Theories and Metaphors of Cyberspace- Abstracts

The Storyteller's Tool-box

by: Jerrold Maddox

Think of tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. - the functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects (And in both cases there are similarities.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations

That old co-ordination of the soul, the eye and the hand... is that of the artisan which we encounter wherever the art of storytelling is at home. In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman's relationship, whether his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Walter Benjamin
The Storyteller

If there is a continuum of hypertext from my note pad, though the diaries and letters and notes of my family and my groups, into the world of selected edited and published material, then we have a world in which the regular person has been re-enabled as a writer, a thinker and a linker, rather than just a clicker.

Tim Berners-Lee

Without using there is no complete seeing, for nothing sets off the beauty of things as right application.

Soetsu Yanagi
The Unknown Craftsman

The storyteller, the individual, the artisan, many tools in one box to be applied widely different tasks and the power of personal use to reveal the beauty these kinds communication - these are the core images that can help in understanding the enchanting utility of the Web.

I enter this field from the visual arts - my background is in painting, drawing and writing about the art - so the storyteller as an artisan comes easily and necessarily because the verbal narrative alone didn't fit into my experience, it was always words and pictures and each was very different from each other and from others of apparently the same family.

The suggestion of the importance of storytelling in the use of computers derives from remark of John Seely Brown. He sees it as the way in which important wisdom is passed from master to journeyman, from teacher to student and from peer to peer, done during breaks, during waits, during travel. The Benjamin's insights deepen and enriched the idea and set it against the literary traditions of Europe.

This lead to Wittgenstein. His notion that 'the meaning is the use' was given a special twist for me by Yanagi and his profound insights into the how beauty is uncovered through use. As did Berners-Lee ideal of hypertext being an intregal part of personal, daily discourse. Narrative, the quotidian and an exchange between individuals are the loci for discourse on the web.

The relevance of these ideas were made concrete for me by use - in the winter and spring of 1995 I taught a course, Commentary on Art, entirely on-line using a dozen or so different tools or structures to connect with my students and to connect them to course materials. Each required that I and they learn to work in a different way - at times only slightly different, at other vastly different.

The art and craft of my work was grasping as best I could what tools were appropriate for each new situation, for each new telling of a story. Even though they were all available through a click on a link, each link could contain a surprise, a novelty, a new set of experiences and new skills to learn. The teacher is, out of the demands of the situation, asked to romance the student into yet again another new experience. Fears have to be overcome for the delight of new knowledge to take hold, the wide horizon, the complex maze, the space with multiform entrances and exits have be opened to delighted eyes backed out of a narrow stall.

The teaching was important to forming the images I will discuss, but more important was (and is) my own learning to use the tools, finding new one to try, new sources to look at, new directions to carry out the teaching and learning enterprise.

The storyteller in cyberspace must also be nimble and agile in learning and applying the use of new tools and revisions of old tools: here are three of many sites that look at this in different and illuminating ways - 1 & 2 & 3

The comparison of the use of computers and the changes they are and will be causing is compared, now almost by reflex, to the Gutenberg's invention of printing with movable type. I know of no mention of what can be equally illuminating comparisons with the roughly contemporary developments in the visual arts of oil painting, engraving and etching. All three of which by their particular character and individual artists application of this character (look, for instance, at the brothers Van Eyck and Titian for examples oil glazes over tempera underpainting) changed a way of representing and seeing in as deeply, if less conspicuously, as did printing change the character of reading and writing.

What I would like to discuss in detail is how particular ways of working with computers suggest a panoply of particular uses which, depending on the individual skills and imagination, open up a rich canvas for telling tales, a stage for multilayered, interactive narrative. The toolbox/tool I will focus on is Hypertext Markup Language as an evolving container and medium. Each new version hammered out with passion, intelligence, a sense of elegance and social responsibility changes the metaphors with which the teller and user works. Technology, craft, imagination as they are applied by the toolmakers inform how the stories can be told which, of course, wrap around to influence how the next version of the tools are shaped. The storyteller, the toolbox, the tools and the toolmaker become as tightly linked as the were in the 15th and 16th centuries, but in an even more intimate setting - illustrating tales across a global table top.