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Advocating a human approach

Against the backdrop of constant technological advances, the media landscape is transforming rapidly. Convergence of media is just one of the outcomes of this process, which requires new approaches to media creation at a strategic and a conceptual level. In this changing media landscape, narrative plays a crucial role in the creation of meaning, states Jurriënne Ossewold, Director of Education and Research at Design Academy Eindhoven. Over a period of 25 years, she conducted extensive research on interactive digital storytelling. ‘Narratives,’ she says, ‘are the custodians of human dignity in our increasingly technocratic and instrumental world.’ In today’s Graduation Show Arena programme the conversation continues.

By Daniëlle Arets

Almost 10 years ago you published Lost in Data; The Importance of Storytelling in a Media Culture, a book based on your inaugural lecture. You argued that economic interest is one of the main drivers in the application of new technologies, especially within media. Too little attention is given to people as human beings and to the interests of mankind as a whole. In the light of current developments in the media landscape, do you still think this is true today?
‘Certainly. I even think that this theme is more pertinent now than it was 10 years ago. Just look at the developments in the area of Virtual Reality, Serious Gaming or Augmented Reality, but also at the evolution of social media. We continue to see that most innovations are propelled by the search for new business models. The current debate on the development of media, and a great deal of research on that development, is influenced by an approach to human behaviour, and a human image based on technological and commercial insights – as if successful innovation would only consist of launching new markets and developing new business models. The elements that actually underlie the existence of media, namely identity, content, functionality, meaning, but also the user, the human being, and the desire for connection, communication, have disappeared from view. Humans are reduced to a commodity. By restricting the definition of innovation and a blind focus on technology, humans are devaluated solely to their economic value. Right at a time when the technological possibilities in media are unprecedented and growing at increasing speed, it is important to employ and use a type of innovation that retains our dignity as humans. Narrative can play a major role in this, because of its focus on identity, content and meaning. This enables innovation from the perspective of human value, human dignity, human dimensions.’
Could you give an example?
‘I see, for example that many start-ups have emerged around Virtual Reality, using these new technologies for smooth promotional opportunities, only focussing on impact. This is typical “show off” behaviour, something which is part of the maturation process of a new technology, on the part of the makers and the general public alike. I know of very few examples in which VR is approached from a narrative angle. If it’s really possible to tell a story in 360 degrees, how do you make that meaningful? In other words, how do you rise above the mundane experience and perception, how do you add value and meaning? 
Attempts have been made for instance to place stories about the war in Aleppo in a wider context that can also be experienced virtually using VR. Although it is impressive to witness such a battleground in 360 degrees, I think that there are many more ways of telling the story. It is precisely this narrative aspect that raises the experience beyond the merely sensory dimension.’

‘The central role of ‘identification’ in creating meaningful stories has already been recognised since Aristotle’s Ars Poetica. It is a question of reducing the grotesque to human scale, which in this case is about enabling the inhumanity of a war situation to really sink in. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes compassion as “the basic social emotion, the capacity to feel pain at the suffering of others”.1  We need to make sure that the wow effect of technology does not interfere, otherwise this kind of media production will completely miss the point. Why not, for example, present the perspective of a journalist in the field? This could give an extra dimension to existing ways of storytelling. I believe such experiments should be encouraged.’

You propose to focus on the development of new narratives as a basis for innovation; can you expand on this?
‘We should always remember that technology is never “neutral”. New technologies and their applications force us – no matter which industry we are in – to redefine what our ideas about media are, and what the function and meaning of diverse media are. But these technologies not only affect media usage and communication, they also affect how we see and experience ourselves, and how we look at the world. They force us to take a second glance. If we forget to do that, then new technology will only lead to the proverbial old wine in new bottles, and eventually we’ll end up in a technocracy.’

‘The fluidity and versatility that are so characteristic of the early 21st century is expressed in dissolving boundaries and fuses and merges of areas that were – up to now – separate. Public and private for instance, commercial and non-profit, high and low culture, art and design, etcetera. In the case of media, it is a far-reaching convergence made possible through technological development; media flow into one another, integrating into other things because they no longer depend on specific hardware or platforms. This media convergence requires a new approach to media creation at a strategic and conceptual level. It is about designing and shaping integration and crossovers. But it also gives a new role to “formerly the public”; interactivity, as we now know, makes the user a co-producer of content. But the emancipation of the user mainly means that he/she is the manager of his/her own media channels and is his/her own content producer. Henry Jenkins describes this very well in Convergence Culture2 detailing how the integration of media can lead to economic, social and cultural shifts. We are right in the thick of it and it is fascinating and disturbing at the same time.
It is important that we continue looking for the relevance that media products can have for people. We must continue to search beyond self-centeredness, as social media currently promotes; beyond substantive fragmentation and superficiality, as in many cross media and transmedia products; beyond entertainment-based sensory experience, as with many games and VR applications; beyond mere semantic relationships between data, such as the semantic web.’

‘As far as I’m concerned, media creation means that the generation of ideas, the design and technical and creative realisation of media products are based on human dignity. A good story is about identity, content and meaning: what is told, and how, by whom, to whom and with what purpose and which values. Stories have the ability to move us, they call up emotions that go beyond the thrill of the moment, our concerns in the here and now: they effect universal, existential human experiences. Stories have this ability because they essentially transmit or refer to essential values that are related to our condition humaine. Focussing on the underlying questions that make up the story and formulating sound answers can help us to innovate in a much more human-centric way. In this way narratives can play a crucial role in the creation of humane, sustainable and meaningful media products. Technology must empower the story – not just the other way around.’

How should media makers do this?
‘I think media makers have a great deal to gain from working with designers. Technology is used to create greater user involvement through interactivity and immersiveness. If that involvement does not go beyond one’s own experience and when the behaviour being pursued focusses solely on oneself and one’s peers, then – in human terms – this is a poor result, a missed opportunity. In this case, the story is often used as a “tool” that leads to something that has nothing to do with the content of the story as such, but rather with marketing or branding. 
As I mentioned earlier, such an approach is only about economic value. Then I would not call it narrative, but rather see it as content design or even data design. Formal elements from narration and design are used in designing structures and interactions to give shape to information or data. That is very important, but it doesn’t create relevance. By emphasising structure and interaction, meaning is lost; it drowns in the data. The one discipline that is trained in working with data and information, with technology and the “humanity” around it, is design.’

‘In my research, I further deepened the relationship between storytelling and design. I am convinced that, in order to create new technology-enabled narrative forms, it is crucial that storytellers and designers work together. Both focus on creating meaning; storytellers focus on content, identification and emotional experience, designers on functionality, accessibility, structure and sensory experience. Storytellers immerse themselves in the story and their characters, search for universal meaning in the unique and exemplary and vice versa. Designers begin each research project by identifying with the user and projecting the meaning they want to create through functionality, aesthetics and form. This human-centric way of working is essential for creating meaningful designs. Empathy, ratio and intuition flow together here; this is also deeply rooted in the educational philosophy of Design Academy Eindhoven. For both storytellers and designers, real meaning can only be created from human value.’

During the minor ‘Crafting Narratives’ last year, DAE students carried out design research on the influence of VR on new media formats. What are your thoughts on their research findings?
‘The collaboration between the VPRO Medialab and DAE looks really interesting; it is the shared desire for meaning creation that makes the differences in approach by the two organisations both complementary and valuable. Where VPRO's journalists and programme makers are incredibly skilled in research, storytelling and thinking up media formats, DAE students and alumni are strong in balancing technological dynamics, user needs, and connecting their own story with the larger context – in shape, image and dimension. Learning how to seek the larger, overarching story – as is characteristic of the VPRO – is very interesting for our students.’

‘Against the backdrop of technological developments, the media landscape is changing rapidly and is in turn changing the wishes of users. Our students are not afraid to experiment with new techniques. They treat them as material. They knead and bend them in all possible forms, exploring without ignoring the possibilities and applications. In this way, they build on their knowledge in the process.
Within design research, we strive to quickly make prototypes and test them. Testing these prototypes with the public creates new insights that can improve them. This creates innovations that match the needs of users, in this case media consumers. I can see how the DAE's distinctive design process of research is very valuable to the VPRO, which, with its Medialab in Eindhoven, aims specifically to explore the influence of new technology. I find it particularly interesting that students immediately started questioning VR, especially its intended immersiveness. To what extent is this claim correct?’

‘Our students answer this question not only by diving into all kinds of philosophical dissertations or media theories, no, they literally immerse themselves in the medium. Take Jonas Ersland for example, who spent 24 hours wearing Oculus goggles. He created insights into the possibilities of VR by monitoring his own physical, sensory and emotional experiences. You can imagine rationally that an image in 360 degrees gives a different viewing experience, but what does this really do with your physiology? How do your body and your brain respond to it? Jonas soon discovered that, despite the goggles, he was still very much aware of his surroundings, which greatly hindered his experience of immersiveness. Instead of focussing on fading the boundary between reality and mediated reality, he suggests that media makers focus on the impact they want to achieve with the story itself. Of course there is the crux; it is about content, meaning and value creation.’

(This text was published in DAE’s Graduation catalogue 2017. The original interview was first published in the book Immersive Narratives, edited by Daniëlle Arets, Bas Raijmakers and Ellen Zoete, published by DAE in 2017.)

1 Nussbaum, M., Upheavals of Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.
2 Jenkins, H., Convergence Culture; Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, New York, 2008.

Published: 27-Oct-2017 11:40

    After-Photography by Donghwan Kam