Friday, 20. May 2005

Dilemmata

To make it clear to anybody who still thinks that I fantasize about having solved the "story vs. agency" dilemma - this is not the point. The point is that, by definition, I don't have that particular dilemma. I've reified the system boundary so that the system is the story which includes the client(s)/player(s) as character(s), and any interaction between characters, whether human or virtual, is part of the story. This includes all attempts of the client to "break" the story, and the (potentially infinite) number of cases where the bot simply doesn't understand a word. These are simply moments of "heightend drama" (the basic, but not necessarily the only ones).

Whether the input, or parts of it, are understood or not: the bot always looks at the input and the context to generate an output, and a crucial part of this output is an update of the context. "Context", here, is "the story so far" - the history of the interaction. And this brings us to my dilemma: instead of "story vs. agency", I have "context vs. abstraction".

I start out with one sentence that is my Edge Metaphor (if you missed the discussion where I explained that term, you can catch up here - scroll down to about the middle of the second comment). The Edge Metaphor is a representation of my innermost story problem that is so abstract that it's entirely meaningless when encountered on its own. Then I add potential context. I say "potential" because any response can't really be part of the context defined by a particular client-bot relationship until the client first has said something that made the bot give this response - only then, it becomes part of their (hi)story.

Because humans are likely to respond to utterances of others, the meaning of which they don't understand, with a "wh-question", and because I write in a way that allows the bot to always answer any "wh-question" in context, my bet is that the probalility that the bot will end up making sense to the client will be relatively high. Add to that the fact that, given certain stylistical decisions about how the responses are written, you can treat a lot of inputs as if they where "wh-questions" - for instance, if you don't begin responses to "Why...?" with "Because...", you can also interpret inputs like "You're wrong", "I don't understand", "That's bullshit", etc., as if they were "Why?" -, and you can reveal even more context using that strategy. The goal is writing a text that can seamlessly explain itself. In my more highfalutin moments, I call this "the autopoiesis of meaning".

Of course, there's still a dilemma of sorts, since no matter how much context I provide, I'll never beat the Law of Leaky Abstractions. However, there's a practical reason for why I prefer the "context vs. abstraction" dilemma over the "story vs. agency" dilemma: in the case of the latter, you'll get a system with two interacting variables you have to optimize, and if I'm not grossly mistaken, figuring out what "optimal" is under these conditions is a mathematical impossibility (I think that John von Neumann gave the proof for this, but I can't find the reference any more, so if somebody had a pointer, I'd very much appreciate it). It's like a see-saw consisting of a beam placed over a barrel, with random forces acting on both ends of the beam in random ways - an unstable and unpredictable affair. If, instead, I fix one end of the beam, I only have to deal with one variable, which is much better. My beam might still be too feeble or too rigid to deal with some cases, but in the limit, it should be doing okay. In fact, it looks much closer now to what the Dramatica glossary calls Work - a solvable problem -, versus Dilemma - an unsolvable problem.

Some dead ends

I said I would have a closer look at the papers that came up when I googled for documents containing both the terms "narrative intelligence" and "method actor". One was Actor-Role Analysis: Ideology, Point of View, and the News, the MS thesis of Warren Sack, written in 1994. Sack was a member of the Narrative Intelligence Group at MIT, where the monicker "Narrative Intelligence" was coined in the early 90s. Regarding my query, the paper was a blind alley: the abstract contains the sentence "A version of the method, actor-role analysis, is encoded in a computer program, SpinDoctor, which can automatically detect the point(s) of view represented in some news stories", and Google concluded that "method, actor" would probably suit me just as well as "method actor". "Narrative Intelligence" is mentioned only on the Acknowledgments page. I didn't read the rest; 118 pages about a program that could detect the point of view in some news stories eleven years ago are a bit much.

Sack is currently an Assistant Professor in the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. If he does anything with the word "narrative" in it these days, I couldn't find it. I've been a subscriber to the Narrative Intelligence mailing list (ni@media.mit.edu) for the last four years; I recieved something like 15 messages during that time, the last one more than two years ago. It looks to me like the originators of the NI meme have pretty much written it off in the meantime.

The other lead my query got me consisted of two papers coming from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, describing another attempt to solve what they call the "Interactive Dilemma": the "inevitable conflict between author’s determinism and interactor’s freedom". They chose pencil-and-paper Role-Playing Games and their Game Masters as a real-life model for their conception of Interactive Storytelling, which results in another one of those man-in-the-middle software architectures that I don't really believe in. It turns out that "Narrative Intelligence" appears only in the References, and "Method Actor", in this case, refers to one of the player types in RPGs, as defined by one Robin Law, who seems to be an authority on that subject. The Spanish researchers let the player choose a type in the beginning of the interaction with their system: "It is hoped that interactors of a specific model will under such conditions choose the type of character most related to their preferences in acting." Seems like they've re-invented the concept of character classes as it is known in MMORPGs.

Nothing to see here, move along, move along...

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