

They do not occupy the same space.

They are not words in the same language game.

A New Paradigm

Newtonian mechanics could not explain the Michelson-Morley experiment and account for the measured invariance of the speed of light in a vacuum.

Einstein considered what would have to be true if the measurements were correct and his theory of relativity is derived from that one postulate.

It was a brave thing to hold true.

We need to find a new paradigm – and for once I really mean it.

Perhaps we can ask ‘what is it that we can hold to be true? and then explore the model of storytelling that emerges,

A Proper Focus

One way of approaching an answer might be to shift our model of the universe, and consider Copernicus.

Publishers, agents and authors still act as if printed books are the centre of the universe, and all other forms of publishing revolve around the printed, bound text.

This Ptolemaic model works, up to a point.

But it makes it hard to understand or explain the movement of the planets – of Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, iBooks or even YouTube

These newly-observed stars wander through the cosmos, occasionally going off in unexpected directions, and we pore over star charts seeking to account for their movement

Many chickens are slaughtered, but the entrails are silent.

If you assume that the planets can only move in perfect circles then you need to calculate their deferents and add epicycles in order to account for their apparently aberrant behaviour.

A better model puts the sun at one focus of an elliptical orbit for each planet, and the stars an unimaginable distance away.

Can you accept that what you do is no longer the centre of things?

That doesn’t mean the atmosphere you breathe isn’t formed mostly of printed books, linear documentaries or one-way websites or that these things aren’t important.

It just means that they aren’t the centre of the universe.

What is?

Well, it’s the Internet, stupid. Once you can make perfect copies of any digital object and transfer it to any device without effort, all the things you built a business on stop being opportunities and start being inconveniences.

But if you can stop building epicycles you might just be in with a chance. As Copernicus might have said – find your focal points, and all falls into place.

No Content, No Audiences

In your thinking about tomorrow’s stories I urge you to avoid talking about two things: content and audiences.

First, because ‘content’ is a dirty word. It diminishes everything it touches, brings all our creative works down to the lowest possible level and makes it far too easy for corporations like Apple and Amazon – and Waterstone’s – to treat literature as just another product category to be sliced, diced, given an SKU and analysed with a pivot table so that a semi-literate accountant can decide that mid-list books are not worth publishing and that banana cases make a more sensible inventory.

Second, because ‘audiences’ don’t exist. They never really did, although for many years our ability to engage the individual within the mass was so limited that we were forced to treat groups of people assembled in one place or sharing the same experience within a particular time frame as a single entity with a definable set of characteristics.

But every member of a group – such as the group listening to me now – brings their own experience and desires to the event, and listens to me through the framework of their prior life and knowledge.

You are all hearing me say something different, just as you hear the actors in a play say different things, because your lives are different from each other and from mine. A talk or a play or a TV show or a novel are all experiments in co-creation, and instead of ‘audiences’ we should treat each other as what we are: participant-observers in a large-scale action research project that we call ‘culture’.

Fortunately, I do believe in both readers and writers, in listeners and storytellers, insofar as it’s possible to believe in anything.

But storytelling is happening in new, increasingly screen-based, contexts, and we need to understand those contexts if we are to thrive and find ways to reach people.

It’s like being a screenwriter in the late 1920s, as talkies come in – anyone who has seen The Artist will have noted its shallow characterisation and boringly linear plot, but once you have sound and dialogue the game is completely different and much more is possible. Old-style screenwriters faced a challenge, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood brought in the novelists to help.

A similar transition faced programmers as we moved from batch-processing mainframe systems that did one thing at a time to event-driven windowed environments and apps that require completely different programming models. It might all end up as lines of code, but the environment within which it is both written and experienced has changed completely.

And I have two specific suggestions for things storytellers can and should do for themselves, as a matter of urgency:

  1. Learn to code
  2. Engage with hypermedia and transmedia

A great artist has the core skills – the craft skills – that underpin their work, and chooses whether or not to exercise them. Picasso could draw, and so can Tracy Emin. They both then have the freedom to experiment and to take their work into spaces that might look ‘easy’ or ‘obscure’ but which are grounded, like Mondrian’s grids, in a lifetime of artistic practice – the grids come from trees, for example. (We can contrast that with Damien Hirst, whose work is ineffably shallow.)

Storytellers who do not understand the possibilities of hypermedia, ebooks, enhanced books and apps deny themselves a range of opportunities which, even if they choose not to exercise them, should be understood.

These two things will allow you to stop your work becoming mere content to be fed into the satanic mills of the production process, words homogenised to grey pixels in a standard font on a ‘device’ that holds thousands of ‘books’ and makes them all the same. It may keep you from the grasp of Apple, Amazon and Tesco.

Genesis and Revelation

In the beginning the network was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the engineers were moving over the surface of the waters.

And the engineers said:

Let there be TCP/IP

We are the co-creators of meaning online, and in that space we will make new tools and open new channels.

At least, I hope so.





[4] See also the works at