Voices in the data stream: hacking networked storytelling

One of the richest parts of the Berkman fellows program is the way the convergent interests of a spectrum of expertise and sensibility express themselves in collaboration and collegial engagement. A terrific example from the current fellowship cycle is the networked storytelling group, in which a multidisciplinary band of thinkers and makers come together to look at—and experiment with—narrative experience in networked life. Last weekend, the group held a hackathon at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, furnishing an opportunity for journalists, data wranglers, scholars, activists, and artists (an overlapping map of cohorts and crafts) to explore the challenges of telling a complex story by various means.

We focused our efforts on a shared pool of material relating to an underreported story of unrest in Bangladesh, which centered on the trial and sentencing of Abdul Quader Mollah, an Islamist party leader accused of mass murder in the context of Bangladesh’s 1971 struggle for separation from Pakistan. With material curated by Ivan Sigal, a 2013 Berkman fellow and executive director of Global Voices, along with fellows Dalia Othman, Tim Davies, and others. We relied heavily as well on special coverage of the protests curated by Global Voices. Despite a helpful explainer from blogger and Global Voices contributor Reswan, delivered to the group via Skype from Dhaka in the wee hours of the night, we all felt underprepared to take on the enormity of the protest story and the fraught history and politics of Bangladesh. With a certain degree of humility and uncertainty, then, we dove into finding ways to explore media and data associated with the story in hopes of bringing aspects of it to light.

Having offered the exceedingly-vague notion of creating a project that explored my own ignorance, rather than seeking a false sense of expertise; and further animated by a desire to understand the materiality of Shahbag Square in Dhaka (center of the protests) and its connection to the online movement fostered there, I fell into a conversation with Ainsley Sutherland of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Casting about for ways to embody or evoke a spatial sense of a place neither of us had visited, we hit upon the power of audio—both for its intimacy and somatic intuitiveness and for its estranging powers—and quickly set ourselves the constraint of developing an audio-only project.

Joined by designer/engineer Mike Estee, we combed Youtube and Soundcloud for sonic traces of the story, finding a wealth of material in songs, protest, interviews, and news coverage. As rich typologies inherent in the media began to emerge, we turned towards abstraction, playing with various strategies for narrativizing, gamifying, or otherwise interactively animating a database of sound. Immediately, however, we faced the limitations imposed by our own ignorance—of language, culture, and context—with respect to the question of responsibly organizing any such rubric. We returned then to reliance on the senses, on the intuitive response to our confusion and doubts, as an organizing principle for the eventual experience of the work. In particular, the use of sensory rather than epistemological principles for organizing the material—and activating the help of others—became appealing.

We decided to confront the alterity of the story—in a certain sense, to embrace and explore the problem of what press critic Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” that is often the ground of mainstream media consumer’s perspective. In the second instance, we were curious to ground our experience of the story—to spatialize it—to understand it as a congeries of material, somatic encounters and network effects. The sheer diversity of our audio sources took us away from a confrontation with Shahbag Square, ushering us towards a more wide-ranging and abstract notion of space as a quality emerging from sonic experience.

In the end, we designed an audio installation piece, suitable for a gallery, in which several thread of audio clips played serially through headphones. Our inspiration was nothing other than the kindergarten classic “telephone game,” where whispered voices introduce generative effects. Listeners, each having a private experience of the audio clips, would be prompted to describe what they heard for those not listening; gradually, the separate streams would diverge, with different clips played for the several listeners, who then would confront in dialogue the divergent sounds they were experiencing. For simplicity’s sake, Mike, Ainsley, and I dj’d the sounds by hand from our laptops for a group of volunteer listeners; the file below offers one of the prototype sounds streams we edited together quickly over the course of the afternoon:

(NB: the name of the file, “newlucky,” comes from the source of the first clip in the stream: an interview with Lucky Apter, a young woman who became something of an avatar and spokesperson for the protesters in Shahbag.)

Mike, Ainsley, and I agreed that, while our knowledge of the complexities of the Shahbag movement remained beyond our grasp, our understanding of the issue was tweaked upward in promising ways. This provocation came mostly out of the encounter with material which, while raw to us, was very much cooked for participants in the events. The sheer impact of sound, combined with the invitation to discourse and description, felt like a promising modality for discovering limits to our comprehension as consumers of the news as well as thinkers and makers. I hope to explore the possibilities of a project of this nature for animating audio from a host of news projects—steering away from the didactic and the explicative, opening up dialogues of uncertainty and humility often missing from mainstream news channels—a possibility emerging in the context of networks, offering the chance to create new networks in turn.