Jim Fleming: Gangaji’s take on self is simple. Forget your story and zoom in on the experience of consciousness. But Jonathan Harris wants to zoom out. Harris is the creator behind “We Feel Fine, “I Want You to Want Me”and other projects that used new media to reflect human experience. In his latest work, he's bringing together a community of storytellers in the hope that combining our individual stories might reveal the ecstatic truth of human life. Anne Strainchamps asked Harris to explain his storytelling platform called “Cowbird.”
Jonathan Harris: It's a few things, I think the way I could most succinctly describe it is that it's a very simple tool that anyone can use to tell very beautiful stories on the Web. It allows you to collaborate with other people in telling the stories of the larger sagas that are happening in the world. So saga is this concept that’s really core to Cowbird and it's this idea that there are these news events now. Things like the Japanese earthquake and the Indian tsunami and the Arab Spring and the war in Iraq, and more recently here at home, the Occupy Wall Street movement. These things that happened in a very decentralized, complex, quickly changing, unpredictable dynamic and they touch many, many people’s lives. So Cowbird presents a new way to try to cover those types of stories using very simple human stories, the things that you or I might stumble into in an afternoon.
Like, I've been spending a lot of time up at Occupy Oakland. One night, these anarchist kids had broken into a building and about 300 police in riot gear had formed lines and they were about to fire these teargas canisters into the crowd. There was this general feeling of hysteria, and I noticed this young couple in their early 20s that were just standing in the middle of all these chaos and they were just kissing each other. I saw this and I took a picture of it and I thought, “That’s what it's all about.”I think if there's a message in Cowbird, that is the message. This crazy stuff is raging all around us in the world, yet we still find a way to be who we are as individuals. So it's really like human as in the news.
Strainchamps: So if you were going to turn that into a story or post on Cowbird, what would you do? What would it look like?
Harris: So that is actually a story that I have up there right now, and what it consists of is the photograph that I took of this couple with the people running around them and them kissing in the middle of the craziness. Then I just wrote up a little vignette about what it felt like at that moment and all the things I heard around me, what it's not like, what it looked like. Then, there's lots of metadata about that moment in my life, like where it took place, when it took place, who was there, what was it about. All of that metadata becomes connection points so you can see that story in context and see other things that relate to it.
Strainchamps: You were talking about sagas, how would that post that you made of that moment of the couple kissing with chaos swirling around them, how would that connect into the larger saga of the Occupy story?
Harris: Sure. So, the way Cowbird works is that it allows anybody to keep a diary of their life, and that diary consists of individual stories. So that story of the couple kissing is part of my personal diary. But I've also flagged that story as being relevant to the Occupy saga. It shows up both in my diary and also as part of the broader Occupy saga to which many, many different people are contributing.
Strainchamps: Yes. It’s fascinating. It sounds like you're inventing a new way of dealing with a huge volume of stories.
Harris: Yes. Specifically, I'm interested in finding a deeper way, because one thing that we all feel now is we're drowning in data all of the time. One thing I've been noticing is that, throughout history, communication has been getting shorter and shorter and more and more fractured. So, you start with things like letter writing, which is very deep and slow, and then you move into phone calls and then you move into faxes and then you move into emails. Now, we're kind of hovering around tweets as the canonical form of communication right now. But, it's unclear to me that there's another level of compression after the tweet, unless we start going around and making monosyllabic grunt, if there's something like this.
So I think we're at this interesting point where, in a way, we've reached the terminal velocity of how fast our communication can go. Then, a question arises which is, “Well, do we stay there? Do we keep tweeting? Or, do we hit some kind of wall and bounce back in the other direction, suddenly starting to crave a little bit more depth and substance again? I'm betting on that, Cowbird is really putting a flag in the sand and saying, “This is a space on the Internet which is dedicated to deeper, longer lasting, more nourishing storytelling than you're going to find anywhere else.”
Strainchamps: I'm curious, why the name “Cowbird”?
Harris: It's a funny name, and basically, the reason for that is to try to combine the traits of a cow and a bird together. So, when I think about a cow, I think of something very slow and steady and methodical, and when I think of a bird, I think of something very fast and free and loose and joyful. I think the Internet, recently, things like Twitter and Facebook have been all bird and no cow. Then you have more traditional mediums like novels and operas which are like all cow and now bird. So, this project is really trying to combine those two extremes to create an experience that’s both contemplative and deep and nourishing but that's also very fast and efficient and joyful and fun to use. I think the technologies we've seen in the last few years have been very good at feeding the kind of frantic compulsive side of us. But I think there's this other side of us that’s been starving, and that other side has more to do with planting the depths and really connecting with people on a deeper level and really studying your own experience also in that deeper longer lasting way.
Strainchamps: When you were talking about gathering all of these individual stories that are part of sagas, it kind of sounds like crowd sourced news, and yet these stories, some maybe new stories true stories but some might not be. Does it matter if they're true?
Harris: It doesn’t really matter, it's more the feeling. There's this idea that, you know, you see this sometimes in like the novels of Tolstoy or the movies of Werner Herzog or Chinese epic [xx]. Basically, you have this situation where there's many, many individual elements and no one of these elements really tells you the whole story. When you start to get enough of these things coming together, this kind of feeling starts to emerge. I think that that feeling that comes through is actually closer to the truth of the thing than any one account of it could ever be. It's not necessarily the factual truth, it's more the idea of the poetic truth. With Cowbird, I can spend the time telling these stories, and as I do so, my overall life story becomes more and more beautiful. I'm also contributing to the larger collective stories that we're all taking part in, and those collective stories also become more beautiful as I do my little part to tell my stories.
Strainchamps: There's a line at the bottom of the screen on Cowbird goes, “To be a witness to life.”What does that mean to you?
Harris: For me, that’s really the purpose of this project. There's this idea that as we live our lives, we see stuff and we notice things, and most of the time, we're too busy to write those things down or to tell anybody else about it. I think there's almost like a responsibility we have as individuals to tell other people about the things that we notice, that we feel, have some kind of resonance. This has been a dream of mine for many years to create a kind of public library for human experience. If there were such a library for human experience, the lessons that we learned as individuals, the wisdom that we gained as individuals could outlive us and could become part of the common so that other people can look to them for guidance - people living now and also people in future generations.
Strainchamps: There's this growing body of neuroscience suggesting that humans are literally hardwired to seek and to make stories, but that’s what our brains do all day long. Do you think all of your computer interactive projects are doing something similar? Are you building something like a great big story-making brain in a cloud?
Harris: I tend not to think about it as some kind of computer intelligence like that I really see it as individual people with individual agency over their individual stories. When you put enough of those together, you do start to get this kind of meta thing coming through, but I'm really not so much after the meta thing coming through, I'm really after giving people as individuals a rich experience. When it comes to storytelling itself, it is something that’s very deep in us. I think the role that it plays has to do it with organizing our experience so that we can make sense of it.
Strainchamps: Not just stories, I think, because with your reference to sagas, I think you were kind of invoking myth. I think that when we can all tell a story about the thing that happened to me yesterday on the way to the supermarket and the funny person I met and blah, blah, blah, but some stories are better than others. You must clearly be wanting to create a level of story that is more like myth than like anecdote.
Harris: Exactly. Yes. That’s important to me. The way I think that you do that at Web scale is you have to get lots and lots of people telling stories, and then a few of them will be like these little sparkling gems. A lot of them won't be so interesting, but that’s actually okay because even the most banal, badly photographed, poorly written story that you can imagine will still be very interesting to the people who love the person who wrote that story. What you have to do as a system designer is you have to make sure that only the really great ones are the ones that most people bump into when they're looking around the site. But that even the less great ones are still there and they still have a home and they still have a purpose. I'm not trying to create an elitist ecosystem of excellent storytellers, although Cowbird is really designed for great storytellers to use. But it's also designed for anybody to use, and the system will kind of sort them out so that, as a viewer, you're exposed to the ones that are going to interesting to you.
Flemming: Jonathan Harris is the founder of Cowbird. You can find a link to the project and to Anne Strainchamps’ uncut conversation with him on our website, ttbook.org. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of some of the audio stories from Cowbird storytellers.
Man 1: This is my Uncle Frank. Frank Glazer. Frank is 95 years old. Frank still plays concert piano, he still teaches at Bates College.
Woman 1: One night, I came upstairs and she had a dramatic look on her face, her eyes were closed. “What's wrong, nanna, are you okay?”I asked. “No, darling,” she said, “I'm dead.” “No, you're not, you're fine. We're all here downstairs.” “Oh, damn,” she replied, “I was sure this time.”
Man 2: The madwoman of [xx] spoke in tongues and protested. A small kitten sat on the threshold of her doorstep and simply gazed at me. The train pulled in the station, and finally the woman fell silent.
Man 3: … We were combat medics as we call ourselves because we were in a combat unit. There was some weird thing inside me that wanted that combat experience.
Man 4: Look at her face, you could not paint anything like this. It is so silent.
Woman 2: The female of the species throughout all of nature is destined for motherhood.
Man 5: Some of us try to deny the fact that we exist in duality. As time passes by, I realize that cycle through partners that resemble our nature and those that opposed it, all of those are simultaneously afraid to die until they’ve, I guess, we can call the state of our relation “present tense”.
Woman 3: Short remembrance of a space briefly shared, of a time briefly cared for. And then I had loved you deeply for your words, how at the turn of a phrase, you turn the world on its face, not out of malice, but out of grace.
[The storytellers included in the Cowbird audio medley are Annie Correal, Bianca Giaever, Geoffrey Gevalt, Jordan Bower, Lily Virginia, Molly Adams, Paul Louis Archer, Paulo Martins, Scott Thrift, and Jonathan Harris.]
Fleming: It's to the best of our knowledge. I'm Jim Fleming.