In July, 1984 I asked my friend and storyteller Jay O’Callahan to come to my apartment to look at my my first computer, a brand new Apple Macintosh. It had two programs, MacPaint and MacWrite.
I showed Jay how MacWrite could move text from one place to another. How you could copy a whole paragraph and move it around – and more.
He watched this demonstration of a modern word processor. Then he said, “This is the first form of writing that has the flexibility of oral language!”
All these years later, Jay’s words stay with me. Why? Because I believe they show an important relationship between storytelling, on the one hand, and computer technology, on the other.
When Storytelling Was an Innovation…
But let’s back up. Storytelling is older than history, but it must have been new at some point. Right?
Imagine how the invention of storytelling might have added to early human communication. It meant that you could share an experience AFTER it happened, not just with those who were with you at the time.
And when stories were retold over time, you could even share the experience of someone who lived years ago or far away.
So storytelling allowed us to break some of the bounds of time and place. And unlike cave drawings or other visual representations, it was rapid and portable. It didn’t require materials. You could create a story quickly. And you could take it with you when your clan followed a migrating herd.
Of course, storytelling had its limitations. To hear my story, you had to be within the sound of my voice – or the voice of someone else who happened to know my story. And when a storyteller died, her stories might not have survived her. To hear her stories after her death, you needed a direct chain of connection through others who had both heard and remembered.
The Next Big Thing
Oral storytelling remained our main way of sharing experience for millenia – until reading and writing became widespread. And that didn’t happen until Gutenberg’s printing press.
Printed text had many advantages over oral storytelling. With print, you could share someone’s experience no matter how long ago they lived or how disconnected their society was from yours. The storytelling tradition of the ancient Romans, for example, might have died out completely, but their written stories remain available to us now, centuries later and around the globe.
Print broke not only the bounds of space and time, but also the limits of human memory. Through print, we can access a library of stories thousands of times larger than what one storyteller – or even a whole village of storytellers – could ever remember.
But What Was Lost?
Every technological innovation, though, comes with trade-offs. For all its strengths, print is a thin medium, relying almost entirely on words. Oral storytelling – with its intricacies of voice inflection, gesture, timing, and so much more – is a much richer medium. In modern terms, it uses fatter bandwidth.
Further, print is basically a one-way medium. The reader of a book or letter only “receives.” The writer “sends” only, receiving no instantaneous feedback. And writing achieves its permanence at the cost of inflexibility: once published, the book just sits there, never changing to adapt to new circumstances.
The Computer is Chasing Us!
So, what Jay noticed that day in 1984 is that the computer had begun to narrow some of the gaps between written and oral language. As he pointed out, rearranging our words with a word processor comes much closer to the speed and flexibility with which we rearrange words and images in our minds and with which we change our stories on the fly in response to our listeners.
In the nearly 25 years since 1984, the technology has further overcome the limitations of Gutenburg’s world. It has become richer. The World Wide Web, for example, gives us not just print, but photos. And not just static words and pictures but also recorded audio and video.
Furthermore, the web has continued to increase the speed of production. Web logs (blogs) for instance, have changed the world by doing two things better than before: 1) allowing people to quickly and easily add content to a web site and 2) allowing readers to know easily and quickly that the change has been made.
So this technology has given greater and more instantaneous access to rich content than Gutenburg ever imagined. And this evolution shows no sign of slowing down.
What Does a Computer Want to Be, When It Grows Up?
So, what is storytelling’s role in all this? Live, in-person storytelling, I believe, serves as a measure of progress for computer technology. As long as computer-based communications lack some of what oral storytelling offers, there will be clear directions in which the technology can grow.
In other words, the technology will only have fully matured when it is capable of doing everything that oral, in-person storytelling does – without storytelling’s limitations. Perhaps this will never be acheived. But, at each step of the way, every remaining advantage of oral storytelling is a challenge for the next generation of communication technology.
We Are the Vanguard!
Rather than insist that we storytellers are somehow “behind the curve” in technology, therefore, I suggest that we are also far in front of it.
What if a generation grows up without experiencing, in some form, what we storytellers offer? Might they stop striving to seek technology that more closely approaches oral storytelling?
We are thus the keepers of the technological light: we remind the world what communication has been, but also what it may one day be: interactive, instantaneous, rich messages, capable of improvisation and quick change.
We inspire people to make that dream come ever closer to reality, so that our world can some day experience interaction, connection, and sharing of experience – person to person, but also across the boundaries of both time and distance.
Go ahead, computers. Catch us if you can!