The topic here is ‘a conference on narratives in DC, the Hirshhorn Gallery on the National Mall and social faux pas in the scientific setting.’ Last week, I participated in the third workshop of a series hosted by DARPA (for those of you not in the working-with-the-government-on-science-can-be-cool-and-not-a-pain-in-the-ass know, this is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
The theme of these workshops is ‘Narrative Networks.’ In short, DARPA is interested in how neurobiological findings can inform how people develop storylines for events, and ultimately how these storylines – or narratives – influence behavior. But before you get all Big-Brother-at-it-again on me, you should realize that we’re a long ways away from anything nefariously Lex Luther. In fact, that’s not really the focus. As they claim publically (and I would say somewhat truthfully), most of the focus of DARPA’s neuro-themed work is geared at rejuvenating returning troops both mentally (e.g., combating PTSD) and physically (e.g., think of Luke Skywalker getting a new hand in Empire Strikes Back).
The cool thing about this workshop, and hopefully the resulting program, is that the focus is on storytelling, i.e., how people tell them, how they receive them, and ultimately what they pull as actionable information from the narratives they construct to decipher a stream of events having some kind of perceived sequence.
Such a topic is dear to me because it inspired the first paper I ever wrote on anything vaguely cognitive (see “The Statistical Theory of Storytelling” at jasonsherwin.com under ‘Writings’ to find out what a motivated – or anti-social, depending on your interpretation – grad student can do from 6pm to 6am on a Friday night). One of the things that fascinated me then, as it does now, is how a sequence of events can be integrated into a cohesive whole, an understanding if you will. It is quite clear to see why DARPA could be interested in this too. They are part of the Defense Dept., which is operating in parts of the world in which a set of actions can set off a drastically different interpretation and perception than one would expect from similar actions in the West. It’s all about piecing together the information into some kind of narrative, whether it comes from text (e.g., news), video (e.g., TV) or audio (e.g., cell phones and radio).
And, strangely enough, this is where the Hirshhorn Gallery comes into play. After the conference with DARPA ended, I spent a day on the National Mall and stopped into this modern art gallery, which is right next to the more famous (and awesome!) Air & Space Museum. There was one exhibit in particular in the Hirshhorn by the Belgian artist David Claerbout called “Sections of a happy moment” (2007) that resonated quite strongly with the whole narratives theme of the previous few days with DARPA.
For Claerbout’s exhibit, you enter a dark room in which there is a large projection screen and a comfortable bench in front for you to sit and to watch. There is a recording of a calming modern piano composition going on in the background. When you first start watching, you realize that a series of pictures are being shown. The first picture I saw (it varies for everyone depending on when you enter the room) was of a girl smilingly extending her arms up. The next picture showed several people witnessing a ball being thrown in the air, the girl now being shown as part of the larger scene in which she is catching the ball. The next picture framed the expressions on two of the onlookers’ faces during the ball scene.
With each new picture, it became increasingly clear that we were looking at a snapshot of one moment in time, but photographed from many angles that slowly revealed the details of the moment. With each new picture projected on the screen, another question – even ones you might not have had – is answered: Is everyone in the picture happy? (One woman shows a passive look on her face) Is the group happily tossing the ball the only set of onlookers? (No, we realize at some later picture that there are other onlookers). Etc. In other words, over the course of observing these static images, all of which give just another piece of information about the same moment in time, one can construct a narrative to explain the observations. This ability – so innate – to all of us is the thing that I’m trying to understand in my research. And that’s where DARPA fits into the picture research-wise.
But the narrative networks conference was not all about happy endings and fearless leaders. Although I must say it was a much-awaited ending on the 12-hour first day to have Project Manager Lt. Col. Casebeer (i.e., the fearless leader) treat everyone to a round afterwards! No, there was also a clown on the stage of this conference, just as any of the best Shakespearean play can have, from Lear’s Fool to Twelfth Night’s Feste.
Neither I nor the other people attending the conference had any idea at the onset which one of us would turn out to be the fool. But just like the Hirshhorn exhibit, with successive observations, it became easy to construct the narrative and develop a reaction: what the heck is this person saying? Does she hear the uncomfortable shift in the room, along with the increased volume of people typing away on laptops to pass the time until she finishes speaking? Will somebody get the Vaudevillean hook out please?
It’s hard to imagine that anyone in a room of science geeks and engineers could do anything “uncool,” but it seemed that every time this person spoke it was like an uncomfortably loud and lingering fart that cut the air – sometimes for a length of 5 minutes! It was the pinnacle of the scientific social culture’s faux pas. But how do you deal with that professionally? Esp. when breakout sessions occur during breaks in the regular program, and you have to guard yourself from the undesirable oral flatulence of this person, while trying to have meaningful discussions with other attendees?
If there is any bit of professional advice in this blog then it is surely in this scenario. For while replies to other posts of mine have asked for divulging entries on the nature of my research (I hope this has peeled back the curtain a bit), this issue on ‘how to get away without looking like you’re doing so from professional time bombs at a conference’ is an art (and probably a blog post) all of its own. In short though, I would say – in the context of our emphasis on narratives – remove yourself, albeit gracefully, from the flatulating party’s narrative. In other words, get out of Dodge! More practically speaking, go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, deliver an awkward silence, anything to cover the lingering odor! That way, you make your own story a lot cooler amongst those of us who have always wanted to be the “cool kids,” but were just too damn good at algebra. And keep an eye out for DARPA and the Hirshhorn. They’re both doing some cool $#%@.