Let there be tech: what “creation myths” tell us about control

Lawrie’s been at it again! Following a conversation with Amber Thomas, he posted last night about classic tales and our relationship with ed tech referring to classics like “Stone Soup”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and so on and he asked for people to contribute ideas for other narrative types that characterise the ed tech landscape.

So, like a bad student who doesn’t read the question properly, I started thinking about Creation Myths. You know, go big or go home! More specifically, how the stories that are told of the genesis (small G) of technical innovations tell us about the values of the different parties involved.

I started out reflecting on how the creation narrative around MOOCs panned out with some focussing on the efforts of Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and so on with the likes of Coursera and on the other hand looking to the deeper roots of the approach pioneered by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes et al. It’s hinted at in this article from University Affairs.

Then I got thinking about Facebook. There was an advert recently that FB put out to try to salvage some of its reputation in the fall out from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here it is:

It’s an attempt ot reclaim that origin narrative. It’s the line that goes “when this place does what it was built for then we all get a little closer.” Is that really what it was built for? I mean, really? If you watch another version of that narrative, David Fincher’s Social Network movie, that phrase takes on a different meaning.

Lastly, I thought about a talk I saw a few years ago at the Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead by the economist Mariana Mazzucato where she effectivley dismantled the received wisdom that products like the iPhone were all to do with the innovation and entrepreneurship of the private sector and pointed out that it was public sector-funded developments that had made it all possible in the first place. Watch it, it’s brilliant

In posts and workshops in the past I’ve mentioned the hackneyed and serially misattributed phrase “those who tell the stories, rule the world”. Stories are how we make sense of events but they’re never neutral .You can tell a lot by looking at contrasting narratives as a way of taking control.  And who is telling them can be instructive. Ask yourslef, in whose interests is this story being told. It pays to be critical.

And if you’re the storyteller, it pays to do this responsibly.

Story Wars: The dark side of the force?

I love just about anything to do with stories and storytelling but this video by Jonah Sachs left me more than a little depressed. What does it do for you?


It comes from the Future of Storytelling site (def worth a look!). It’s beautifully done and has some great explanations of why stories are important and powerful. And I’m aware it’s meant for an audience of which I’m not really a part. But…

It’s the points he makes about brands using stories to move away from narratives of fear to sell stuff to ones of empowerment that give me pause; as if this was some sort of transcendental change and that somehow the human race is better off if brands tell us to “Just Do It” rather than “Eurgh! You smell! You’ll never have sex like that.Spray this on”.

The story is different, more affirming, but the end point is exactly the same, just more underhand. We consume in the belief that we are making the world a better place somehow, rather than doing it to fix a problem that was manufactured for us by advertisers.

We’re still consuming. Nothing has changed.

I hope I’m advocating something different when it comes to storytelling, and it’s to do with individuals developing a stronger sense of their own identity and worth.

I presented a little while ago at an event where I was putting the case for stories in education. One of my final points was that if learners are better at experessing themsleves through story they become more aware of stories around them and what might lie behond those stories. How trustworthy they are. What their underlying motive is.

I’m all for a world with more stories in it. But I aso think we need to help develop people’s awareness and discernment.

Telling stories in the digital domain: 2 examples

I’ve been reading a lot about narrative for my dissertation recently and came across 2 examples this morning that illustrate some of the ideas I’ve come across.

Oatmeal on Game of Thrones

The first simple example is from the Oatmeal. It says it’s about Game of Thrones but is actually about media companies completely misunderstanding the web.

One way of looking at storytelling is that it’s a way of framing complex, abstract concepts in a way that is both engaging, memorable and helps understanding. Some authors say that story is the primary way we understand the world.

So, with the Oatmeal example we have a simple depiction of an individual trying to do the right thin, being thwarted and finding, as the author sees it, a reasonable solution to the problem.

So, it takes some abstract points about the piracy debate, uses narrative to contextualise them, keep our interest, create an emotional response and hopefully make it more “sticky“.

Why is being in the digital domain important? As a static image it could have been published in a magazine or on a notice board. By being digital it give an audience a way of interacting and responding. At the most basic level it had over 6k likes and 2.5k shares on Facebook as well as 18.4k retweets. This helps the people that come across it incorporate it into their own personal and social narratives about piracy, IPR, SOPA, ACTA or whatever.

The Tale of the Invention of the Incredible Folding Plug

This is more of a distributed bunch of content telling a story.

Now the invention is plainly awesome in a why-has-this-not-been-done-before-it-could-transform-my-life way so I can immediately relate to it.

But what you also have around it through Rory Cellan Jones’ interview, the business’s website, the product demo (embedded above), and all the other mentions in the media (traditional and social) is a story about the product.

We have a cast of characters, a macguffin (the invention), a plot, setting, triumphs, hurdles to be overcome, quite a clear timeline and perhaps the possibility of a sequel.

Somehow, just watching the product demo (embedded above), although it contains some elements of story, doesn’t quite have enough of the human content to make it properly engaging.

My own reaction is that I’m thinking about the product in a much broader way, seeing how it would fit into my own life but also having it humanised by the story of its inventor and his business partner and how it fits into the wider narrative of startups and innovation in the UK.