My Storyteller Knows Me

coorg coffee plantationSeveral years ago my wife and I went to India to visit Brinda, an exchange student who lived with my wife for a year in high school. While we were in India, Brinda wanted us to visit her home region of Coorg to get a real sense of where her family’s roots were. We stayed with Ayu and Dechu, cousins of Brinda and her husband Anand. I could have stayed on their coffee plantation forever. It is a corner of the world that still moves with the rhythms of nature, not the fast pace of man’s progress.

Each evening after dinner we gathered in the garden overlooking the valley of their plantation and their cook would join us. He would then coorg cookdelight us with a story that would fit the mood of the day. When we got back home, we tried to think of a gift that was appropriate for Ayu and Dechu. We decided that since they liked stories so much, we would send them a VCR and several of our favorite movies and TV programs.

We received a wonderful thank you note from Ayu going on and on about how wonderful their new VCR was. About a year later I had a chance to drop in on them on my way to visit a supplier in Bangalore, India. I noticed that there was a thick coating of dust on the VCR and all the tapes.

I asked if there was something wrong with the VCR. They assured me that there wasn’t; that the VCR work just fine.

“But you don’t seem to be using it,” I asked.

“No, we really don’t use it anymore,” they replied.

I had to ask why.

Ayu replied “While the tapes are very nice, they are very impersonal stories from a very different culture. We find that we are much more comfortable with the evening stories from our cook. Because MY STORYTELLER KNOWS ME. He recognizes my mood and knows just how to weave the right story together to make sense of the day or heal the hurts of our family.”

In that instant, I was able to name what was so bothering me about my life’s work. I was one of many who are creating technology that keeps getting more and more impersonal. We are constantly having to adjust to the foibles of our machines (and their software), rather than the other way around. For twenty years, I’ve been working with personal computers who don’t even recognize me, let alone know me.

Larry Keeley, founder of the Doblin Group, observed that every urinal in American airports is more “intelligent” than the most expensive personal computer. Each urinal recognizes when there is a human present and when the human has left, flushing after a man walks away. With the advent of the modern laptop and smart phone, all of the technology exists to change this impersonal state of computers. But to do that, we’ve got to understand what it means to know someone else. It is also important to understand that knowing somebody is a loop, that is, I have to know about myself to be good at helping someone else understand me.

Recently, a new colleague, Chris Shaw, is bringing life to the human computer interface with what he is calling spontaneous animation. Using the camera and microphone of a laptop or smart phone, the user is able to “interact” physically and emotionally with an onscreen character. You can catch some glimpses of Shaw’s previous work in his videos of emotional animation. Stay tuned for a soon to be started Kickstarter campaign to fund the open source part of Shaw’s latest work.

Who is your storyteller? Do they know you?


This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Relationship Capital, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My Storyteller Knows Me

  1. Hmm. I like the story about the human storyteller, but not so much the automation / computerization of that capability.

    I disagree with Larry Keeley’s judgment about the relative intelligence of urinals vs. computers. Siri & Google search auto-completion exhibit more intelligence than any urinal I’ve encountered … though I do admit for a while I was fascinated by intelligent (or interactive) urinals. I’d be far more willing to revert to hand-flushed urinals than to part with my smartphone or PC.

    With respect to the prospect of making a more personalized computer storyteller, it seems to me that to enable a computerized storyteller to be as intimately knowledgable about my life as the cook is about the family (in your story above) would have significant privacy costs, or at least risks.

    As a recovering ubiquitous computing researcher, I also believe that progress on more personalized or proactive computing applications runs the risk of infantilization of human agency. The best characterization of this risk I’ve encountered was a provocative UbiComp 2006 paper by Yvonne Rogers, Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences.

  2. Skip Walter says:


    Thanks as usual for your insightful comments. I realized that in previous posts I had not posted this little blurb on “My storyteller knows me” which was mostly written quite a while ago. I am in the process of using the posts to pull together a different way of building learning/doing systems. The meme of “my storyteller knows me” is one of the key threads.

    Thanks also for reminding me about Yvonne and Mark Weiser. You and I clearly have different views of their visions.


  3. John Hertel says:

    While still very rudimentary in its “knowledge of me”, I would have to say that my iPhone’s ability to use location services (or similarly Google Now on Android) to learn where and when I go to certain places, and provide me useful information about my upcoming “trips” is a step in the direction you describe. Heck, sometimes my iPhone knows my schedule better than my wife does! I’m still going to hold on to both of them, however. 🙂

  4. Kat Heath says:

    Perhaps it is useful to look at some of the new gaming technology that exists such as the Xbox One\Kinect that monitors the room to see who is in it, log that person into the interface and displays the appropriate, preconfigured, content. It is uncharacteristic of my to promote this particular UX experience as anything other the clumsy, slow and disenchanting, however I think it a baby step towards technology that doesn’t just anticipate and correctly act on our commands but acknowledges and reacts to our presence. Imagine if the Xbox could appraise my energy level entering the room and promote an exercise program or stream my favorite BBC cozy to fit my mood? Or ‘know’ that my son has been researching marine life earlier that day on the internet for school and then promote a national geographic show or Jaws?

    I still think it is a stretch to go from this sort of technology to that of the deeply personal human interaction Skip’s hosts value. No matter how advanced siri becomes it will not ever be as satisfying as a conversation with a good friend. Nor do I feel that should be a goal for technologist. Far more important is to create technology that does not obscure the human element but enables and enhances it. Technology should promote community and real person interaction instead of trying to supplant it.

    And one last thought on the subject of storytelling is that often the very best stories tell us something we didn’t know and help us change how we might otherwise view something. Most (maybe all?) of our technology is predisposed to either guide us towards uniform, predicable behavior or is based on the assumption of uniform predictable behavior.

    Skip, I’d be interested to hear more on the principles underpinning your learning\doing systems and the problem spaces you feel such systems will be mature enough to address.

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