Tag Archives: anthropologists

Worlds Atlas: Story telling & world building made easier

“Everyone is talking about story telling, right? This is is what it looks like!”

Sunday, we had the extended family over for Memorial Day festivities.

113-859A I called the older kids into the house to listen to Lisa W. talk about a story she is working on. 

The kids rewarded me with looks that said, “You don’t really care how nice it is outside, do you?”  

But eventually they fell beneath the spell of Lisa’s story.

Then she helped us see how she made the story, how she constructed it out of real and imagined glimpses of 19th century American, rural Georgia, small town Connecticut, aboriginal cultures, and American dictionaries. It’s a hum dinger. (And I will leave it to her to describe more fully. Look for it at a cinema or a streaming media service near you.)

Lisa has been working on this story for a long time. Years. And as I watched the kids watching her, I thought, “What are the chances, with all their school work and their extracurriculars, they are ever going to have enough time to build a narrative world of their own?”

Well, one of them, Andrew, the classicist, has actually written his own language, so apparently some of them have a little extra bandwidth to work with.

But generally speaking, building a world in order to tell a story, this will be a daunting undertaking for all of them. Before they can write a single scene, they will have to summon a vast amount of imaginative material.

Then I thought, “This is what fan fic is for, clearly.” (I am slow to see some things. An internal voice will sometimes intervene, usually witheringly.) Writing “fan fiction” using something like, say, Elementary or Sherlock as your infrastructure, gives you a lot of imaginative materials: a time (19th century), a place (Victorian London), characters (Sherlock, Watson, Mrs. Hudson), crises, back stories, many transmedia variations on several themes, and so on.  The point is this: fan fic means you don’t have to start from zero.

The trouble with fan fic is that it is for some people an all-or-nothing proposition. You take the Sherlock world more or less whole.  You are glad to have so much of the world building done for you. But your creative license is perhaps a little limited. You are the captive of a certain “creative momentum,” let’s call it.

Then I thought, “what if we can do better than fan fic? What if there were an atlas that serves as an inventory of imaginative materials with beautifully specified times, places, characters, crises, back stories, etc. These would be more modular, less motivated, than the materials we draw from existing stories. More “Chinese menu,” as the cliche has it.

jenny odell satellite google googlemaps art collage photo pacific rim somarts SHIPS
Jenny Odell

Let’s say your real dramatic interest, the thing you really want to write about, is characters who are making the transition from small towns to big cities. The “worlds atlas” can give you a range of options (medieval England, imperial Rome, ancient China, etc.) and you can choose. The Atlas will give you the envelope for your story. Not just “medieval England” but the deep historical particulars of town to city transitions in 12th century London. The why, the who and the what.

Or let’s say what interests you is people who are being whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal). (Game of Thrones gives us a glimpse of this sort of thing occasionally.)

Or let’s say you are interested in characters preoccupied with transformation. The worlds atlas would offer up werewolves, vampires, Transformers, and yes Mrs. Hudson. (No, not Mrs. Hudson. Just kidding. Mrs. Hudson is always and inalterably Mrs. Hudson.) The writer can choose from the worlds atlas. The writer can combine.

Something like this might have been the origin of Being Human, the TV series undertaken first in the UK and then more memorably in the US. Being Human brings together a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire. The results are interesting not least because the “worlds atlas” (let’s pretend there was one) gave three very different creatures preoccupied with transformation and then rinsed away the genre “coating” that normally adheres to them. Liberated from their origins and brought together as roommates in an old house in Boston (aka Montreal), wonderful story telling happens. Some story-telling elements are supplied, but no story-telling option is predictable. And that’s a lovely formulae for the construction of the new popular culture: still accessible but increasingly unpredictable.

The worlds made available in the Atlas still have a certain pre-fab quality. The writer doesn’t have to start from zero. But we have got rid of some of that “creative momentum” that can constrain fan fic. And we have “rinsed” away some of genre constraints as well. The storyteller has greater “executive privilege.” She is taking fewer “notes” from the original creator. She is calling deeper creative shots.

There are risks here. What if the outcome looks mechanical, a little paint-by-numbers?  What if the seams show? Well, possibly. But of course gifted people would alter and transform the originals so that their origins went away. They would also bring them into combinations which would have transformative effects of their own. (We should note in passing that rhetorical training in the old liberal arts curriculum routinely asked students to adopt some well known original and then transform it until the original became original.)

I know we are as a culture entranced by the romantic idea that real creativity comes from a single author. But the Worlds Atlas would enable (and acknowledge) a story telling that comes many sources and a division of labor. Some character development could come from one person. Some dialogue from someone else. The mise en scene from a third party. (This is pretty much how Hollywood storytelling works in any case.) The “writer” is  like a show runner, a curator of beautifully wrought materials.  (Mark Earls and Faris Yakob have both suggested ways out of conventional ideas of creativity.)

Once there is an Atlas, several possibilities open up.

the atlas economy

And if this is an atlas, it should also be an economy. As every reader of this blog knows too well, we have a crisis of employment at the moment. The problem is that we don’t have a way to pay many of our creators of culture. An Atlass economy could help solve this problem. We don’t just borrow materials. In some cases, we commission them. “Where did you get that village! Unbelievably good.” “Oh, that. That came from Gutfeld. He’s living in Vermont now, so his costs are low and his rates are good. And yes, he’s a big talent. We use him a lot.” Or we come to be seen as especially gifted “show runners” (“show curators?”) and everyone wants to work with us. We will get our name in the credits and some part of the proceeds of the culture content so crafted. Again a lot like Hollywood.

collaborative story telling in real time

Another idea we have about creativity is that it happens somewhere sometime, and comes to the audience only if and when it’s perfect. But an Atlas might open up the possibility of a showrunner who assembles the story in close to real time in an act of literary improv, with meanings flying all over the place before a breathless audience who gasp as the story materializes before them. (There is some small parallel here with the people who know “play” a video game by watching it played in a run-through on YouTube. I watch Uncharted 4 this way. It was mesmerizing.)

a directory for story sources

In a recent blog entry, I looked at the relationship between the show runner, Natalie Chaidez, and world builder Seth Horowitz at Brown, and the collaboration between them that enabled them to create a rich story called Hunters. God knows how Natalie found Seth. It compares to Malcolm Gladwell’s miraculous detection of “research juste” in a university library. The Worlds Atlas could make this easier, so that world builders can search for academics who can help.

There is an anthropology piece here. And I’m sorry to take so long to get to it. Anthropologists are good at the communicative and cultural materials of a world. They can specify rituals, patterned behavior, clothing codes, material culture, style and fashion. They can help you think about those cultural moments when people are being “whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal).” In some cases, they can supply worlds fully build, but not yet occupied for literary purposes.

Take for instance the extraordinary world captured for us by Gordon Mathews in his book Chungking Mansions. I give you the description on Amazon.

There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.

World builders, start your engines. But first call Mr. Mathews. He can help.

Also, come to think of it, call me. I’ve spend the last couple of years looking at how people look at TV and the results are, I think, interesting. The fundamentals of story telling have been transformed. Many of the old rules of culture, the ones that gave us popular culture after World War II, have been systematically rethought. It’s not too much to say that they have changed what a “story” is and what “telling” has to be if it wants to engage an audience.  (Here’s the somewhat general view I wrote for Netflix and Wired.)

The Atlas should be an opportunity to contemplate how we want to tell stories, the imaginative grammars that may, and in some cases must, be employed.


I remember reading an interview with David Lynch. He was talking about the origins of Blue Velvet. I believe he said that the entire story seemed to him implicit in a particular flower. Sometimes what we need are not the bits and pieces of the story but a sense of a world from which all these details will then follow. The Atlas could make these available too.

A case in point is the work of Michael Paul Smith who escaped the after-effects of a brutal childhood by building a miniature world called Elgin Park.  It’s a provocative place, a world well built, and at the moment story free. (Except for the ghosts of Smith’s past which flit here and there.)  The Worlds Atlas can be a catalogue of frames of mind, sense impressions, and other materials out of which worlds swim.


Thanks to Jenny Odell for the second image. See more of her magnificent work here.

This essay was first posted on Medium.  It has been slightly edited. This is now the definitive version.


I think Michael Paul Smith’s website appears down at the moment. I have left the link in place in the hopes that this gate way to Elgin Park comes back up.

a last thought

I was talking to, Tommy, one of the people who listened to Lisa W.’s spell binding story. We were talking about the courses he plans to take next year at school. I blurted out, “Too bad there’s not a course on world building.” If anyone knows of a course on world building, please let us know below.




How to manage many stakeholders

Thomas Campbell at the MET.scapA note on style: I wrote this in a hotel room somewhere. I used Scapple from Literature and Latte to do it.  It was really just a note to myself. But then I thought, “maybe this is a better, more visual, way to present the post.” Tell me what you think about the form as well as the content, please.

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

Robot rescue! Who should we send into the uncanny valley?

Minerva-Terrace-Bicycle-Corps-001Who should we sent into the uncanny valley?  I believe anthropologists might be the right people for the job.

Wait, what’s an uncanny valley again?  As robots become more like humans, the response from humans is positive.  But as robots begin to close the gap, suddenly humans react with revulsion.  There is something chilling about a creature who is near human but not quite human enough.

A vague resemblance is good.  Something like perfect identity is good.  But in between, when the robot is very like a human but still identifiably different, that’s when we put our foot down.  That’s when we get our backs up.  That’s when we find repudiating robots and insisting on their exile in the uncanny valley.

It turns out that anthropologists are good at the uncanny valley.  After all, we spend our time looking at how humans construct and then navigate a world of meaning.  So we are alert to the small signals and involuntary communications with which humans inform other human beings about their intentions and inclinations.    A lot of this is uncanny in another sense.  It’s astounding how good we are at picking up signals that are barely visible. These are the things that robot makers find extremely difficult to program in.

To read subtle signals is the work of anthropology because it’s such a big part of humanhood.  People who can’t send signals or read them are tragic figures.  They are adrift in the very communities that locate and secure the rest of us.  They are lost in social space.  The rest of us are as satellites constantly sending and receiving GPS signals to figure out where we are relative to every thing and one else.

Incidentally, this is why we are so very interested in Autism at the moment.  Some people are bad at signaling but as Aspies  they find themselves in positions of wealth and influence because they possess other,  extraordinary powers of pattern recognition.  And this is a lovely paradox to reckon with and the reason that no fewer than five TV show that feature Aspies (including Bones, The Bridge, and The Big Bang Theory).  Generally, the digital world of innovation and code writing is a world the Aspie finds as transparent as human communities remain opaque.  (Let’s take the character Peter Gregory [as played by the recently departed Christopher Evan Welch] in the HBO show Silicon Valley as a case in point.)

So anthropologist are, I would argue, exactly the people most fit for the uncanny valley.  They are peculiarly well suiting to helping with the programming and design that can help bring robot across the valley and into the human community as fully welcome, integrated parts of it.  (editor!)

Anthropologists are good at phatic communication.  These are the little sounds we give off.  A sigh, a groan, a laugh.  Phatic communication signals our emotional and social condition.  Crucial to human relationships, but tough for programmers because it is in some engineering communities classified as “exhaust data.”  (See my investigation of this problem here.)  Robots are going to have to give off phatic signals.  So we are going to have to consult the anthropologist on this one, not the engineer.

Anthropologists are also masters of sprezzatura.  This is a big piece of human communications.  It consists in the art of learning some social convention and then making it look absolutely natural.  This is a matter of concealing art with art, as Castiglione would say.  (See by treatment of the idea here.)  These social conventions are necessarily hard to see, because the community has deliberately concealed their existence and use.  Again, it makes sense to call in the Anthropologist.

Anthropologist are good at all the signals that have been deliberately removed from view.  One of the reasons that on line meetings (telepresence) has not taken off that many bosses exert their veto power through small signals.  For instance, they may signal their disapproval of an idea by leaning back ever so slightly in their chair.  Subordinates spot this signal…or perhaps it is better to say they sense it…and the idea is nixed.  Again, this sort of thing is generally missing from robot programming.

Finally, anthropologists are good at contradiction, at the ways humans entertain conflicting thoughts and emotions, and give off mixed signals.  And this contradiction is the sort of thing that offends the very soul of a certain kind of engineer.

Of course, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to help out here.   Michael Silverstein at the University of Chicago used to talk about people who were simply supernaturally gifted at social communication.  Not surprisingly they end up in senior management, in sales, in teaching, in marketing, anywhere where their ability serves them to aid in the task of communications.   It’s also probably to that novelists should be particularly useful here.   Show runners like Beau Willimon (House of Cards), and Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) would be superb as well.  After all, they use social signals to help us construct interior conditions and social interactions.

So you don’t have to be an anthropologist.  But it helps I think if you are.  You are trained to understand the uncanny valley.   Here’s a very partial list.  Apologies to all I have excluded!  Ken Anderson, Katarina Graffman, Jane Fulton Suri, Mark Dawson, Charles Starrett, Robbie Blinkoff, Rita Denny, Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Emilie Hitch, German Dziebel, Miriam Lueck Avery, Amy Santee, Richard Wise, Patricia Sachs Chess, Phil Surles, Morgan Gerard, Melissa Cefkin, Susan Menke, to name a few.  Ok, a lot.  (People missing from this list are going to be so mad at me.  Apologies all around.)  These people can help us across the uncanny valley.


“Bicyclists’ group on Minerva Terrace. [Lt. James A. Moss’s company of 25th Infantry, U. S. Army Bicycle Corps, from Fort Missoula, Montana.] YNP.”  October 7, 1896.