Thinking with i-docs: cognitive tools for uncertain times


As the field of i-docs (interactive and immersive documentary) has developed, it has become clear that key aspects of this ever growing field have a particular purchase on illuminating and intervening into crises. In this article, we examine why this is the case and argue that the processes involved in i-doc making open up valuable cognitive spaces  through which to engage with and reflect on uncertainty.


Our focus is more on the interactive than immersive properties of i-docs, as we place the spotlight on projects which are built using computer software and designed to incorporate multiple pieces of content that can be accessed in multiple, non-linear configurations. Interactive documentaries of this kind have been used to explore economic crises (eg. Rapporteur de crises and How to Start a Financial Crisis), environmental and energy crises (including Waterlife, Journey to the End of Coal, Athens Report and Collapsus), political conflict and uprising (as in Gaza Sderot and 18 Days in Egypt) and the COVID-19 pandemic (including Corona Haikus, Corona Diaries, Exposed and The Lockdown Game). They are celebrated by their makers for the ways in which they foreground and encourage user agency, and they are often seen as a means through which we can generate hopeful ways of moving forward in uncertain times. Our interest here is as much on the processes involved in making i-docs of this nature as it is on the i-docs themselves. We are also exploring how these processes can help us not only to act but also to think, in a critical and reflective manner, about our individual and collective responses to states of crisis.


But what is it that gives interactive documentary such an apparent aptitude for interrogating crises and building better futures?


By hosting a recent international symposium on I-Docs, Crisis and Multi-perspectival Thinking (in May 2022) and co-editing an eponymous special issue of Convergence (to be released late 2023), we have started a pertinent conversation about what they offer. Our conjecture is that their polyvocal capacities, nonlinear logics and multimodal properties make them a good fit for interrogating and communicating crises as complex, precarious situations where diverse perspectives cannot be authentically conflated into one narrative, and ways of moving forward are multiple. Our commitment is to articulating the ‘language’ of i-docs as a particular way of thinking and feeling. We aim to ‘extract’ this language from i-docs as a complex digital form, so that it can be used for making across a variety of different contexts and also as a tool for thought which does not necessarily need to involve any software at all. In this sense, we believe that the process of planning a hypothetical i-doc, detached from its actual making, can be a valuable way in itself of interrogating complex issues, both for individuals and in collaborative contexts. 


In this article we advance this conversation by tracing initial thoughts about the unique affordances of i-docs that were first articulated at the 2011 i-Docs Symposium. We consider how the processes of their making, the particularities of their ‘language’ and the ‘liveness’ of their formats gear them towards illuminating crises and building shared visions of the future. We also invite other practitioners and researchers to be part of this debate, offering questions and provocations. Although the documentary industry has moved its focus away from this original conception of i-docs towards augmented reality (ar), virtual reality (vr) and extended reality (xr), we believe that the i-docs forms and processes that we are focusing on here still have much to offer as community-based and more scholarly tools for collective problem solving and interdisciplinary engagement. We also note the recent surge in interest around interactive narrative more generally that points toward a renewed interest within the industry too.


Interactive documentaries can be made by a single author or a team and can involve collaborative and participatory processes.


In all instances, we think that they engage a multi perspectival way of thinking that has immense value in times of crisis. Our position is that interactive documentaries lend themselves to expressing and developing a ‘metamodern’ and ‘polyphonic‘ ideology which gives parity to multiple systems of meaning rather than insisting on one or the other.This is not to suggest that there aren’t better or worse ways of doing things, but that there is no one truth about how we should live. In this sense, meaning is something that is created through an active process of doing. Interactive documentaries lend themselves to this way of thinking because their inherent structure of multiplicity works with a logic of ‘and/and’ as opposed to ‘either/or’. We argue that this can be expressed and developed particularly well through the processes involved in making, or even just designing, an i-doc. This is because the process encourages us to be respectful and curious about different systems of meaning and to think collectively about how to most effectively and progressively create meeting points between them. 


In co-creative i-doc processes, participants often make their own materials (e.g. short film clips, images, audio clips, text etc.) and then work together to design an i-doc interface that will hold these diverse materials. They design the architecture and aesthetics of that interface and decide what interactive capacities and limitations users should have when engaging with it. I-docs made in this way therefore hold on to difference and division while also generating a vision of a shared world that contains (rather than eradicates) that difference. This is achieved by bringing together discrete multimedia materials into a shared system. Crucially, an i-doc is not a static form, it is a system that does things – that offers affordances and agency to users as well as makers. This means that the shared visions that i-docs produce are visions of shared ways of doing. Co-created i-docs can bring diverging perspectives into a shared system of doing, so it makes sense that they are celebrated as a means to build hopeful trajectories in times of uncertainty, conflict and crisis. 


Co-created i-docs, therefore, help us think about how to do things in ways that work with, rather than against, multiplicity.


Even in i-docs built by a single author or a small team we argue that multiperspectival thinking is central to the process. Key to the ‘language’ of i-docs is the idea of having multiple pieces of content that can be accessed in multiple, nonlinear configurations, as there is no one order in which users are required to move through its contents. I-doc makers must ask themselves questions about how to lay out discrete materials within the interface and what multiple pathways to offer users through them – how they should (and should not) link together. Thinking with and through i-docs is inherently multi-perspectival, even when you only have a sole i-doc author. This makes interactive documentary methods and processes a powerful ‘tool for thought’, enacted through the process of designing and making. It shifts the focus away from solely considering their impact on an external audience towards also looking at their impact on those involved in their actual making. While co-creation processes are by no means the sole preserve of i-docs, we argue that, when combined with their polyphonic, metamodern and multimodal properties, they offer a powerful set of distinct opportunities and possibilities through which to engage with complex issues.


To summarize, interactive documentaries are distinctive in how they can bring together diverse and conflicting materials into a coherent, functioning, co-created system. They are also distinctive in presenting that system as a space for both imaginative exploration of possibilities and for politicized engagement in the ‘real’ world. This, we think, is the basis of why i-docs have such an aptitude for understanding and moving forward within crises. They offer a multiperspectival, engaged and open way of thinking that we believe to be of much value to contemporary problem solving. We believe that the ways of thinking and feeling that interactive documentaries offer are so valuable that they have wider purchase beyond the relatively small world of i-docs afficionados. From our own experimental workshops we have seen how valuable it can be for specialists across academia and beyond, as well as community groups, to make or even just plan an i-doc about a topic. The processes involved engage ways of thinking which force participants to examine the multiple perspectival dimensions of any given topic, the relationships between those perspectives and the ways in which users might engage with them.


Our intention is to promote thinking with the language of i-docs to scholars and practitioners beyond the field of media and film studies.


Through our ongoing and wider interdisciplinary collaborations, we will be further exploring these questions and, working towards the creation of a ‘glossary’ of the language of i-docs, a handbook for how to think with i-docs. Our intention is that this will be a valuable methodological tool for scholars within multiple disciplines as well as for creating dialogue between different disciplines and across different knowledge systems. We also believe that i-docs and the ways of thinking that they promote can also be beneficial in community and activism settings and intend that our glossary will be helpful in this context too. When i-docs hit the (relative) mainstream, the focus of excitement was on their commercial potential as a new communications platform. While this potential remains, we argue that what is increasingly apparent is the wider value of the cognitive tools that they offer. This comes at a time when we desperately need ways of thinking which can help us to make sense of and move forward within the multiple complexities and crises that we face. We firmly believe that i-docs have a key role role to play in helping to progress this endeavour.


Judith Aston and Ella Harris – October 2022



This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Drs Judith Aston and Ella Harris.

Judith is a founding director of i-docs and a co-curator of the i-docs bi-annual symposium. She is a key voice in the field of i-docs and, recently, has been exploring the polyphonic potentialities of i-docs, including through leading the ‘Polyphonic Documentary’ project. Ella is an interdisciplinary researcher who has been innovating with i-docs as a creative and participatory tool for exploring crises. She has worked with i-docs to explore the glamorization of precarity in the aftermath of the 2008 crash (via an AHRC funded PhD) and, more recently, to explore changing imaginaries of freedom and compliance during lockdown (via a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship).

Bringing together these interests and expertise, Judith and Ella are working to interrogate the ‘language’ of i-docs, the ways of thinking and feeling enabled by their properties and processes. They are particularly interested in how this language can be mobilized for illuminating and intervening in crises and uncertain futures, as a means of countering environmental, epistemic and ontological injustices.