Deciphering Culture

Archive for the ‘Empathy’ Category

Shifting the “bottom line”: recognizing the power of storytelling

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Earlier this year, I wrote a short piece for the print newsletter of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center on the increased recognition of storytelling as a valuable methodology whose use is no longer limited to communication and marketing. I’m posting it on Deciphering Culture in hopes that the ideas contained in it get broader distribution and, hopefully, inspire dialogue. If it also introduces some people to the amazing work of Earthfire Institute, all the better.

 

DATA ADDS UP, STORIES RING TRUE

by Jeffrey Callen

 

During the last decade, storytelling has been enthusiastically embraced as a methodological framework by individuals working in endeavors as different from each other as technology, journalism, and social activism. Storytelling is no longer confined to the realms of communications and marketing but is seen as integral to the creation of “product” (now often reconceptualized and relabeled as “experience”). In the design process, calculations and quantifiable arguments are replaced by the creation of evocative experiences—the bottom line is no longer how the data adds up but whether the story rings true.

This change in methodologies implies a changing vision of the work itself. Unlike quantifiable methodologies, storytelling is an art and, like other art forms, its primary goal is to create a space of connection outside the flow of everyday life. In this “virtual” space, new possibilities (ideas, strategies, visions) and ways of being in the world can be tried on and experimented with that previously had only been imagined or, at best, partially realized. The criteria by which this experience is evaluated is the extent to which it rings true, authentic and genuine— it is also the primary determinant of the effect the experience has on the participants. The best contemporary uses of storytelling apply this template which hearkens back to the beginnings of human society.

Nearly as old as music, dance and drawing, early forms of oral storytelling were shared in settings of fellowship that transcended later boundaries created between the realms of spirituality, healing, philosophy, history–keeping, and entertainment. The same respectful disregard of disciplinary boundaries is a component of the storytelling work of Earthfire Institute. It is one of the many ways in which it returns to the roots of storytelling. Storytelling is an integral component of the work of Earthfire Institute. It is more than its chosen means of communicating the ideas and values that drive its mission to reintegrate humans into nature. Through stories, Earthfire experiences are shared and intimate, often transformational, human/animal interactions are evoked, creating a space of connection with the listener/viewer (one of the advantages of storytelling in the postmodern age is the easy availability of integrated presentations of sight, sound and movement). In each online video or blog post, more is communicated than is contained in the outlines of a single story. Each story adds to the totality of Earthfire Institute’s work and it is here that Earthfire presents its vision of a possible future in which man’s (and woman’s) connection to the natural world is restored.

Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller and ethnographer based in San Francisco. As a consultant, he has advised Earthfire Institute on storytelling and strategic development. He is also a cultural analyst and creative writer, whose work has appeared in numerous scholarly and popular publications.

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul”

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Brene Brown is a qualitative researcher who collects stories to learn about vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame (as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work). Her work over the last decade has investigated how we can learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity. In an engaging and fascinating talk at TED in June 2010, she discussed her work and the central importance of “wholeheartedness” in living an authentic life. And she begins with the story of how she came to declare ownership of the title storyteller.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

The “HappyLife” home project (@FlowingData)

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How much knowledge is too much? (from FlowingData)

A house that knows when you’re happy and sad

By Nathan Yau – Aug 30, 2010

Auger Loizeau, in collaboration with Reyer Zwiggelaar and Bashar Al-Rjoub, describe their smart-home project Happylife. It monitors facial expressions and movements to estimate a family’s mood, displayed via four glowing orbs on the wall, one for each member.

We built a visual display linked to the thermal image camera. This employs facial recognition to differentiate between members of the family. Each member has one rotary dial and one RGB LED display effectively acting like emotional barometers. These show current state and predicted state, the predicted state being based on years of accumulated statistical data.

They also include a few quite beautiful vignettes from a family that has Happylife in their home. While there are no concrete metrics or instructions on how to read the displays, the family does draw some kind of emotional insights and sometimes finds comfort in the glow:

It was that time of the year. All of the Happylife prediction dials had spun anti-clockwise, like barometers reacting to an incoming storm. we lost David 4 years ago and the system was anticipating our coming sadness. We found this strangely comforting. (to read the rest, click here).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

Softwired for Empathy — the human condition (talk by Jeremy Rifkin)

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Hypebot.com just posted a talk (with animation by RSA ANIMATE) by social theorist & economist Jeremy Rifkin from a few months ago on recent neurological research that indicates that humans are softwired for empathy and that the PRIMARY HUMAN DRIVE IS TO BELONG (not to compete, conquer…).  Rifkin uses this research as a jumping off point to discuss the evolution of human empathy and possibilities for saving the world it has created. Rifkin’s omissions raise many questions but there is some meat here and it’s always interesting when heterodox voices come out of mainstream sources (Rivkin has advised numerous CEOs of major corporations as well as European governments). Lots of implications for those of us doing “cultural” research (in any sense).

For an expanded version, go to Rifkin’s 2010 The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis. It’s only fair to note that Rifkin is only one of many people exploring empathy — for a primatologist’s perspective see The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal, for a business perspective see Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and there’s a lot more work out there.

Note: Rifkin doesn’t hold  himself back from some wild rhetorical flourishes (i.e., the Adam & Eve reference in this talk) and he  has been a ligahtening rod for criticism from some well-respected sources. From Wikipedia:

Rifkin’s work has also been controversial, and opponents have attacked the scientific rigor of his claims as well as some of the tactics he uses to promote his views. A 1989 article about Rifkin in Time bore the title, “The Most Hated Man in Science”.[9]Stephen Jay Gould characterised Rifkin’s 1983 book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship”.[10] Stewart Brand wrote in 2009: “Among scientists who have read his work, Rifkin is regarded as America’s leading nitwit.”[11]

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

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