Getting practical about story and argument in multimedia

Sheltering from last Friday’s withering heat, a group of scholars, journalists, and technologists gathered in the conference room at the Berkman Center for a day of collaborative brainstorming and problem-solving around the work of telling stories and making rigorous, academically-persuasive arguments in multimedia. Rather than beginning with theory, the group focused its energies on a project already in production. The results were promising—both in terms of the project’s publication prospects, and for the glimpse it afforded participants of a process that brings creative energies and a collaborative spirit to academic occasions.

The project in the crosshairs was Ahmed Kabil’s “Geodesic Domes, or, No Direction Home,” which picks out the traces of Martin Heidegger’s ideas about technology in the context of sixties counterculture, Buckminster Fuller’s utopian designs, and Stewart Brand’s cultural interventions around the image of the Earth viewed from space. It’s a topic that could be addressed in text—as indeed Ahmed already has done, in the 7,000-word paper for historian Benjamin Lazier at Reed College. But the topic also attracts a congeries of charismatic media: film of Merry Pranksters and interviews with psychedelic intellectuals; video of altered landscapes and domes hacked together out of cars; audio of Martin Heidegger lecturing about home and Bucky Fuller singing an anthem about geodesic domes.

Thanks to the web, finding and linking to such media isn’t difficult; finding a way to orchestrate an argument through them and with them is another matter. With the help of web-designer Ibrahim Kabil (who also happens to be his brother), Ahmed had worked up a draft of his project in Zeega, the multimedia-storytelling tool developed by metaLAB cofounders James Burns, Jesse Shapins, and Kara Oehler. But finding a way to make media say things text can’t say is challenging stuff. On Friday, Ahmed had help from a merry, cross-disciplinary band that included James Bergman, an incoming Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s History of Science program; Josh Glenn, journalist, semiotician, and cofounder of Hilobrow.com; metaLAB founder and faculty director Jeffrey Schnapp; and Dalida María Benfield, a video artist and Berkman-Center fellow; as well as a team of editors from Zeega (managing editor Julia Yezbick and editor/producer Elizabeth Watkins) and Jeanne Hafner, editor of “Environment Built,” a planned series of multimedia essays about landscape studies for the online journal Places; Sandy Zipp, a colleague of Jeanne’s who studies American Civ at Brown; and (in addition to yours truly) Jesse Shapins of metaLAB and Zeega, as well as Berkman-Center summer interns Raquel Acosta, Melody Zhang, Dino Sossi, and Christina Powers, on hand to document the process.

Starting with a critical review of the project, the group progressed from ideas and storylines that would enrich Ahmed’s argument to the critical question of developing a kind of grammar to synthesize media types and manage the interposition of text, sound, and image. Together, we struggled towards not only a working prototype of a section of Ahmed’s project, but a greater understanding of the affordances of multimedia for argument and narrative in the academic context—and a glimpse of what beauty looks like in this emerging medium as well. The consensus was twofold: Ahmed has a great project underway, and collaborative creative sessions are a salutary addition to academic life.