It’s easy to say that of the all the organs that make up the Military Industrial Complex, none is more genuinely beloved than the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. While some of that admiration comes, no doubt, from their zany proposals, far more comes from the fact that they actually get stuff done — like inventing the Internet. So it is quite interesting to see that DARPA is looking to learn more about the biological and literary processes behind story-telling in a project called Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET).
So far, STORyNET is just a workshop to be held in Virginia at the end of February, but this is apparently just the beginning. The project has many goals, but seems to be focused on discovering what makes stories resonant with people. From the workshop’s outline:
Stories exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out- group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that these influences make stories highly relevant to vexing security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution. Therefore, understanding the role stories play in a security context is a matter of great import and some urgency.
Obviously, this is not an exercise in simple literary analysis — though that actually does appear to be a facet of the discussion. Instead, Michael Cooney at Layer 8 suggests that it’s part of a larger effort on the part of DARPA to develop technologies that will analyze text and other media with quantifiable results. He sites two projects from DARPA: the Machine Reading Program and the Cyber Genome project. As I understand it, these seem to show great interest in finding ways to quickly scan information and discern it’s intention. Hopefully, ferreting out the difference between a document that intends to recruit terrorists and one that does not.
There may be more practical intentions here as well. The U.S. military has, on the whole, struggled against the propaganda of groups like Al Qaeda. It’s very easy to read the goals of STORyNET as an effort to understand what makes effective propaganda, and how to improve America’s messaging to people in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s purely speculative, of course, but perhaps a fair reading of their intentions. And if this means that DoD press releases suddenly become much more compelling and interesting to read, then what’s the harm?
You can read the full description of STORyNET here, or look below to read the three goals of STORyNET, laid out in the typical esoteric grandiloquence of military research.
1. To survey narrative theories. These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story? What are its moving parts? Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else? Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?
2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts. What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do they influence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?
3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools. How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?