A Poet's iPod Guide to Art
On Digital Storytelling and
21st Century Literature
On Toys and Transmedia
Digital Video Poetry
On Digital Storytelling and 21st Century Literature
(This is the piece that I submitted [successfully] for my application to the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. It's both long and pretentious as hell, but it worked for me. Your results may vary.)
If you had asked me as an undergrad where I'd go for my graduate degree, I probably would have suggested the University of Iowa, Berkeley or maybe Oxford. Each of these places offer excellent programs in the humanities and creative writing, which were always my first loves. However, while I was at Kenyon I became deeply involved with the Integrated Program in Humane Studies (IPHS), an experimental survey course of human culture led by Dr. Michael Brint. What set IPHS apart was the program's use of technology in addition to research papers, students were encouraged to make websites, films, and other media experiments in order to explore their chosen subjects.
Ever since I was young I've been writing, drawing and making music, and I devour every book, movie, video game or album I can get my hands on. Most of all, I've always been fascinated by the ways that different media intersect the ways that books change when they're made into movies, how the mood of a series of still images can be radically altered when accompanied by a piece of music, et cetera. When I first encountered "new media", I was fascinated by how it incorporated so many other forms of media, blending them together in new and exciting ways. When the IPHS program encouraged me to experiment with new media, I was hooked.
After graduating, I searched for programs that would allow me to continue this form of study. To my dismay, however, I discovered that the vast majority of masters and doctoral programs were extremely narrow in their scope. This seemed shockingly myopic since what I considered to be the best new work was being created across multiple media by individuals with multidisciplinary backgrounds, why would I want to study somewhere that didn't offer a wide range of areas in which to experiment?
While I was searching, I also began to work in the corporate world. I started out working as a designer for The Advisory Board Company, a medical best practices research firm in Washington, D.C. Unsatisfied with doing print layouts and illustrations, I continued to teach myself HTML and other related technologies in my free time, and I quickly became the company's first full-time web designer. After that, I spearheaded projects and taught classes on web design, and I was soon promoted to web producer. In the end, though, my professional interests echoed my academic ones in their breadth I wasn't content to specialize in one particular form of media, and my entrepreneurial side, which I'd inherited from my CFO dad, inevitably won out. I left The Advisory Board to become an independent creative consultant, providing a broad array of media services to my clients as The Dreamsbay Company. For the past several years I've been making websites, writing copy, going on photo shoots, creating animations and so on, but the whole time I've been keeping an eye open for a grad program that would help me move my career forward and allow me to combine my love for the humanities with my twin passions for media and technology.
When I finally found the program I was looking for, it was someplace I'd never expected. As a writer, an artist, a musician and a businessman, I'd never thought to look into MIT, someplace I'd always assumed was meant only for engineers and computer programmers. Nevertheless, there it was the Comparative Media Studies program, led by Dr. Henry Jenkins. A two-year program designed specifically to first examine the interdisciplinary impact of new technology on the development of human culture, then experiment and develop new extensions of the humanities? An environment intended to promote and foster entrepreneurial thinking, providing connections and contacts with professionals at all levels of the corporate world? It was perfect. And I knew just what I wanted to study first.
Why MIT is Right for Me: Digital Storytelling, the Democratization of Narrative and Creative Entrepreneurialism
I've been a storyteller ever since I was six years old. Growing up an only kid on an Ohio farm in the middle of nowhere, I entertained myself for hours by making up stories, and when I was old enough to read and write I promptly began setting them down. I've been a writer, a publisher and an editor ever since, and as a result, for the last couple of years I've been trying to answer two questions: "What is digital storytelling?" and "How will the art of the narrative evolve in the 21st century?" Janet H. Murray scratched the surface of these questions with her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck (not coincidentally published by the MIT Press) but both technology and society have made great leaps and bounds since its publication. The rise of weblogging, affordable digital filmmaking, and print-on-demand publishing are just a few pointers towards the democratized future of the narrative form.
This, to me, is a solid modern definition of digital storytelling: "Narratives that could not have been created without the use of digital equipment." The examples I'm bandying about here at first seem slightly iffy when this definition is applied after all, people had been writing and making art and composing music for centuries before the computer came along. There are two critical differences introduced by the modern computer, however affordability and accessibility. When these elements are made widely available, the result is a democratization of narrative, which means that more people can create more types of media and disseminate it to a wider audience than ever before. When examined this way, our modern culture is positively overflowing with digital storytellers.
Let's examine these two elements a little closer. First, Moore's Law continues to make more and more powerful computers more and more affordable. What used to be accomplished by a $10,000 Avid video editing system can now be done with a $1,000 copy of Apple's Final Cut Pro, and much of that functionality can even be done with the free copy of iMovie that now ships with every Macintosh computer. Second, broadband Internet access continues to spread in 2004, broadband access overtook dial-up access as the main method of Internet connectivity in the United States. This is huge, since with faster connections comes greater access to more content, such as the films being created by people in their living rooms with those free copies of iMovie. (And there is some serious treasure to be found out there one of the blockbuster movies in 2004, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, started out as a project by a guy doing bluescreen digital effects on his home computer.)
Further, keep in mind that this is only the impact modern technology is having on filmmaking all across the web, classical art forms are growing and changing at lightning speed thanks to new technologies. Weblogging has changed not only the social face of the Internet, but has had a sizeable impact on both the credibility and business models of traditional journalism. The visual arts have been irreversibly affected by tools such as Adobe Photoshop and Maya by Alias|Wavefront. The music world is still reeling not only from the sea change of MP3s and peer-to-peer networking, but from the rise of basement DJs and mash-up artists creating works of art like DJ Danger Mouse's The Gray Album. Even architecture has been revolutionized through the digitally-enabled swoops and sworls of Frank Gehry, and it's only a matter of time before young hometown architects replicate Gehry's calculations on their home PCs, tramp down to their local Home Depot, and start building positively insane treehouses in their backyards.
I believe that as these digital techniques continue to become easier and more affordable, we will see more and more overlap between disciplines. Companies like Six Apart and Apple will flourish by providing tools that enable this behavior the next generation of storytellers are likely to create short digital films using iMovie, join it to a soundtrack they wrote in GarageBand, post it to their weblogs using Movable Type, and then watch as their work is set loose in the bizarre Darwinism of the blogosphere. If what they create is suitably unique and entertaining, news of it will spread from website to website, generating solid memetic buzz, and will almost inevitably find its way into the hands of some corporate talent scout. These young creators are combination writer-filmmakers-musicians-businessmen, and I believe they're the seedbed of the next generation of narrative, art and commerce.
What really fascinates me about this accelerated, multifacted form of digital storytelling is the wide array of questions and opportunities it raises: for one, what happens when the "corporate talent scout" is rendered unnecessary? Does a successful Internet cartoon like Homestar Runner need to "sell out" and create a series for the Cartoon Network? What are the ideal business models for one-man media empires? Can a person make enough money doing something on their own without relying on a giant corporate marketing machine and can those giant corporate marketing machines change and evolve to accommodate more specialized, smaller niche markets instead of relying on massive pop culture superstars?
There is also one further step to take on this line of reasoning. It's only a matter of time before these writer-filmmaker-musician-businessmen are presented with the tools to create real, true digital stories in the form of videogames. Videogames are perhaps the ultimate form of multimedia storytelling truly terrific videogames combine narrative with cinema, music, and fantastic artwork, and then add interactivity into the mix as well. Some companies are already testing the waters for enabling the democratization of videogames Ambrosia Software released a system called Coldstone a few years ago that was a full-fledged RPG builder, and Macromedia is building all kinds of videogame basic components into their ubiquitous Flash environment, but neither of these are as easy for one person to pick up and use as iMovie or GarageBand. When that level of access becomes available, there is likely to be an explosion of independent videogames to rival the level of indie film, music or publishing, and the true next generation of digital narrative will be born.
These are a few of the questions I would hope to pursue in my graduate studies, through both research and experimentation in new forms of art and entertainment. The program at MIT is uniquely suited to help me do so next year, the head of the Comparative Media Studies program is co-teaching a class with the Sloan School of Management on Creative Entrepreneurialism, which will examine many of these very questions from a business standpoint, and there are multiple groups at MIT that are already conducting experiments into nodal storytelling and the creation of videogames. This combination of the humanities, technology and business is right up my alley.
Further, the intrinsically entrepreneurial nature of MIT is hugely appealing to me, since instead of being forced to work on whatever a particular professor is studying, the Comparative Media Studies students are encouraged to come up with their own projects. MIT then opens up its vast resources and social network to introduce those students to professionals in the corporate world to transform their projects into real, viable businesses and experiments. To me, this sounds like heaven I've always been a self-starter, creating my own magazine, my own company, my own film studio and so on, but to have the connections made available to me to really make these endeavors work on a professional level is huge.
Why I'm Right for MIT
So I've described why MIT is right for me why, then, am I right for MIT?
In a nutshell, I live and breathe digital storytelling and the fusion of the humanities with new technology. In 1999, I spent a week in Crested Butte, Colorado at The Digital Storytelling Festival, which was founded by the late Dana Atchley. While I was there, I listened to a number of lectures on how to use digital tools to help people tell personal stories. One such lecturer was Joe Lambert, from the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California. For years Mr. Lambert has been helping senior citizens record their life stories using video, audio or multimedia, so that those stories can be passed on to future generations. A more immediate example of this theme is embraced by my friend Derek Powazek, the creator of fray.com. Every month his site offers a new personal story from a different author. At the end of every story, the site provides the opportunity for visitors to tell their own related stories. I've not only contributed to Fray.com, I organized and emceed the annual Fray Day event in Washington, D.C. in 2003.
While I was living in D.C., I also made friends with Bill Coughlan, a filmmaker and fellow technology enthusiast. Together with a few of our other friends, we created a small film troupe called Tohubohu Productions, from the French word for 'chaos'. We produced our first short film in the spring of 2004, a mystery called Schlimmer, for the 48 Hour Film Festival. We had so much fun doing this that we reconvened in the fall to compete in the National Film Challenge, and our entry, Screening Process: A Loser's Guide to Love, ranked in the top 15 films in the country and won Best Romance. I mention this in the same breath as digital storytelling because everything we did on these films was digital shot on DV tapes using Canon XL-1 digital cameras and edited using Final Cut Pro on Apple G5 computers. I was the producer for both films, helping write the scripts, making sure everything ran smoothly, helping Bill direct, assisting in the editing of the footage and essentially acting as project manager. This proved to me that filmmaking really is a viable additional outlet for modern writers and other would-be digital storytellers.
Another example of my work in digital storytelling can be found in my magazine, Inkblots. I founded Inkblots way back in 1994, as a solution to my high school's lack of a literary magazine, and I published its first issue in Winter 1995. My friends and I published seven issues by the time I graduated from high school, and while I was studying abroad at the University of Exeter in England, I began to examine the Internet as a possible venue of publication, so I could still connect with my friends back home. Inkblots became a webzine in 1998, and has been releasing issues online erratically ever since. Through Inkblots I've met all kinds of contemporary digital luminaries, such as Matt Haughey (the founder of Metafilter.com), Jason Fried (the founder of Singlefile.com and Basecamp), Heather Champ (founder of The Mirror Project) and Kevin Smokler (the founder of the Virtual Book Tour, which I then proceeded to help him with check out the portfolio for details). I'm celebrating Inkblots' 10-year anniversary in 2005, and I'm planning to further explore the multimedia capabilities of the web to also publish music, video and interactive pieces in the years ahead.
Yet another example of my work in digital storytelling can be found in my work with So New Media, a micropublisher in Austin, Texas dedicated to bringing online authors into print. So New Media uses the web as both a hunting ground for new talent and its primary distribution channel, selling its creations on an online store. I've known the owner, Ben Brown, for several years now, and I designed one of the company's recent releases, Deli Life by Jami Attenberg. So New Media hand-makes each of its editions, but there are a growing number of online publishing companies that are making print-on-demand publishing available to individuals and small companies like So New Media. I'm seriously considering bringing Inkblots back into print using what I've learned from working with Ben and his company, and he and I have talked from time to time about doing something interesting when I finish my novel.
Ah, yes the novel. I've been working on Bones of the Angel for the last couple of years, and in addition to the crafting of the actual story, I've also been making extensive notes on how to really embrace the idea of publishing it either online or as an e-book. Stephen King's e-book, Riding the Bullet, was a much-ballyhooed foray into this arena, but at the end of the day, it was merely a story delivered in a digital medium. The way I see it, music sold as MP3s through Apple's iTunes Music Store isn't a new type of music, it's merely a new type of delivery mechanism the same can be said for this type of e-book. Without some additional innovation, e-books seem almost destined to fail. The resolution of current screens isn't high enough to read page after page of an e-novel without causing eyestrain, and the tactile pleasure of flipping the pages of a hardcover novel is difficult to reproduce in a digital medium. Further, few people are as inclined to make impulse purchases or so fiercely demand immediate delivery of a new book as they are for new music, few people will be as inclined to print out an entire copy of an e-book as they might be to burn an album of MP3s to a CD-ROM, and a digital e-book collection does not, or at least does not yet, carry the same cultural significance as a beautiful wall full of books.
This is not to say that the e-book is utterly doomed far from it, the industry's lack of innovation is a real shame because there is so much room for true expansion. Perhaps the next step is a combination of old media and new media, a hybridization in the form of CD-ROMs or DVDs mounted in the rear of the book in much the same way used by technical books. Imagine a "Special Edition" of Moby Dick which includes several additional books' worth of scholarly materials included on a companion CD-ROM, or a new Stephen King novel with a DVD included containing pages from the author's original notes, a side-by-side comparison of the first draft to the final copy, or video interviews with the author, as are found on DVDs of feature films. As DVDs expand the experience of the user with supplementary materials, why not do the same thing with the publishing world? These are the ideas I'm tinkering with for Bones of the Angel, including a sort of "narrator's notebook" which will serve as a place for critical points of the story to be "jotted down" by the narrator as the story unfolds. This will, in turn, help a reader who needs to step away from the story for prolonged periods of time return to the book and quickly refresh themselves on what's been happening.
And, because I apparently don't have enough to do otherwise, I'm also looking into the notion I mentioned before about developing my own videogame. Games like Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy series pride themselves on their engaging stories, not just the different ways they offer to obliterate pixelized villains. This is the direction I'm exploring as well, feeling out the line between a truly wide-open interactive arena, as in EverQuest or World of Warcraft, and a more tightly-scripted narrative thread with occasional branches, as can be found in early 'interactive' movies. I'm also fascinated by the idea of what kinds of stories can be made into successful videogames. What would a game like Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson be like? Heck, what would a game by David Beckett, Pablo Picasso or Friedrich Nietzche be like?
In time, I'm hoping such indie games could very well grow into a niche market comparable to indie cinema. While the big studios will always continue to publish games along the same kill-or-be-killed "blockbuster" mentality, smaller studios may continue to release more innovative fare and have a greater chance of success through online distribution and memetic marketing, such as through the weblog chatter model I mentioned earlier. By incorporating digital video and connectivity to the real world through wireless nodes and portable digital equipment, such as cell phones and PDAs, there are huge new areas of opportunity opening up for exploration.
These are all things I think about on a regular basis, and this is the direction in which my day-to-day work and research has been taking since graduating from Kenyon. My work as a freelance creative consultant has enabled me to learn the tools of the trade, from web design to video production, but now I really want to focus my time on conducting some of these experiments and making the connections to do this for a living. I believe that my entrepreneurial, intellectual and creative background makes me ideally suited to study at MIT, and that my experiences can bring a great deal to the conversations in the classrooms as well.
Conclusion and Mission Statement
As we move further into the 21st century, academia should expand to include these forms of digital storytelling in much the same way as it incorporated film studies. Is this a new form of literature? What is the ideal balance between structured narrative and interactivity? What does it mean to "write" a videogame? And what, exactly, defines a "digital" story is it merely the use of digital technologies to tell a story in a fashion that couldn't be done otherwise, like the new heavily-digital movies coming out of Hollywood, or does it require some degree of interactivity or online delivery? As these lines blur, at what point does "digital storytelling" simply become storytelling?
All of these questions and opportunities are what I want to explore in my graduate studies at MIT: the anthropological and sociological impact of the technology, the commercial and entrepreneurial potential of new forms of media, and most of all, new directions for narratives and experiments of my own. I want to work with brilliant artists and programmers to concoct new experiences that are both entertaining and thought-provoking, not merely in the ways in which they are presented (as I do believe the technology will eventually become transparent in the same way that we do not normally contemplate the metamedium of 'book' when we read a novel) but as true 21st-century storytelling.
And that's why I want to go to MIT.