Situational Storytelling

Creating something genuinely new can be both a daunting and thrilling experience. But one of the frustrating aspects of breaking new ground is that, until the concept breaks through and becomes widely recognized for what it is, it is inevitably framed by what it isn’t.

Imagine stepping into a time machine and trying to inform someone of the promise of in 1995. Your problem would start right at the beginning, with a lack of appropriate vocabulary to describe what Amazon actually is. Today we would simply say something like “a global, online retailer”, but in 1995 “retailer” meant a merchant specializing in a particular type of product, “global”, at least in a corporate context, conjured up images of IBM or Volkswagen, and “online” was only very dimly understood at all.

So you’d naturally find yourself saying things like, “It’s sort of like a bookstore, except it doesn’t actually exist in any one particular place; and it sells more books than any other bookstore you’ve ever been in, but it sells more things that aren’t books than books; and you ‘go there’ through a computer, although the store looks different depending on which country people visit it from.”

After a few minutes of being confronted by your interlocutor’s blank, uncomprehending stare, you’d likely conclude that, despite accurately depicting the situation — Amazon is, after all, an “international store” — you were unable to highlight what really makes it different from the sorts of stores people were used to in 1995. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the very nature of innovation means that something truly innovative can’t be understood by the old framework.

Intriguingly, this often applies even to the person doing the actual innovating. The standard picture invoked after the fact is of some lone, misunderstood visionary, stubbornly determined to create something only he can see, but the reality is often quite different: you start with an idea of doing something a little bit differently for this or that reason; and eventually, if you keep plugging away at it, you might find that you’ve developed something that is intriguingly, substantially distinct from what has been done before.

Moreover, such discoveries typically don’t happen naturally; you usually need to make a conscious effort to take stock, taking time out from simply making stuff to ask yourself, What, exactly, is this thing that I have made? Is it simply a consequence of some of those original motivations? Or is it, in fact, something else?

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Years ago, when I found myself in the uniquely privileged position of being able to create an international research institute entirely from scratch, I witnessed all of this firsthand. At the outset I said to myself, Let’s try doing things this way and that way — not so much out of a desire to be different per se, but simply because there were a few fairly obvious things to do that hadn’t been tried yet. In the initial stages I spent a good deal of time travelling around talking to a large number of people, looking to get a better sense of the extent to which these initial ideas might actually be implemented and what sorts of obstacles were waiting for me as I tried to turn them into reality.

“Oh,” people invariably told me when I described my situation to them, “I see now: you’re trying to build something like X”, citing an existing institution or framework that could serve as an appropriate model. But of course that wasn’t it at all — I couldn’t point at something and say: this is the sort of thing I’m thinking about. Because it hadn’t been created yet.

A few years later the situation had changed drastically: suddenly there was a board of directors and a building and faculty and postdocs and conferences and robust government involvement, and this simple desire to try to implement a couple of worthwhile ideas had become a thing that everyone assumed was the logical culmination of some initial specific completely-well-thought-out design. But that wasn’t right either.

Another few years after that, I had another thought: What if we use modern video technology to create resources that would uniquely illustrate what cutting-edge research culture was actually like? I had long believed that most popular accounts of research and scholarship were little more than caricatures of the real story; and my experience with our institute’s outreach programs convinced me that there was an intriguingly strong amount of enthusiasm among the general populace to appreciate what was genuinely going on behind the scenes, an enthusiasm that was — equally intriguingly — matched by a large number of leading scholars to candidly tell their stories.

Exploring the world of ideas through digital media

What was conspicuously missing, however, was an appropriate forum for doing so; and it occurred to me that by properly harnessing the advances of camera technology, I could travel around and fairly easily capture such stories. And so Ideas Roadshow was born.

Over time, we created videos in short, medium and long format, building extensive, specially-curated databases for universities, public libraries and high schools. Since the filmed conversations typically often went over two hours and we elected to generally limit our “long-format” videos to an hour, we decided to create an unabridged version of the entire conversation in print, too, complete with a detailed introduction and questions for discussion and topics for further investigation.

And so it went: I filmed a wide range of neuroscientists and philosophers, historians and physicists, legal scholars and political theorists, linguists, social theorists, writers and independent scholars and we received reviews, awards, subscribing institutions, in-flight entertainment deals, distributors, etc.

Once again — as expected — I was faced with the often frustrating task of describing what, exactly, we were creating and why it was different to a wide range of people who seemed determined to frame what had been done in terms of concepts that they were already familiar with:

Is it like a TED talk? Not especially. When researchers describe their work in a short specially-prepared lecture the results are very different than when they candidly relate their thoughts, frustrations and motivations in an informal and unscripted conversation. Is it an interview? Not really. Interviews are invariably much shorter and typically have a specific agenda associated with them from either side — think of an author or actor promoting a book or movie, or a politician reluctantly participating in a combative exchange with a journalist determined to hold his feet to the fire.

In our case, no such agenda existed. Experts from a wide variety of backgrounds were simply asked if they were interested in the prospect of openly and honestly discussing their work on camera for a few hours. Nobody was paid to participate. A few I knew beforehand, but most I didn’t: they were picked simply because what they were doing struck me as interesting. Some had written books around which the conversation naturally pivoted. Others hadn’t.

Is it journalism? Again, no. Some of the topics chosen had a necessarily newsy aspect to them — like discussing the implications of the Paris Agreement with a climate scientist — while most others — tackling the nuances of medieval history or analytic philosophy or mathematical thinking, say — most definitely didn’t.

But still: describing what something isn’t is hardly the same as describing what it is. And now, over 100 filmed conversations later, I finally feel that I have something to point to. Ideas Roadshow, I can say, is this. But what is this, exactly? Is it simply the end product of my original motivation to make frontline research culture accessible to the layperson?

Well, yes, in part. But it’s a lot more too. In particular, two fascinating developments occur when you hold sufficient numbers of detailed, filmed conversations with people.

The first is that a considerable number of intriguing connections both within and beyond disciplinary boundaries start to appear, illuminating both similarities and differences in approach.

Talk to enough cognitive scientists and you will begin to perceive a number of important sociological fault lines that you might not otherwise be aware of: those who are convinced that the mind “arises out of the brain” and those who are adamant that mental states cannot be reduced to physiological “brain states”; those who look at brain-imaging techniques as transformative and those who regard them as fads; those who model the brain in terms of largely localized independent processing units of incoming sensory information and those who give primacy to the concept of an active, predicting brain with widely distributed key networks.

Physicists Nima Arkani-Hamed and Tony Leggett both invoked time travel thought experiments to justify their intuitive scientific beliefs; intellectual historians Quentin Skinner, Martin Jay, David Armitage, Darrin McMahon, and John Dunn all independently highlighted the importance of rigorously examining language and etymology as a vital method of tracing the evolution of key ideas over the ages; tennis pro Janko Tipsarevic described how his career was abruptly transformed by adopting a growth mindset detailed by psychologist Carol Dweck; political theorist Mark Bevir and social philosopher Brian Epstein both warn against the dangers of treating the social sciences as the physical sciences; human rights scholar Emilie Hafner-Burton pointedly invoked the groundbreaking work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo. And on and on and on.

Such connections are a product of both the uniqueness of the experience on offer and the breadth of opportunities: in order to see them, you have to create the conditions for people to reflect more widely on their personal beliefs and motivations, and conduct enough conversations to notice the compelling links that begin to appear.

I had, embarrassingly enough, never even considered the possibility that such intriguing connections would arise, but once they started popping up I naturally tried to capitalize on them as best I could. I made a number of specially designated “compilation videos” to illustrate a range of expert perspectives on a given theme, and highlighted the conceptual overlaps between conversations in the “Questions for Discussion” sections of the associated books.

But the most significant defining aspect of the Ideas Roadshow experience is how the setting of a filmed conversation influences the thoughts and attitudes of the experts themselves, together with — naturally — the associated content produced.

I first started noticing this when it became apparent that the filmed conversations I was holding with people I knew quite well vastly exceeded — in substance, depth and intellectual coherence — any of the previous “real” conversations I had had with them in the past. I thought I knew Roger Penrose and Nima Arkani-Hamed and Paul Steinhardt reasonably well before our Ideas Roadshow conversations, but it didn’t take me long to realize that chatting with them on camera for a couple of hours gave me an enormously increased understanding of not only their research orientation, but who they really were and what, exactly, what was driving them.

Something very interesting happens when people book off a few hours from their daily lives to meet you in an intimate studio setting. They put on nicer clothes, brush their hair, turn off their phones and psychologically prepare themselves to sit in a chair for several hours to talk in a much more focused and comprehensive way about their life’s work than they otherwise ever would.

Philosopher Susan Wolf in conversation with Howard

In other words: a special sort of personal event has been created — an explicitly crafted occasion for reflection that has the potential to produce a uniquely rounded perspective of their ideas, motivations and influences — a sort of “mini-memoir”, if you will.

Each one of our books or videos is loaded with dozens of such examples, from how Philip Zimbardo’s childhood experiences drove him to appreciate the power of situational factors, to how Quentin Skinner’s confusion with Machiavelli led him to develop a new interpretation of freedom, to how Lisa Feldman Barrett’s inability to replicate experimental findings spurred her on to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how the brain works.

Of course things hardly fall out perfectly once you turn on the cameras; and once you turn them off a considerable amount of time and effort needs to be invested to transform the acquired raw content into a compelling, fully-rounded, accessible story for any curious non-specialist.

So that, I now understand, is what Ideas Roadshow really is: uniquely engaging “intellectual biographies” of a wide range of leading thinkers that not only give you valuable insights on what they believe, but also — even more significantly — why.

But that’s not quite the end of the story, because there’s also the intriguing question of form vs. substance. As time went on, I became increasingly focused on the print form of Ideas Roadshow content, creating a wide range of detailed books and eBooks of both individual and collected conversations. There were various reasons for justifying my mounting preference for print over video — print easily enables more content to be naturally incorporated in the finished product while simultaneously highlighting the subtleties of topics under consideration through rigorous editing, not to mention a steadily building revulsion of having to constantly look at myself on camera for hours at a time — but I couldn’t help being struck by what seemed like a profound irony of going to the trouble of staging a filmed conversation in order to come out with a book. After all, wouldn’t it be vastly easier and cheaper to just have a private conversation somewhere without lugging around all those lights and cameras to begin with?

Well, yes and no. Clearly that would be easier — not to mention much cheaper and more convenient in many ways — but as mentioned above, the intriguing thing I came to appreciate is that the end product naturally wouldn’t be the same. What really matters, in other words, isn’t the form the final result comes in, it’s that, unless you go to the trouble of creating the sort of personal event described earlier, you don’t produce the necessary conditions for this sort of uniquely illuminating biographical content to be created in the first place.

As renowned Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo put it during our three-hour Ideas Roadshow conversation: “It’s not just the people involved, it’s the situation”.

Howard Burton, the founder and creator of Ideas Roadshow and Ideas On Film, holds a PhD in theoretical physics and an MA in philosophy. Howard was the Founding Director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

To learn more about Ideas Roadshow which is now part of Ideas On Film visit our new website, here: Throughout this winter and spring, we will be regularly releasing detailed essays on Medium which are related to the 100+ Ideas Roadshow books and collections that we’ve created from in-depth filmed conversations with leading experts across the arts, sciences, sports and games.

On the Ideas On Film YouTube channel you can find detailed videos introducing both Ideas Roadshow and Ideas On Film plus lots of clips from our conversations with leading thinkers.

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