Vinay Chilukuri presented an interesting paper at Hypertext a few weeks ago. Starting from the cognitive theory that a certain level of achrony in narrative keeps the reader more engaged, Chilukuri details an algorithm that can arrange story events in an order that makes them comprehensible, while still being complex enough to keep the reader engaged.
The paper sparked an interesting debate. Our ability to understand narrative devices is a learned skill. We don’t tell asynchronous stories to our kids. Children have to learn the conventions of storytelling, and though they do this at a very young age, the way we process narrative is shaped by our environment. This becomes particularly important when we start discussing the correct way to read hypertext literature. Ten years ago, we needed to teach students how to read literature with links, though today that is less true.
Studies like Chilukuri’s are interesting because we don’t know the background of the subjects, though we assume they are probably people who use the internet on a regular basis. But how fair is a comprehension study that is based on a learned skill if we’re not controlling the skill level of participants? Perhaps it’s more fair than it would have been 10 years ago if we believe the people who say that the Web has made us better at processing information in small bits and connecting them. Or perhaps it’s less fair because it goes against Web habits—like pausing while reading to search for missing information, a reference, a definition, etc—that have by now become well-ingrained. Or maybe it’s a third option, and we don’t understand our Web habits as well as we think we do.
The strong narrative presence within the hypertext community of computer scientists has always impressed me. The computer scientists seem to embrace the artists more than one would expect. Using Russian formalist narrative theories to build computers that can tell stories isn’t an obvious research approach if you’re a computer scientist, and it’s this kind of interdisciplinary work that the Hypertext Conference fosters.