Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Changing Our Stories

We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
~W.H. Auden

Telling tales the old-timey way

This morning, while listening to NPR, I heard a reference to a Ben Macintyre article from the Times [London], “The Internet is Killing Storytelling.” Below that online headline is this lead-in:

Narratives are a staple of every culture the world over. They are disappearing in an online blizzard of tiny bytes of information.

Turmoil over new media is nothing new, of course. On the one hand, I’m guilty of a cranky resistance to what I perceive as threats to the sanctity of narrative, namely the disjointed snippets that represent much of the content of the new media. For those of us keeping score, it is one more sign of the coming apocalypse.

On the other hand, I admit that I might not grasp the roles that digital technologies can play in transmitting stories to people who experience the world differently from me.

In an earlier time, we would have bemoaned the advent of the printing press for undermining the richness and the vitality of the oral tradition, and with good reason.

Here's a bit of the Macintyre article:

Last year Hollywood veterans and scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to create a laboratory aimed at protecting the traditional tale from oblivion: the Centre for Future Storytelling. However ludicrous that may sound, they have a point. Storytelling is the bedrock of civilisation. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else. In old age we tell stories to make small museums of memory. It matters not whether the stories are true or imaginary.

The narrative, whether oral or written, is a staple of every culture the world over. But stories demand time and concentration; the narrative does not simply transmit information, but invites the reader or listener to witness the unfolding of events.

A modern storyteller keeping narrative alive

Stories introduce us to situations, people and dilemmas beyond our experience, in a way that is contemplative and gradual: it is the oldest and best form of virtual reality.

The internet, while it communicates so much information so very effectively, does not really “do” narrative. The blog is a soap box, not a story. Facebook is a place for tell-tales perhaps, but not for telling tales. The long-form narrative still does sit easily on the screen, although the e-reader is slowly edging into the mainstream. Very few stories of more than 1,000 words achieve viral status on the internet.

Meanwhile, a generation is tuned, increasingly and sometimes exclusively, to the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral. The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture.

The entire article is at:


Three years ago, I started blogging simply because I was curious about the technology. I really didn’t have an agenda for stories I wanted to tell or causes I wanted to champion. Things just happened the way they happened.

Every storyteller's dream, a rapt audience

I know it is tempting to blame the Internet for the death of narrative. But is it really that simple? Any loquacious blowhard can satisfy the desire to tell stories…without the assistance of new technologies. But for a soft-spoken recluse such as myself the Internet provides an opportunity to share stories that would otherwise go untold. If it weren't for this computer screen, I'd just be talking to the walls. Some might count that reason enough to condemn the Internet. It’s not for me to say.

Like it or not, change happens.

Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.
- Bertold Brecht


dwbrewin said...

There might be another way to look at this. It used to be that only the very lucky, wealthy or incredibly persistent could ever hope to tell a story on the big screen. Today with the advent of pretty high quality, affordable, digital camcorders a lot of people are telling stories. HBO has realized this and is now funding documentary filmmakers to produce weekly 90 minute docs for them. People have more access to this technology than ever before and shooting and editing have never been easier to come by and will probably keep getting easier to acquire. It will probably be a while before we're back sitting around a fire listening to the bard but we're sitting in darkened rooms looking at a screen or in front of a TV and seeing and hearing what our modern day bards are producing.

GULAHIYI said...

That's a very interesting point. It is fascinating how we are seeing, simultaneously, both the unprecedented corporatization of the media AND unprecedented democratization of the media.

I spent lots of years in radio and relished the comparative simplicity of audio versus video technology. At the time, I recognized how much expense and ability was required to produce video of acceptable quality (and was happy to avoid it). I've been remiss in getting acquainted with the current state of video production, so it's good to hear your assessment.

I hope that people will be inspired to hone their storytelling skills along with their technical expertise in using the new media.