Kevin Michael Brooks, Technology Storyteller

A pioneer in the field of interactive storytelling has left the earthly stage. Kevin Michael Brooks — designer, author, researcher — lost his battle with pancreatic cancer March 28, 2014. He was 55. His death was announced by his wife, fellow storyteller Laura Packer, who also posted this online obituary.

I only interacted directly with Kevin a few times in person and online, and I would not presume to count myself among his intimates. He made friends easily, and had many admirers among the his colleagues at the various places where he studied and worked (degrees from Drexel, Stanford and MIT, and positions at Apple, Motorola and Hallmark.), and in the vast community of oral storytellers and audiences at events such as Massmouth. But I feel privileged to have been in his presence, to have experienced his enthusiasm and expansive intellect and to have been warmed by the light of his smile. And so, I did not want to let this moment pass without encouraging those who are interested in computational thinking, interactive journalism and user experience design to delve into his work.

Take the time to watch this 2012 eMedia chat in which Brooks explains his evolution as a storyteller, and how he came to understand the centrality of storytelling to effective user experience design, and the importance of understanding audience (or users) to effective storytelling.

For a deeper dive, Brooks’ 1999 doctoral dissertation for MIT Media Lab, Metalinear Cinematic Narrative: Theory, Process and Tool┬áis worth reading. In this work, Brooks proposed the term metalinear narrative to describe the underlying structure needed to make multithreaded user-defined stories work effectively. He was grappling with the central problem of how to translate the building blocks of a story into structured data that a reader can assemble in multiple ways without losing its coherence. He created a software tool, Agent Stories, that was intended to assist storytellers in creating metalinear narratives. While software has move on since then, most notably in game design, the questions raised in Brooks’ work are still relevant.

Brooks’ post-MIT work applied these insights to user-experience design. I recall sitting in the audience as he explained how he created an interactive film to help Motorola’s engineers think through the design of its OnStar(TM) navigation service. He also coauthored a book with Whitney Quesenbery, Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design.

Kevin’s personal journey is also inspiring to those of us who are concerned with broadening participation in computing. He was an African American male who matriculated through Philadelphia’s public schools in the 1960s and 70s. He had aspirations to work in two fields – film and computer science – where few people looked like him. Not only that, but he had those aspirations at a time when students where told that these interests were mutually exclusive. Now, computer science educators strain to find ways to help students understand the creative potential of computing, and the use of media as a pedagogical platform and strategy is far more common.

It is my profound hope that people in the field of computational journalism, organizational communications, news design and user experience design will study Kevin’s work and build upon it. Rest in peace, Kevin, and thank you.

I’ll leave you with something fun: