Narrative in a Posthuman World: A Brief Exploration
We are living in a time of “environmental and socio-technical change,” where there is a shift away from the needs of humans and towards the nonhuman (Forlano 2017). With this shift inevitably comes changes to design methods and practice. In response, I will briefly discuss narrative, a distinctly human-centered and ubiquitous concept in interaction design. Particularly, what role it could play in navigating this new design landscape.
Narrative Intelligence: A Brief Overview
Narrative has numerous definitions, however in general, it is said to be a natural and effective way for humans to exchange information; a way of assigning meaning to facts and behavior (Grimaldi et al. 2013). In interaction design, narrative frequently brings the user through a logical sequence of interactions (Grimaldi et al. 2013). It can be incorporated into a design itself, like the use of certain elements of oral storytelling in the design of a multimedia knowledgebase (Mateas & Sengers 2003). It can also be used as a research tool to drive design decisions, like one of my favorite UX research methods, directed storytelling. Figure 1 outlines one way of organizing the functions of narrative in product design and in the design process.
Because narrative is inherently human-centered, it permeates through to most other human disciplines (Grimaldi et al. 2013). For example, in art, narrative is a powerful mode of representation often used to subvert the status quo (Mateas & Sengers 2003). In education, narratives can help integrate unrelated subjects (Schneider & Caswell 2003). Folktales have even been an interest of AI researchers (Mateas & Sengers 2003).
Narrative in a Posthuman World
In D.H. Lawrence’s famous poem, Snake, Lawrence predicts a move towards a posthuman world, where the narrator is caught in an ethical dilemma while encountering a snake, whom he attributes human qualities and characteristics, ultimately acknowledging the snake as equally powerful to humans. The use of figurative language in this poem speculates on a human-decentered worldview, and possible anthropomorphism, using language like the snake “looked around like a God” and seemed like a “king” (Ryan 2015).
Despite its distinct humanness, narrative can be a useful tool in an increasingly posthuman world. As did Lawrence and his critics, if designers use it to effectively speculate on the experiences of nonhumans, it can perhaps lead to new insights. For example, for a New Zealand river gaining legal status (Forlano 2017), one could speculate what narrative(s) resonates with said river? Perhaps it is one of continual fluctuation between balance and imbalance. Or in another example, what is the narrative of a lone pigeon in Bryant Park? What is the collective story of a team of robots in a Korean fast food restaurant?
In addition to being a source of inspiration for insight on nonhuman perspectives (Barcz 2017), narrative can enforce ethical standards, akin to bible stories and folklore. Perhaps narrative can be an effective format to debate ethical issues designers face with AI, a challenge Holmquist describes in Intelligence on Tap.
Narrative can also function as a benchmark to design towards; asking how a design contributes to the greater narrative of an object or environment, such as the preservation and wellbeing of wildlife, or towards fairer representation. For example, how do robot waiters fit into the narrative of restaurant culture, or gender representation?
Issues with Narrative
Since narrative is an inherently human concept, applying meaning to nonhumans — like calling a snake a king — nonetheless feels a bit inauthentic. One day at school, my classmates and I were discussing if as human designers, we can ever really abandon our human perspectives. I think that while good designers in theory should leave themselves out of their design work, we have seen that it is difficult to escape certain frameworks, all the more so the inherently human.
While it is difficult to exclude ourselves entirely from designing around nonhumans, perhaps we can see it as an opportunity to get closer to designing systems impartial to human interests, essentially designing ourselves out of them. Or, they can teach us entirely new languages of interaction to contribute to our own practice in this area. Maybe an entirely new definition of narrative, or a set of shared values, will emerge.
In a posthuman society, narrative could be a tool to reveal new insights, debate ethical issues, contextualize design decisions, and lead to new methods of interaction. However, at this time we can only speculate and impose our own ideas of narrative, or create narratives informed by science and literature. In any case, it will be interesting to see what emerges.
Barcz, A. (2017). Animal Narratives and Culture: Vulnerable Realism. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Forlano, L. (2017). Posthumanism and design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16–29.
Grimaldi, S., Fokkinga, S., & Ocnarescu, I. (2013). Narratives in design: a study of the types, applications and functions of narratives in design practice. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces (pp. 201–210).
Holmquist, L. E. (2017). Intelligence on tap: artificial intelligence as a new design material. Interactions, 24(4), 28–33.
Mateas, M., & Sengers, P. (Eds.). (2003). Narrative intelligence. J.
Benjamins Pub. Retrieved from https://www.aaai.org/Papers/Symposia/Fall/1999/FS-99-01/FS99-01-001.pdf
Ryan, D. (2015). Following snakes and moths: modernist ethics and posthumanism. Twentieth-Century Literature, 61(3), 287–304.
Schneider, B., & Caswell, D. (2003). Using narrative to build community and create knowledge in the interdisciplinary classroom. History of Intellectual Culture, 3(1).