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The New Power of Stories

Humans tell stories.  It is one of our most distinctive and vital qualities. As I wrote in August, we cannot help ourselves but to tell stories, because it is how we understand and explain the world.

Today’s new AI technology creates possibilities for widely broadcasting interactive stories in ways not previously available. But as those who have watched the recent developments in film computer-generated imagery (CGI) will attest, new technology does not necessarily mean better stories. In this issue, we share stories about powerful storytelling through traditional and new media, within a broader lens of how faith-oriented tech creators and faith leaders can effectively shape mankind’s adoption of AI for human flourishing. Our features run the gamut from the spoken and written word to physical environments and the digital world.

First, consider the spoken word – man’s oldest story telling method is still popular through campfires, dinner parties, TED talks, broadcast news, classrooms, audible books, and sermons. The earliest Judeo-Christian texts clearly outline how sermons, prayers, and public worship are the backbone for serious public engagement with the Divine. The art of the sermon is rendered profound because it is practiced within the context of worship. Within the theme of storytelling, AI&F editor Mayla Boguslav has interviewed our founding Advisor Rabbi Daniel Weiner about why he dedicated his Rosh Hashanah sermon this fall to the subject of AI in the context of faith. Wiener is the picture of a progressive Rabbi: he plays in the worship band, and he is also profoundly gifted at relating lessons from some of the world’s oldest stories of faith to the world’s current issues, including building and deploying AI responsibly.

Next, consider the written word. Under the storytelling theme, we present two features. AI&F Advisor Nathan Kutz provides a review of the recent publication How Data Happened, by Chris Wiggins and Matthew Jones. Based on a popular course at Columbia, the book considers how data has shaped the course of American society and business, starting as early as the Constitutionally-mandated US Census in 1789. Dr. Kutz, the chair of applied mathematics at the University of Washington, brings to this review his own multi-decade experience of research in machine learning. Kutz leads the NSF-funded AI Institute for Dynamic Systems. The Institute employs novel approaches for data collection, control, and modeling to develop machine learning methods to solve “problems fundamental to human safety, society, and the environment.” While these methods are firmly rooted in complex mathematical abstractions, some have evoked great shifts in society – and this book tells the story of how we got here.

Also considering the written word, we feature an interview with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. Prior is a renowned English professor in the world of evangelical Christianity, with her writing featured in Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many others. In this interview, she discusses her new book The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis. AI&F editor Robert Rex interviews Dr. Prior about how cultural and artistic influences develop into “social imaginaries” that shape how Christians engage with current American culture in ways often no longer helpful. Prior explores how stories, metaphors, analogies, and tropes create a worldview that can either encourage, or discourage, a life of faith. Prior further considers how technological advances have supplied novel mediums to convey and shape such “imaginaries.” This interview underscores the important role people of faith have in creating and adopting better AI-powered applications, while considering the mental and emotional frameworks of users and developers.

Finally, we consider newer forms of story-telling media in two features. In a recent interview with AI&F member Peter McGowan, Chief Storyteller at Storyland Studios in Riverside, California, McGowan explores how his faith integrates with his work in sophisticated, comprehensive corporate story telling. Storyland Studios, in collaboration with Plain Joe Studios, design physical environments ranging from theme parks to corporate offices. The studios also take on digital interactive work that connects the physical and virtual worlds through website and mobile app development, virtual and augmented reality, animation, and new media. Their character animation process called Ozone can create feature film-quality characters in a variety of situations that are engaging and have broad emotional range. McGowan is a board member of Christianity Today, where his expertise helps guide digital storytelling to over seven million global readers a month.

Considering the story telling medium of gaming, we feature a piece by AI&F advisor and Soma Games CEO Chris Skaggs. Skaggs discusses the extraordinary opportunity video games present as a form of relational “soul medicine” for people who may feel socially isolated or disconnected from their faith. Skaggs has been writing for AI&F since 2021, starting with our first Newsletter themed on the power of story. As CEO of Soma Games, Skaggs ensures that the company remains dedicated to moral education of children through gaming. He is also the founder of the Imladris Conference for Christian game creators and a major convenor of game creators seeking to change society for good.

At a Christian philanthropy conference last week in Palo Alto, Chris introduced me to the scale at which gaming now operates. In terms of content creations, video games vastly outpace the film industry. As such, more efforts are now being directed towards games for positive social change. With roughly three billion people playing games globally, including more than 60% of Americans, the medium is an excellent format to reach a broad audience. For example, Christian game creator Jenova Chen’s latest interactive social game, Sky: Children of the Light, has garnered more than 23 million regular players. A video game could conceivably draw on faith values to help players grapple with the kinds of ethical questions presented by AI. Such a game might be an active counterpart to the documentary The Social Dilemma, which presented passive viewers with thought-provoking metaphors that reflected problematic outcomes of social media platforms.

The ways we communicate complex ideas and emotions remain an important focal point of the conversation around AI. So many important stories of faith, perseverance, and love act to enhance people’s religious experience. Digital technology has come to the fore to enhance both the type and scale of interactions, and provides opportunities for engaging faith, morality, and ethics via the social imaginaries, in the words of Dr. Prior. With this modern story-telling power, we have opportunity to share the depth and fullness of the world’s ancient wisdom to a modern audience. Let us take advantage of this opportunity.


David Brenner

Currently serves as the board chair of AI and Faith. For 35 years he practiced law in Seattle and Washington DC, primarily counseling clients and litigating claims related to technology, risk management and insurance. He is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Berkeley’s Law School.

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