I have yet to meet a person who has thought more deeply about how story is constructed than Barbara Barry.
A former PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, Barbara’s research focused on developing systems that can understand story and assist in its creation. Building such a system, it turns out, is really really hard. Take the sentence, “She ran down the street with a wet cat in her arms.” When a person hears this they know, intuitively, that a dramatic event is unfolding. They imagine the scared, cold cat digging its claws deeply into the woman’s hand. They imagine the women, running from or towards something with a sense of urgency. A machine, on the other hand, will have great difficulty extrapolating such storylines. Barbara has done extensive work on tackling this problem by creating storytelling platforms that draw on paradigms in artificial intelligence, psychology and the archetypes of story.
Potential applications of Barbara’s research includes:
– A decision engine built into a videocamera that asks you what scene you wish to film (say a birthday party), and then suggests a potential shotlist (birthday cake, candles, presents, balloons, etc). This system could also analyze your previous shots and suggest what shots to take to make the story more compelling.
– A custom documentary builder that allows you to pick an event (say Election Night 2008), a subject (say the 2nd generation Cuban diaspora), and then automatically outputs a powerful, compelling video on the story of (in this example) the Cuban disapora during the Obama/McCain election.
– A healthcare platform that develops a customized narrative that can soothe a patient who is in pain or feeling anxious. This is based on the premise that A: not everyone relates the same way to the same stories (e.g. to imagine floating in the sky would be scary to someone with a fear of heights); and B: story and narrative can have a real impact on managing physical stresses.
Barbara also pointed me towards some super helpful resources:
– On the archetypes of story: Georges Polti, 19th Century French writer who described 36 basic types of story; Aristotle’s Poetrics: earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory
– On understanding compelling story structure: Robert McKee, screenwriting instructor whose former students have won 26 Academy Awards and 125 Emmys.
– On the concept of conceptual dependency: Roger Schank, who developed a markup language based on the principle that verbs of all languages can be expressed using a small number of primitives.
– On Story at MIT: The Common Sense Computing Initiative is studying how to use story and narrative as a tool for problem-solving.
I’ve heard from several folks about the power of storytelling, but my meeting with Barbara left me in awe of both the complexity of story and its influence on fields ranging from healthcare to problem-solving.