On Sunday, as part of the Sydney Opera House’s UnWrapped series, a group of dancers “remixed” Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by way of an Australian storytelling technology, Omelia. A product built to shuffle characters and events and generate narrative possibilities in real time, dancers using it brought a new version of the classic tragedy to life. The one-off production, R+J RMX, was filmed for the Opera House’s streaming platform.
The “remix” was interactive: audience members were sent to a website where they could restructure the play with the touch of a button, while on stage narrators and dancers ran through numerous renditions of the story.
The works of Shakespeare, surely more than those of any other writer, have been subject to interminable reworkings, as if we are at once infinitely fascinated and infinitely dissatisfied with the source material. So how does technology alter this process?
The show’s creators frequently explain Omelia by way of simile: it’s like a choreographer, assistant, dramaturg, collaborator.
Prior to performance night, Kate Armstrong-Smith, Omelia’s CEO and a producer of R+J RMX, attempts to explain by pulling a pen – the classic storytelling technology – from her pocket.
“None of this is possible without this tool,” she tells Guardian Australia, gesturing with the pen to the high-ceilinged rehearsal space in which dancers contort their bodies, grasping one another, evaluating their movements in long mirrors. A pen with serious accoutrements, Omelia is pitched as a tool not to generate the ideas, but to shape them; not to displace writers, but to facilitate them.
On the wall, colourful A4 sheets map out key story beats. Armstrong-Smith uses this analogue plan to explain the digital tech. If, she says, halfway through the show a character dies, Omelia will reorganise the remaining narrative to account for the death. Relationships and tensions will shift, inciting new actions and dramatic beats. As we speak, dancers are imagining how they might respond to various scenarios, but they won’t know what awaits them until the night itself unfolds.
Although the event is billed as using artificial intelligence, Joseph Couch, Omelia’s owner, says his technology is not, in fact, AI. It has no learning capabilities, and does not endeavour to mimic human thought. Nor is it in danger of turning against its creators. “It’s a smart system,” he says. Later, he calls it a “narrative ideation tool”. Essentially, it’s an operating system into which you input characters, relationships, and actions, and it presents you with a coherent dramatic narrative.
Couch and Armstrong-Smith have backgrounds in theatre and film. Couch has directed for Sydney Theatre Company; Armstrong-Smith has worked with arts festivals across Australia. Their vision for Omelia is that it will prioritise a storyteller’s values.
Couch, projecting the exhausted but shimmering energy of someone who has both their money and creative vision on the line, becomes fiercely passionate when describing Omelia’s philosophical underpinnings. He imagines it pushing writers to depart from the individualistic archetypes that have come to dominate popular forms of storytelling, and instead prompting them to see narrative as a social model. As society becomes increasingly complex, Couch believes, it demands similarly complex story-telling systems.
“Where is the corporation in the hero’s journey?” he asks, referring to the oft-referenced storytelling template popularised by Joseph Campbell, and what he sees as its lack of sophistication, its incapacity to describe our world. “Where is the internet?”
Omelia, Couch says, “allows writers to conceive of unique plot shapes that are both novel and resonant, deeply derived from society, and dramatically sound.”
Omelia is still in its early stages, but I’m shown a proof-of-concept visualisation of The Godfather that models the operating system’s logic. The tollbooth assassination scene plays in one window while, alongside it, dots signifying characters with linking lines representing their relationships to each other emerge, shift, vanish.
It’s both unsettling and compelling to see the creative process, which is usually shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, so formally charted like this.
Is such tech necessary? It’s perpetually tempting to consider traditional creative methods inadequate, letting the newer and shinier tools distract us from the goals they’re meant to allow us to achieve. Omelia, however, doesn’t render the artist or the creative process obsolete.
Stuart Buchanan, head of digital programming at the Opera House, has worked with the Omelia team over the past year to develop the show, and is excited by the potential.
“The hand of the artist is still essential to get an interesting and coherent outcome,” he says. “Whilst it might sound somewhat iconoclastic to be remixing Shakespeare, instead what it shows is something that provokes a lot of thought as to how we might leverage and embrace technology for different kinds of art and creative ends.”
R+J RMX’s choreographer Larissa McGowan and dancer Harrison Elliott are particularly fond of how Omelia streamlines the creative process.
“You could try many different ways to create movement for a scene or a moment,” McGowan says, “but it’s simplified because you can test them faster. You’re not having to come up with all the possibilities.”
As a performer, Elliott appreciates how the technology maps the narrative on all levels: “While we can change the whole narrative, in changing one section you also have all these other choices for how you would murder someone, forgive someone, and doing that physically is quite interesting because it’s really specific.”
Couch and Armstrong-Smith wonder whether it’s possible for R+J RMX to fail, or what failure would look like. They’re balancing desires to entertain an audience, and to demonstrate Omelia’s potential.
The irony is that the night’s most compelling questions return us to Shakespeare’s original iteration. How many changes would be required before we’d say that the story is no longer Shakespeare’s? If the play is to remain a tragedy, is there any conclusion that does not include the death of the protagonists, regardless of the path Omelia takes to get there?
Post-Covid, live performance is seeking new ways to engage audiences and the Opera House describes R+J RMX as “disruptive”. But the technological disruption is not as interesting as is the showcasing of a form that highlights and makes new our endless obsession with story – our need, as society changes, to find fresh ways to mirror, encapsulate and describe that society. Who knows if this impulse will lead us to new stories, or simply to new ways of retelling old ones?
The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.
London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).
The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.
Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.
Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.
Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.
Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.
The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.
“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.
“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.
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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.
The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.
Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.
Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.
The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.
The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.
The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.
Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.
A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.
The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.
Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.
The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.
“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.
Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.
“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.
However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.
Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.
But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.