Cisco Systems Inc.

04/08/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/08/2021 09:10

The ethics of storytelling: Real reality

This blog comes to us from María Laura Ruggiero, Narrative Designer and Founder of SeirenFilms, a storytelling lab based in Argentina with a nomadic spirit and an experimental heart. Hear how Maria's using this technology for good at Cisco's upcomingWomen Rock-IT broadcast on April 22.

As a filmmaker, I have always been passionate about storytelling in all forms. From bedtime stories or heroic mythology when I was a kid, to films, videogames, and animation as a teenager and adult. At first, it was an opportunity to forget about my own life and explore other worlds and identities. Growing up in a pre-social media world, it was mostly tv, film, and literature that provided an escape from boredom and the chance to choose your own fantastic adventure.

I was young and wrong. And I had not fully experienced the power of stories. What you cannot communicate remains hidden. If you don't see yourself in media, your vision of the world becomes small. Representation matters, and the stories we tell shape the reality we live in.

In our digital, tap-to-listen-in, click-to-like, DM-to-connect world, we tend to think it's all about the latest technology. When in fact, it's all about the stories we tell through technology. Mass media and viral stories are nothing but tiny stories woven into a template that we sometimes fail to see. Technology matters. Access to technology matters more than ever today because it allows us to tell more diverse, unique stories - your story, my story. The more diverse, equal, empathic, and sustainable this fabric of reality becomes, the better the world we create and share.

The ethics of VR

When the latest trend of Virtual Reality (VR) hit creators, a new challenge surfaced for the filmmakers who praised how smartphones had democratized the possibility to share stories. Now, the innovative storytelling world was about to be immersive:

What stories do we tell in VR? Who creates VR? What's the language and who are we creating it for? Where's the impact?

It quickly became an elite conversation, where only a few were discussing the creation of an alternative reality, and very few were interacting with that content. And only a small minority had access to the equipment to either create it or visualize it.

I felt a strong pull to participate in that conversation. Because, if the future of reality is being discussed anywhere, that conversation must be as open and diverse as possible. And if a new language is being created it cannot simply be created by only a handful of product directors. Tools that help us express ourselves are cultural tools, therefore they matter and there's an intrinsic set of ethics that work with them.

Building a new world with story

Years ago, we launched StoryHackers, a pop-up lab, whose nomad essence would take us on a travelling frenzy to as many festivals, universities, tech festivals, and meetups. We aimed to dismantle how stories were told in our convergence culture. Through StoryHackers, we would travel anywhere in the world and host a lab/hackathon/storytelling space, especially in places were access to technology was scarce or difficult.

To understand how immersive storytelling worked and what the essence of a story was, we collectively asked many questions. Using a specially constructed worldbuilding technique, where we asked people to imagine a world that would exist three generations into the future, we created spaces where our stories and characters could potentially live and thrive.

As we continued developing this technique, something interesting happened: when you asked people to imagine themselves in a world three generations in the future, they struggle. They created complex dystopias the minute we said the word 'future.'

Stories matter

The worldbuilding exercise turned out pretty much the same all over the world. But, societies with more stability had less trouble going further into a speculative future. As Latin Americans, it was incredibly painful to see dystopias where no problems were solved and where our rich diversity of race, gender, and culture was not represented or present in a simple fictional storytelling future. Are these the virtual realities we want to create?

2020 starts, and all of society was forced to connect differently with loved ones, work, study, exercise, health, and well-being - this time, through a screen. Many were forced to deal with this painful reality without having been equipped with the tools to navigate it. It became obvious to me that our top priority should be in education. What if we approached this situations as an exercise on speculative design?

From sharing better communication tools, to educating others on a healthy virtual/real life balance, and providing the tools to overcome digital fatigue, to working with educators; we tried to create a space in a virtual world that would be less about screens and more about gamified connections. This looked like chat on Discord servers, professors teaching within VR basketball games, poem readings over the radio, and advancing our own story-driven newsletter, 'Multiversos.'

From that moment on, our goal at StoryHacker and SeirenFilms was to imagine, create, and visualize a language and a positive vision of an inclusive future where technology serves as tool for a more sustainable present.

Stories matter. Nothing good is created from a society disconnection. It's vital to take time to reflect and use speculative techniques to approach those problems. The tools we use speak volumes about ourselves as humans. Representation and agency are key-not only to the future of media through virtual reality, but to the future of us, in real reality. Real empowerment comes from learning to navigate this hybrid world, understanding who is in control of your narrative, and how you can create your own story.