In the ancient city of Alexandria stood the greatest library in the world, where scrolls and parchments of all the great works had been painstakingly assembled. In 48 B.C., though, Alexandria was conquered and the library was burned to the ground. The loss to humanity was inestimable.
Imagine now that a friend of yours has an office in an old barn. One day, you find out that his barn burned down. You say, “Oh my gosh, you had this huge library of knowledge about storytelling! Did it get burned up?”
And he says, “Nope, I had it in my pocket.” And he pulls out his smart-phone to show you where it was all safely stored.
His good fortune is possible because he lives firmly in the Second Age of Storytelling. And yet the Third Age of Storytelling is already dawning. This Age is so new, we can hardly recognize it, much less be fully grateful for it.
Let’s start by understanding the Ages that led up to it.
The First Age of Storytelling: In-Person Telling
Since the development of our species, stories have been the most easily remembered way to express complex information. In fact, they have been known to survive in oral transmission for millennia. As a result, storytelling was the first reliable method for communicating cultural knowledge across the generations.
Further, storytelling is a rich medium, capable of transmitting subtleties of emotional reactions as well as the facts of “who did what.”
In recent centuries, though, storytelling was largely supplanted by written language – not because written language was more expressive, but because, using the technologies of paper and ink, written language was more capable of preserving and transporting large amounts of knowledge.
The Second Age of Storytelling: Sounds That Last
This began to change with Edison’s 1877 tinfoil phonograph. The gramophone followed, leading to mass production of recordings by the early 1900s.
By the 1970s, it was possible to store audio recordings digitally. Within just 10 more years, the mp3 format was invented, allowing highly compressed recordings that still preserve most of what the human ear finds significant. Within another 10 years, the format was standardized and the first stand-alone mp3 player was invented.
Thanks to these and other recent bursts of technology, we can now have a library of recorded stories and speeches in our pockets. And we can have another copy of our libary back home at our desk. In fact, we can share that entire library electronically with someone on the other side of the world.
As a result, the expressiveness of storytelling is now coupled with the capacities and permanence formerly available only through writing.
The Third Age of Storytelling: Interaction Across Distance
The age that is dawning in our lifetimes will allow us to share our stories interactively and with the richness of oral language – with those who are not physically present. And it will let us preserve those interactions far into the future.
The World Wide Web has already brought pictures and text to anyone connected to it. Video chat applications now make it possible to interact with and see one other person at a time, at least at low quality – and to record and share those interactions.
In the next years, we will become able to see and hear groups of listeners in real time, at good quality, anywhere in the world.
In other words, modern storytellers will soon have all the advantages enjoyed by the prehistoric tellers of tales and events and myths and dreams – and be freed of most of the old limitations.
We are already like spirits able to tell our stories to someone across the globe. We are like a wind whose stories can go on through the generations and touch people as it passes by – and yet be recalled whenever needed.
We have lightness. We have spirit. We have permanence.
The world is finally providing us with a platform that allows the power of the storyteller to be known and experienced everywhere and every-when.
Are You Ready?
I believe that the truest form of gratitude is to make the best use of what we have.
So how do you plan to live in this new age? How do you plan to make use of our blessings?
In other words, if you truly embraced what is becoming possible, how would that change how you carry yourself as a storyteller? How would that change what you choose to tell? How would that change the forms in which you make your stories available?
Are you ready to treat yourself and your art like the grand miracle of human technology that it has always been? Are you ready to fully accept the blessings of storytelling in its third and grandest age?