Reversible, Reverse History and Side-by-Side Storytelling

Although I tend to live very much in the flow of the web, I also have a memory of (some of) what’s gone before. So for example, there’s a viral video doing the rounds at the moment about the Future of the publishing industry – feel free to watch it, but before you’re tempted to share it, please read on…

Very nice, and maybe not surprising that Penguin Books are behind it, as they were with a whole host of other innovative storytelling techniques two or three years ago (

But when I saw the video I thought: okay, but not that original (and I’m guessing originality was partly the reason why this video has gone viral…?) Because I’d seen exactly the same form and presentation last year in what is arguably a far more powerful story:

Thanks to @cogdog has for finding the original link, as well as an earlier political video it was based on:

This idea of reversible time requires a cleverly constructed narrative of course. On several occasions over the last year, I’ve pondered how to go about constructing such a narrative – the videos shown above give a host of structural clues and cribs to get you started – but I feel that an easy way in might to to take a familiar story and tell it backwards. That is, tell a reverse narrative.

I’m sure this conceit must be a well used one in science fiction, but the first time I (remember) coming across it was in the novel Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis which tells the story of a life, told backwards.

A couple of years ago, Brian Kelly used this trick as a tool for helping out with the creation of risk assessments – The History Of The Web Backwards, who “suggested idea of ‘History of Web backwards to @daveyp in pub in Glasgow on 2 May 06, after a Radio 4 prog which used this idea.” (I wonder if it was this programme, on international datelines, that spurred the idea? Shifting meridians: a tale of time ?)

Another playful take on time is the replay. I’ve posted about this before (Relative Time Replay: History, In Real Time) but the main idea is that we take the real time events from one epoch and replay them at another time. So for example, last year saw a replay of the first moon landing using Twitter, amongst other things, to replay the landing as if in real time. The idea of replay is also behind the idea of the Twitter video captions hack too, of course.

Finally, although not strictly a time based device, I think that here might be a good place to mention side-by-side video storytelling. A great example of this is Duelity which counters creationist claims with an evolutionary perspective, told side by side:

(This resembles the reversible device in the videos above in the sense that each separate video is coherent in its own right, as well as when the videos are played side by side; just like the forward and the reverse narratives in the other videos both work as narratives.)

Digital Storytelling – a whole lotta fun:-)

PS Hmm, maybe I should try to weave some of this into the “Narrative” Topic Exploration in the Digital Worlds course? (Delivered wholly online, now taking registrations for a May 2010 start;-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

9 thoughts on “Reversible, Reverse History and Side-by-Side Storytelling”

  1. Thanks for assembling this tapestry, Tony, you beat me to the blog punch with your 9 hours lead time in sunrise ;-)

    The first time I (thought) I looked at the Penguin video on YouTube, I seemed to have missed the details in their caption, as they give full attribution to prior versions of this telling mode, along with a link to a blog entry on the ideas/methods behind it.

    The link you had tweeted me for the “Lost Generation” predecessor, was some person who just posted the video, and gave no credit to where it came from. I thought that was interesting. It was Cole Camplese who pointed me to the source of Lost generation on YouTube, which itself linked back to the Truth video that (for now) seems to be the earliest iteration of this reverse telling form. I had some musings about the values of attribution and the challenges when it is lacking.

    I am sure, as you suggest here, there are other ways this has been done in literature and earlier forms (maybe this is like watching Memento backwards?).

    Anyhow, I am eager to see what data-based (hah) storytelling ideas you hatch.

    1. “you beat me to the blog punch with your 9 hours lead time in sunrise”

      I finished it just after we chatted yesterday, when I asked if you wanted to be a co-author – it’s been scheduled since then…;-)

  2. I have seen the backwards story telling several times. Of course there is the movie Memento more recently which is all backwards.

    There is a danger, often, that the thing is merely a trick rather than a true device. In Memento it makes sense to the plot in that the main character has no short term memory so to simulate that for you you have to go backwards that way it feels to you like it does to the character, “you are always waking up”.

    Anyway this also made me think of the joke, “time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”. I think it’s a Groucho Marx line.

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