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All in the family

Web of Stories

Amy Charles 19 August 2010

www.lablit.com/article/616

In full flow: Sydney Brenner, one of the subjects

We knew some great scientists and thought it would be valuable to ensure that, before it’s too late, they tell their life stories

In the early days of web browsing, you'd occasionally come across a little “Under Construction!” sign telling you that the site owner was scratching his head about what on earth one might put on a website. A decade later, here at a last is a site that really does look like an edifice under construction, an ambitious and perhaps quixotic project.

Web of Stories is one of the many projects running under Science Navigation Group’s umbrella: a collection of interviews with sixty-odd prominent scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers, filmmakers and others, with a heavy emphasis on mid-20th century bioscience. By and large the interview subjects are familiar figures: Sydney Brenner, Aaron Klug, Freeman Dyson, Francis Crick, Murray Gell-Mann, Gitta Sereny, Stan Lee, Donald Hall, Albert Maysles and many others.

The interviews are static man-in-chair affairs, broken into chunks of about two to five minutes, and this turns out to be a terrific way of ensuring that you never listen to the entire interview whole, but instead do something much more interesting. You’re encouraged to bounce from snippet to snippet and, even better, to follow a topic (Buckminster Fuller’s influence, for instance, or early schooling) across interviews with many people, digressing as you please, and turning your experience into the biggest Charlie Rose roundtable ever recorded.

And there’s a boon to researchers: each snippet has already been transcribed. The format – a drop-down, non-searchable tab – doesn’t really lend itself to scholarly work, but this problem is overcome easily enough with a little cut-and-paste work.

The interviewers are, for the most part, colleagues, and it’s obvious that the more famous figures are not only comfortable talking to their “listeners”, as the site team calls them, but are in general practiced at telling these stories.

This may seem a liability – after all, how many times do you want to hear principals rather cautiously discussing, say, whether or not Rosalind Franklin felt cheated, or Oppenheimer’s treatment at the hands of HUAC? But these well-worn stories are chosen deliberately for the site, and I will let one of the site’s makers, documentarian Christopher Sykes, explain the rationale:

The beginnings of Web of Stories lie in the belief that every one of us – even if we don’t realise it – constructs an inner story, a narrative of our own life. We rehearse the story with friends, our children, lovers, even strangers on a train… correct it, improve it, invent it, and as we get old the story develops into its final form. We need and use this story of our life a lot – in fact perhaps the only way we can think of ourselves is as heroes of the story we have made for ourselves. The story is not historically correct: there some things missing from it that may seem important to others, and there are parts of it that we have adopted and adapted from the lives of others and made our own. So, everyone has a story to tell…

We have become more and more interested in the importance and ubiquity of narrative in almost everything we do and think, and we initially had an idea for making a network of connected stories by going to interesting people and asking them to tell us a few stories, involving them and other people. We would then go to the other people, ask them to tell us the same story from their own point of view plus some other stories, and so on…. We started with science. We knew some great scientists, and thought it would be valuable to ensure that, before it’s too late, they tell the story of their lives, the ones they have ready inside them, so that people in the future could get a real sense of what sort of people they were….

So what the listeners have done, in recording (for instance) Dyson and others discussing Teller’s role in Oppenheimer’s hearings, plus their memories of Oppenheimer and the work at Los Alamos, plus Teller’s own well-rehearsed recollections, is to construct a Thanksgiving dinner with an extended scientific family in attendance. We know many of these stories. We’ve heard them dozens of times. And yet we want to hear them again – with Grandpa Dyson in the kitchen and Cousin Teller in the living room and Uncle Klug getting noiselessly away from the others for a little while in the garden – because as these people tell the stories they’ve made about themselves, their way of telling stories and counterstories shows us a little bit extra about who they are, and maybe about who they were. Hearing these snippets, one after the next, also allows us to put family stories together for ourselves, with the same flash of revelation we have when it’s suddenly clear why Mother hung on to that awful painting Aunt Gloria made when they were girls. The retelling of these familiar scientific stories tells us something about who we are, as well. This is, after all, our own intellectual family.

The Web of Stories team are on to something, too, when they talk about the ubiquity of narrative; it’s been said that the Web is primarily a storytelling medium, and along with the global rush to confess life stories online, there’s been a tremendous jump in interest in narrative in literature studies. I’m not sure that Web of Stories helps elucidate, directly, how narrative forms work, but in collecting these well-developed narratives and setting them next to each other, they’re building a wonderful archive, and I have no doubt that scholars of narrative – including rhetoricians and historians of science – will find it useful.

For all that, there are at present three oddities, if not outright liabilities, to the site’s concept. The first is that the collection of interviews is still small and frankly peculiar. The scientific collection makes sense given Science Navigation Group’s focus (SNG is the parent company of Faculty of 1000, The Scientist, and several other scientific publishing enterprises). The mid-20th century focus is also sensible as a place to start; there’s time to interview the world’s Craig Venters. But there’s no apparent reason for the choice of the non-scientific interviewees apart from the fact that they (like many others) have done profoundly interesting work. The assumption is that this strange mix will reach some sort of balance in time and Web of Stories’ organizational themes will become more coherent.

The second problem has to do with the nature of connections and how quickly they proliferate. It’s one thing to post connected snippets of story when you’ve only got fifty or sixty people telling stories, most of them unrelated. Web of Science’s ambitions are large, though, and they include allowing people to post their own stories. Who will sort through and tag all these auto-interviews, who will decide where the connections lie, and how will they be kept down to some manageable number? The quality of the connections also varies widely; some snippets are connected merely because they have to do with categories as large as “childhood”, while others have to do with specific scientific ideas or controversies, and this seems to me undisciplined. (Having said that, I’m reminded of Gerald Edelman’s story of how he decided against a career in music: his revelation, during a performance, that he actually had little interest in performance, which seemed against the whole spirit of musicianship. And I’m reminded by that of a podcast I once heard of Walter Russell Mead’s, in which he talked about his early feeling that he had the wrong, even a disastrous, temperament for Foreign Service work. It strikes me that a collection of interview snippet that dealt not with why the subject chose his career, but why he didn’t choose another, would be very interesting indeed. It’s not hard to see how connective themes spring up like weeds.) As the site grows, I suspect staff will be forced to deal more seriously with connection-making and connection-weeding.

The third problem is more serious and has to do with the site’s static nature. This project was conceived in the mid-1990s, and it bears the technological stamp of its time. Not only are the interviews themselves static – the man in the chair, talking for hours (for a comparison of this format versus a contemporary multimedia experience, contrast Quentin Blake’s interview with his own delightful, sprawling website) – but the very conception of how a user might use the site is stiff and top-down. Here is your interview: here is a limited set of pre-made connections. And this is just not the way the internet’s connections work today; it hasn’t been for decades. The internet is an algorithm-restrained anarchy, and its power and vitality come from the unexpected connection, the sudden rush to mega-node formation. I am not saying that the site’s structure of preformed connections is unreasonable, just that in 2010 it feels closed and stiff, a toy to exhaust and discard. I’m reminded once again of the contrast between Graham Swift’s Waterland, which is a precisely connected set of themes and episodes, a closed smooth item, and Moby Dick, which is a roaring anarchy of powerfully related themes. One is more fecund than the other.

But the site makers are clearly in no hurry, and have a long-term commitment to growing the site, which is a happy thing to see these days. It has the look of an ambitious dream that may be abandoned, may be realized; at a minimum, it’s a rather beautiful construction site.