A new way to look at interactive storytelling

It’s an open secret among my friends that I’m a total narrative nerd. The structure of stories fascinates me and lately my research into interactive storytelling methods has been fueling some serious creative fires behind the scenes.

In a recent volley of off-hour writing and research I came across a YouTube video that left my mouth open as I sat stunned at its simple brilliance.

A group in Japan called Mobile Art Lab came up with this concept and I couldn’t be more thrilled by it. The thought of combining interactive software with visual art and the written word in this way had never occurred to me. Seeing it in action — illustrated below with an iPhone and child’s picture book — was like holding a lighter to the fuse of my imagination.

Somebody, please give these people a whole bunch of money and possibly a Nintendo DSi. If I had a kid and this were a completed product, they’d have fifty of my dollars in a heartbeat.

Dear CNN …

I must confess, sometimes I do not listen to you. Occasionally, you’re just on and I’ve muted you in favor of music.

It’s only partially your fault. I’ve been in news media for a while and that whole gallows humor has definitely set in. I get why you guys sometimes have to talk about inane shit, but occasionally I just can’t bear to hear it.

I cannot tell you the countless joys muted news has brought me. Watching your busy screens and random, scrolling text set to my favorite vibrations and letting my imagination run wild has been a pursuit of mine for years.

Your friends over at Fox News are especially entertaining, if the tune is right. I’ve opined before that Shepard Smith set to Dethklok can show one a whole new way to look at the world. I used to be especially fond of listening to Lamb of God while Brit Hume was on, he was always so into scary shit … Likewise, O’Reilly goes great with some Immortal Technique. Maybe this somehow ties into my love of obscene contrast, but I digress.

The point is, sometimes I am not listening to you, CNN. As it so happened, Tuesday evening I was settling in for work and jamming some Last.fm when I looked up and saw this …

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I briefly hesitated, unsure what to think. My first reaction was to snap a photo — and just in time too, as the graphic soon vanished. It was 5:34 p.m. CST. I waited until after work to share it.

So, staring at this Thing, I realized how much more entertaining some of these graphics are without audio. I kept the TV on mute as my head turned sideways … It dawned on me that they probably explained this away with some loosely defined economic analysis and maybe a couple people who simply disagree for the sake of being on television. I have no idea what kind of words can and did excuse this graphic.

After dwelling on it for a few hours, I don’t really care how it was explained. This almost strikes me as a grade-school piece of social programming.

What? The white woman has the small business? But the black man, who’s apparently bad (thus the ‘X’) is somehow with her, but also on the side of the big banks and he’s costing you TEN POINT FIVE BILLION DOLLARS AND DRIVING UP UNEMPLOYMENT TO TEN POINT TWO PERCENT?!?

(Unemployment is actually closer to 17.5 percent.)

Is CNN’s graphics department really suggesting that The Black Man is on the side of the big banks, causing spiraling unemployment? And that he’s somehow got the white woman and small business to go along for the ride? AND SHE HAS A PEARL NECKLACE??? X HIM OUT!!!

Seriously, what the fuck?

‘This is not considered assault’ (acceptable ways to beat your wife)

Here’s why, when Bill Maher says he views some Islamic societies as in many ways backwards, I agree …

That’s some backward-ass thinking. Enough to revolt almost anyone of Western sensibilities.

Then again, we have midget fights and call it good television (and it’s free to those too poor for the wonders of cable) …

*sigh*

I can see how there would be some animosity between these two societies.

Corporate activism and you

I hate buying gasoline. When I must, I try to stop at Valero because I’ve arrived at the foggy conclusion that much of their oil comes from South America. Better than Exxon, Shell or Texaco, I tell myself. Better to buy crude from Chavez than the Saudis. (Which is actually incorrect — it’s Citgo that is owned by Venezuela, but perception is everything in the market and mine was wrong.)

That’s when I saw this …

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The image above was snapped (“from my iPhone”) Saturday night at a Valero station in Austin, Texas. Take a closer look at the text …

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“IF CONGRESS PASSES CAP & TRADE LEGISLATION, YOU WILL PAY THE PRICE. ‘CAP AND TRADE’ WILL COST YOU 77¢ OR MORE A GALLON”

Scary, eh?

The first items to jump out at me about this particular piece of corporate activism is how utterly brazen they are in claiming that I will be forced to pay for their refusal to take responsible steps toward protecting my environment. This sentiment penetrates the very heart of our plutocracy: If companies are held responsible for their transgressions, the costs will simply be passed on to the consumers.

The victim is to blame. Fuck the Doomed.

I sat at the pump for a moment, incredulous. Turning to my passenger, I said something along the lines of: “What the fucking shit is this fucking shit? Holy God almighty, corporate political activism on a consumer level? Of course, that is their right. But it’s also my right to call bullshit and make a stink about it.”

My first inclination was to reach up and rip the sign down. But then I realized, this is private property. I’m on camera. Perhaps that is not a good idea.

I immediately thought of a friend in Dallas who was once put in handcuffs for leaving a hand-made protest sign on public property. She was not arrested, but the cops certainly wanted to make a point. A ticket for “vandalism” was eventually issued, with a stern warning that she could have gone to jail for the night.

“How fucking dare they?” I said to my friend Mike, standing next to me at the pump. “This is Austin goddamn Texas. Don’t they know who they’re insulting here?”

I resolved then and there to find out who “they” are.

The company running this particular ad (and, I’m assuming, many others like it in more than just my market) is called Democracy Data & Communications LLC. The Web site advertised is hosted on capitolconnect.com as a subdomain. That Web site is managed by DDC. A couple quick searches and it became clear: this is a big player in the astroturf community.

For the sake of brevity I’ll spare the lecture. You can read more about DDC here, here and here. They are a big business advocate with ties to the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican party. It should not come as a surprise that they are propagandizing at the pump. I am actually more surprised this was not done sooner.

The president of Business Roundtable, which The Washington Post cited as “an organization of chief executives from 160 large companies,” called DDC’s methods “the future of lobbying” in 2005 — which says to me, expect lots more of this.

Disgusting, is it not?

I agreed with that rhetorical for a good 18 hours before I realized what it really means. The future of lobbying … Is you. Your ignorance or mental fortitude, your opinions and consumer choices are the future of lobbying. If they now believe it is necessary to come to your level, at a place where thousands of you stop as a necessity, then it is in part a victory. They are being forced to crowdsource their propaganda operations, expanding them far above and beyond Congress alone.

I take additional comfort in the knowledge that there are not many big political campaigns happening right now. It’s not as if they are running a media hit job on a senator one week before the vote. They are advertising against legislation that has been months pending — and they are advertising to you.

Of course, it’s impossible to examine the accuracy of such a prediction. Seventy-seven cents? At least? Really? I wonder what equation was used to come up with that figure. Shouldn’t there be an asterisk or some fine print on that ad? Maybe something like, *this number may or may not be complete bullshit, or *according to the Ministry of Fuzzy Math.

What’s more, it made me think that cap & trade — a system which would tax and limit carbon emissions by the largest polluters — may actually be effective. The simple, desperate act of whatever firm this is, hiring DDC to propagandize against cap & trade makes me think, with very little background on the details of such a system, that it could actually work.

Astroturfers and PR flacs everywhere, take note: My demographic, which is savvy, large and growing, almost always infers the opposite of what corporate culture tells us.

So go ahead, Valero. Charge me an extra 77¢ per gallon. You will just encourage me to get off gasoline and into a plug-in electric vehicle. You will just make me lobby my local leaders that much more for expanded public transportation. You are, ultimately, aiding the goal of that which you so protest.

Considering the gas I bought was just $2.50 per gallon, I’ve got to admit — DDC’s Threat certainly sounds much better than reliving the hardship visited upon us by their clientele during the Bush administration.

Interesting then, that a DDC-owned domain name server range once hosted voteforgeorgewbush.com. You remember, back in 2004, when he was running on “building a safer world and a more hopeful[er] America.” We all know how well that turned out. Got to love the slogans.

So congratulations, Democracy Data & Communications. You have just created an advocate of cap & trade. I hope your employers take note.