exploring the future in story and folktale           


Alan Dix
Lancaster University, vfridge and aQtive

position paper for "Understanding User Experience: Literary Analysis meets HCI", workshop at HCI'2002, London, 3rd September 2002.

Full reference:
A. Dix (2002). exploring the future in story and folktale (position paper). Workshop on Understanding User Experience: Literary Analysis meets HCI, HCI'2002, London, 3 Sept 2002


In hunters' tales around the fireside, in songs of bards in halls of kings, in book and paper, novel and poem, we use the power of word and story to recount the past, explore the future and give embodiment to the imaginary. As technologists we too need to use the past to design the future and to create new worlds. Let's look at two of the ways in which the ideas of story have influenced my own work.

beyond the ordinary

We live in an ordinary world doing ordinary things to ordinary objects. And these ordinary things obey rules determined by the hard constraints of physicality. This physicality includes the 3D Euclidean world itself, locality of effect (here and now), directness of effect (push a little - it moves a little), and simplicity and visibility of state of inanimate objects.

But we also inhabit electronic worlds whether through VR, the web, SMS, TV or mobile phone. And the rules of space, locality, directness and visibility do not hold for these virtual worlds. But as creatures we are not designed for these worlds. How do we make sense of the non-physicality of these domains? How do we design the extra-ordinary?

Over several years I have sought to understand the understanding we have of the world to see what constraints of reality can be relaxed and which are essential to make non-physicality comprehensible.

For thousands of years, before this technology was ever dreamt of, in myth and folktale, people have explored magical worlds where the extraordinary is ordinary. I seek to use these ordinary accounts of the extraordinary in order to understand the essentials of reality.

One example is the story of the frog prince - physical things change slowly and retain their fundamental identity. With a single kiss the frog becomes a prince and yet is the same. Despite its unphysicality we can accept transmutation.

In the Mabinogion, Pryderi, Rhiannon, Manawydan and Cigfa are out on an after dinner walk when all the land is transformed and buildings, people and cattle all disappear leaving the four companions alone - it is the same land, the same hills, the same valleys only not the same. This idea of parallel worlds coexisting yet independent is common in Celtic culture and gives a cognitive basis for augmented reality.

imagination kicks back

Stories run deeper still. Language can be used to simply communicate current needs. But this does no more than facilitate the mundane activities of here and now. However, it is language in story that turns individual experience into shared experience and allows our imagination to become part of communal plans.

But imagination and story are not just about sharing. They are also a central part of our cognitive make up. There is substantial evidence that our minds have different kinds of intelligence: social, mechanical and physical, etc. In other animals these kinds of intelligence do not interact, but in humans we are (sometimes!) able to bring multiple intelligences to play on the same situation.

One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly our more abstract powers of reasoning which are domain independent and so can re-encode innate understanding from different areas. But another point of contact between intelligences is the imagination. By calling past or planned situations to mind in visualisation and mental story we create worlds that have nearly the same sensory experience as 'the real thing' and so different cognitive apparatus can comment on the story, not allowing one side to create 'unreal' situations.

If I try to walk in a direction, but there is a wall in the way, I will discover my error, painfully - physical reality kicks back. As we 'solidify' our imagination in stories and scenarios, the imaginary world also kicks back as we see the physical or social sense or nonsenses in the situations we enact. In a similar vein, novelists report how the characters and plot at some point take on a life of their own, being guided by the author, but also imposing their own personality on the work.

Some of the power of scenarios in design comes from the power of story to enable us to make sense and detect the nonsense of proposed solutions as well as share imagined experience.


A. Dix. Welsh Mathematician walks in Cyberspace (the cartography of cyberspace). (keynote) Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Collaborative Virtual Environments - CVE2000. ACM Press, 2000. pp. 3-7 www.hcibook.com/alan/papers/CVE2000/

A. Dix, T. Rodden and I. Sommerville. A Modal Model of Versions. FAHCI - Formal Aspects of the Human Computer Interface. Eds. C. Roast and J. Siddiqi. Sheffield, Springer Verlag, Electronic Workshops in Computing, 1996. www.hcibook.com/alan/papers/fahci.html

J. Gantz (translator) The Mabinogion. Penguin Books, 1976.

S. Mithen. The Prehistory of the Mind. Pheonix, 1998. (Thames and Hudson, 1996)

Alan Dix 24/8/2002