Insights On Storytelling, Nowism, Indirection, And Humanizing Technology From Jonathan Harris

Insights On Storytelling, Nowism, Indirection, And Humanizing Technology From Jonathan Harris

Insights from artist/storyteller/computer scientist Jonathan Harris's recent talk at the Pratt Institute.

Kyle Studstill
  • 15 april 2010

Yesterday artist/storyteller/computer scientist Jonathan Harris spoke to a group at Pratt Institute as part of their Digital Arts Lecture Series. Harris makes projects that re-imagine how humans relate to technology and to each other; his projects combine elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art, and storytelling.

Below are some insights we’ve captured from his account of projects like WORDCOUNT, We Feel Fine, and I Want You To Want Me.

Storytelling – Harris points to filmmaker Werner Herzog’s idea of the difference between two different kinds of describing reality – the “accountant’s truth” and the “ecstatic truth.” Harris identifies the type of data that we collect about ourselves through technology and purely mechanical, computerized means is indeed a sort of reality, but is really just an “accountant’s reality” of numbers, distinctly different from the deeply meaningful, ecstatic reality behind the stories that make up our lives. He emphasizes the importance of finding that “ecstatic truth” in the information that we collect about the world – meaningful things that get at the human condition and ultimately lead to happiness.

Indirection – Pointing to how the biology of our eyes’ rods and cones make it possible for us to see some things clearly in the periphery but lose sight of them when looking directly on, Harris emphasizes the idea of how describing something directly can in some ways take away some of it’s potential. He shares the similar idea that when we are given only part of a thing, we fill in the rest with our own thoughts and experiences, resulting in a deeper connection with it. We see this manifested in part in the way DIY culture has taken off alongside personal product design, allowing people to tell their own stories through the devices they build.

Nowism – Harris warns that living in the moment as provided by technology in the form of minute, immediate statues and information is easily confused with but not the same as living in the moment as advocated by reflective eastern philosophies. As technology allows for faster and faster connections, Harris wonders if we’ll reach a sort of terminal velocity where we realize we have no time for introspection and reflection, and what the world will look like after speed of communication/absorption is no longer our most pressing priority. We see this emerging in organizations like The Long Now Foundation, which works to capture only news that will matter 50, 100 and 10,000 years from now.

Humanizing Technology – One of the more interesting points on human interaction with technology Harris shares from his experience with WORDCOUNT, a tool that tracks the frequency of word usage generated from the British National Corpus.


Harris built QUERYCOUNT to track the frequency of terms people searched for in WORDCOUNT; when the tool was new, it was easy to make words appear more frequently simply by repeatedly searching for them manually. Some users would take advantage of this to spell out phrases in the results feed – this being back in 2003 some of the more clever ones were messages about the Iraq war. Harris uses this example to note that these messages could have been transmitted in any number of much easier ways, but people chose to humanize this particular mechanical medium. Harris notes that there is something about humans that will always drive them to turn mechanical technologies into tools for spreading ideas.

Jonathan Harris

image via Diana Pau

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