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LectureHop: Unpacking “Narrative In The Natural Sciences and Humanities”

This week, Columbia hosted a series of speakers to share some of their work examining interactions between storytelling and academia. Bwog Sports Editor Jana Jaran attended a conference session this morning with speakers connecting the idea of narrative to topics from gay marriage to artificial intelligence. 

Fake news! In today’s political climate, it feels like these words are tossed around an awful lot. As students, and as individuals, we constantly have to be cautious and skeptical about what information is true, and what is concocted to fit the mold of a certain story.

This morning, Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus at Columbia School of Journalism Nick Lemann spoke on the interaction between the truth of reporting and the “stickiness” that journalists seek to garner people’s attention and do their work more effectively for the market. As a budding reporter myself, I found that Dean Lemann hit on a number of issues that I’ve already encountered when trying to present factual information but also gain the attention of readers who, just through the act of reading, can make the work feel more valuable. He discussed the all-too-often efforts of reporters to present monocausal events, like one student carrying a baseball bat in the hallway being the sole cause of an academically low performing school, when in reality, issues of such large scale can only really be explained by a series of complex social forces.

Another speaker at the event, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia Law School, Kendall Thomas, spoke on the conscious strategy used by the Supreme Court to positively publicize the legalization of same-sex marriage by re-narrating gay and lesbian relationships. Professor Kendall spoke primarily on the famous Obergefell v. Hodges, and dove into discussion on how the case looked at  marriage not as a private relationship but as a building block to national identity. In “cleaving the sex out of gay and lesbian relationships”, the case worked to rebrand the public’s idea of homosexuality, and in some ways, this process forced gay and lesbian relationships into the mold of a heteronormative lifestyle. Thomas ended by emphasizing that judicial power is often just narrative power, and I found that in looking at the effect of a case as influential as Obergefell v. Hodges, it’s scarily clear how much public opinion can change just by good storytelling.

Today’s conference session was concluded by Artist and Associate Professor of Art at Stony Brook University, Stephanie Dinkins, who has been working on a fascinating artificial intelligence-based art piece which would serve as an oral history of three generations of her family as well as a method to share an authentic perspective from a black community, which she feels is under-represented in current work with machine learning. Dinkins’s design is a “360 degree immersive installation interior view” which essentially looks like a room with visual stimuli (mostly videos and mobile pictures) on all surrounding surfaces). In the center of the room would stand a small sculpture as a physical representation of the women’s stories, and within the sculpture, a speaker and computer system would allow for interaction between the viewer and the art itself. In order for this interaction to be possible, Dinkins has been working on collecting oral histories from her family members as data to be fed through a neural network. In her presentation, she included a video of her interacting with the sculpture, and, although the computer responses were not entirely coherent yet, they often included phrases which came directly from the oral history of Dinkins’s aunt or niece, and Dinkins expressed that because of her ability to emotionally connect the computer’s responses to her family, there is a positive relationship developing between the artist and her work.

Dinkins posed a series of questions along with presenting her art, like what happens when we use algorithms to tell our stories? How can we create viable systems without mass amounts of data? How can we get communities to share their stories if they aren’t exposed to the technology that we now have that allows us to tell them?

All the speakers at today’s event dove into an idea that I think will become more and more valuable as we progress through the future. We already apply the connection between truth and storytelling to journalism and the news, but as our social and technological systems continue to grow and develop, it is imperative that we understand the power of narrative on our personal ideas and interpersonal relationships.

a good powerpoint via Bwog Staff

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