Saturday, July 23, 2011

ARTIST JONATHAN HARRIS AGGREGATES STORIES



Artist Jonathan Harris says he "makes projects that reimagine how humans relate to technology and to each other" -- and storytelling is a big part of that endeavor. (The above video, by Scott Thrift, is about a photo project the artist started upon turning 30.) 

In one of a couple TED talks he gave, Jonathan explains that he builds online tools to help large numbers of people tell their stories. One project, for example, pulls from millions of blogs to capture sentences that contain the words "I feel" or "I am feeling." Each sentence is then represented as a dot in a kind of ever-changing digital starfield; a dot's color indicates its emotional valence (the brighter the color, the happier the feeling) and its size reflects the length of the sentence. Users can click on any of the dots to call up the sentence and sometimes a related photo, and play with the source material in other ways, too.

Given how many people tell their stories online now, it's cool to see how Jonathan has represented some of them in the aggregate. I can't help but think about a possible next step in this kind of artwork. Jonathan has created visual representations of large numbers of stories. But would there be a way to actually create a story of large numbers of stories? I'm not so much thinking about an individual author who would craft a novel, say, from plot points that are contributed via a crowd-sourcing platform. Rather, an algorithm or some other automated system that spins one story out of many available online? Granted, the human hand would still be at work, as someone would have to create the algorithm; and granted, the resulting story might not make sense or work dramatically; but what are some ways we might create collective stories online?

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