Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Corona-thoughts: the virus as an alien

**Spoiler alert**  There is a twist at the end of the Watchmen. To foster unity among the nations, and avoid a nuclear apocalypse, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion. And it works: nothing beats a common enemy to create a sense of unity.

This is a common trope in many sci-fi narratives, from Independence Day to the Three-Body Problem. Bring in the aliens, and our petty fights falter in the face of the new menace.

Could this be what Covid-19 is offering us? A common, non-human enemy threatening to kill us all, and against which we could all rally?

On fictional memories

If I look back, happy moments are often those I explored fictional worlds, in books, video games, film or TV. Two days ago, I decided I would revisit my favourite anime, Saint Seiya. I have since watched a dozen episodes. As I did, sudden elements of my childhood came to mind: a game I played at recess, the face of a classmate, the furniture in my bedroom.

Other stories have similarly joyful associations, and bring back sensorial recollections as I bring them to mind. It is a mild afternoon of early July in Strasbourg, I am thirteen, lying in the grass, holding a yellow paperback – and at the very same time, I am with Angelique, wandering from Turkey to Quebec. I am in a physics class, holding a white paperback on my lap, and as I learn about the periodic table, I am sailing among icebergs, heading to the South Pole. I am in a car, driving across Gippsland to a Christmas lunch, and I am walking through the woods of Lorraine with Lucien Leuwen, the petty conversations of provincial aristocrats echoing around me.

We may think of stories as evasion, whether mediated through words on paper or moving images on a screen. They take us away from the world. The paradox is that, as I look back, these moments of deepest absorption in a fictional world are simultaneously moments of deepest physical presence. Arthur Gordon Pym and my Grade Seven Physics class are forever intertwined, as are Angelique and a bedroom in Benidorm, or the first floor of a Hangzhou Costa Coffee and the gay plotline of Glee. As I recall the faces of the characters and the progress of their adventures, colours and feelings come back, sharp and vivid. Such is the strange way that the mental worlds of past and fiction retrospectively merge, as two faces of a shiny ribbon twirling through time.

Fiction-guilt – in defence of TV shows

‘Glee is my guilty pleasure’. A dear friend of mine recently wrote this on a racing facebook comment trail about a new website called ‘help me write’. And I side-tracked into a line of thought I’d like to share here.

I’ve heard the feeling often: watching TV series is associated with feelings of guilt – whether it’s Glee, Gossip Girl, True Blood, Dexter, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, or ealier Friends, Buffy, 90210… watching the lives of imaginary characters and their complex evolutions is experienced as guilt. As if this was a worthless use of our time, as if there was ‘better to do’ than engage with fiction. Or maybe we should read, hey?

Then I realised, this is not new rhetoric – except it once applied to novels. Jane Austen denounces it in Northanger Abbey – others do too. Novels should be taken seriously: they’re a school for emotional intelligence, and they make us happy. So do TV series: they explore moral dilemmas, take us to imaginary worlds, relieve boredom, and make us think. What is there not to like? Sure, they might take us away from ‘productive pursuits’ – but then should our lives be devoted entirely to productive pursuits?

I would like, more precisely, to think about the role of fiction – imaginary worlds and crafted imaginary situations where imaginary characters make ethical decisions. I think in a future post, that’s what I’ll do – for the moment, I shall leave this reflection here.

What changed in 2013?

It has become common, as the new year comes, to publish a list of one’s recent ‘achievements’ – discrete items completed over the last year cycle, that – may – go down in our personal history like a string of baroque pearls. In parallel some will publish a list of goals or resolutions for the year to come – which, when the time come, will become new pearls on a new year-string. I do not much like the productive metaphor that underlies this yearly ritual – but would rather reflect in a more holistic way on how my situation transforms from year to year, and what new changes I expect from the coming cycle. Let’s call it, present consequences of last year’s achievements.

So, this is what changed for me since last year, in no particular order.

My linguistic competence changed, and with it my capacity to talk and engage with people. Last year, I was not confident enough to join in a semi-professional Mandarin discussion. I struggled to read, and could not write a short message or email without an electronic translator and dictionary at hand. I am now able to do all of this – still not with perfect confidence or fluency, but well enough. This means I now think of Chinese people as potential conversation partners, and can start imagining direct interactions with them, face to face, through social media or email.

My relationship to China changed. After spending four months in Nanjing as a resident, after visiting five provinces and twelve different cities, I have a much more intuitive and personal understanding of the size, diversity, and historical depth of this country. By living here, I have developed friendships and trusting relationships with a number of Chinese people from different places and background, and can now confidently contact them for advice or help. Both at the emotional, imaginary, and practical level, I am now more able to project myself into China, and make sense of events or situations involving Chinese people from a range of local perspectives. 

Marco Polo Project changed. We now run a reasonably respectable website, with an established editorial line and a core group of identified authors. We’ve got full models for events, and are ready to grow partnerships. Our operations are now clear, and we’re ready to increase our productivity. My own professional status changed along with Marco Polo Project. I raised 38,000 dollars for two different China-related project, and for the first time, will pay myself a small salary from this sum next year to run them. My public profile also changed. I am now introduced more often as ‘founder and CEO’, and was invited to speak about related topics at a few public events in Australia and France. I am not a solid authority yet – but slowly, I am being recognised as someone worth listening to when it comes to learning languages online, the multilingual internet, and all things China.

My personal situation changed. My partner completed his degree, and will be teaching English at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar from January, in a role that he loves, and with a comfortable enough salary.This means the end of a very tight financial year for both of us, and the excitement of a new profession starting.

My personal networks changed – I made new friends, and deepened older friendships – each of them opening a new window for me to understand the world, potential for joint projects, or the simple pleasure of conversation and company.

My nationality changed. I became an Australian, which means I no longer have to gather documents or engage with the immigration department; which means I can get a visa to China without much hassle; which means I can work for the Australian public service; which means I can legitimately reply ‘I’m Australian’ when people ask me where I come from.

My own psychological balance changed. Last year, I started with a lot of energy , but little experience and understanding of what lay ahead. I’m starting this year more tired – certainly the result of four intense months in China – but better connected, and with significantly stronger systems in place.

I am not sure yet what changes will happen in 2014, but here are a few directions I will work towards. Cosmopolitan short fiction. Personal productivity. Delegation. Mandarin speed and flexibility. Weaving Australia, France and China. Portfolio career. Regular day-breaks.

And we’ll see next year what actually changed.

Multicultural story-sharing

At an amazing post-festival drink party with the Emerging Writers Festival people, while discussing straightmenkissing.com and Melbourne storytelling projects, I had an idea that could feed into the Marco Polo Project. Why not create a platform where Chinese speakers (and maybe Japanese, Korean, and Spanish speakers too) could share their experience of Melbourne as a place where they lived as international students.

I spoke with a guy there who works at Melbourne Uni, and said ‘these international students, they come here, but they stay together, they don’t really meet the locals, they might as well stay home.” I said,” Not so: they do meet people they would never meet home. People from Beijing meet people from Shanghai, and Chongqing, and Tokyo. How would they meet them, at home? It’s like the Erasmus yer for Europeans, you meet other Europeans, often some from your home country; and it’s extremely formative – even if it’s not a proper encounter with the country you live in.

So, yes, why not provide a platform where these international students could tell the stories of their time in Melbourne – and, maybe, share it with locals (or we could translate them, and spy on them); like Americans tell of their time in Paris. Melbourne as a playground for cosmopolitasians – why not?

User Stories

Yesterday, I’ve been working on drafting ‘user stories’ for the information architecture part of the Marco Polo project. It’s an interesting process: in order to develop the architecture and navigation plan of your website, you imagine a fictional user – giving him or her a name, an age, a profession, as well as a motive for visiting your website; then, you describe, in all details, the interaction between that fictional user and your intended website.

It a a fabulous visualisation technique, and suddenly raises many questions you wouldn’t ask yourself otherwise: she wants to input text but is not logged in – what action triggers an error message? is she redirected to a registration page? She wants to register, is that instant, or does she receive an email with an activation link? Little details and decisions you need to make.

I was reminded of things I read about architects – how the art of architecture is about building daring shapes in space, inspired from dreams or animals. But their art is, also, that of the mason, build something that holds together; and something even more down-to-earth, a kind of simple commonsense, or knowledge of the human – make sure there is a pathway to each room. Build in windows, plumbing, ventilation. Think where your doors will be.

But for a fiction writer, this process is more than just about making a blueprint. Believe it or not, I grew attached to my characters. I started wondering, will their life be changed by this website? Will they, or will they not contact another user? Will something happen then? It was exhilarating, to imagine as fiction something I want to bring to the world. Dangerous also – probably – taking me far from the mundane drafting of a business plan or of a budget, into my own fantasy-world, where volunteers jump in, enthusiasms feed each other, yet everyone does, to a point, exactly as I tell them.