Storytelling 3.0 – Part 1

Leighton Cooke photo
Leighton Cooke photo

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, when it comes to story, the medium is not the message. Yet the medium certainly affects reception of the message. As I’ve written earlier in this blog, storytelling began even before we had language. Back in our species days in caves, whether it was the events of the day’s hunt, or what was to be discovered beyond the distant mountain, I’m quite certain our ancestors told stories to one another with grunt and gesture.

Once we began to label things with actual words, oral language developed rapidly and disparately, into many languages. The medium was as dynamic as it’s ever been. It was immediate, face-to-face, and personal. Stories became ways in which we could explain things, like how we got here, or why life was so arbitrary, or what the bleep that big bright orb was which sometimes rose in the night sky and sometimes didn’t. Or stories became a way in which we could scare our children away from wandering into the forest alone and getting either lost or eaten.

Then, somewhere back about 48 centuries, in Egypt, it occurred to some bright soul that words could be represented by symbols. Hieroglyphics—the first alphabet—appeared. The art of communication has never been the same. The great oral tradition of storytelling began to wane, superseded by written language, a medium that is both more rigid and exclusive. To learn to read and understand, as opposed to listen and understand, was more arduous, difficult enough that it had to be taught, and then not until a child was old enough to grasp the meaning and system behind written words.

It was not until about 1000 BC that the Phoenicians developed a more phonetic alphabet, which in turn became the basis for the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets, and thus the alphabet I use to type this word. The Phoenician alphabet was wildly successful, spreading quickly into Africa and Europe, in part because the Phoenicians were so adept at sailing and trading all around the Mediterranean Sea. More importantly though, it was successful because it was much more easily learned, and it could be adapted to different languages.

We are talking a revolutionary change here. Prior to this time, written language was, to echo Steven Fischer in A History of Writing, an instrument of power used by the ruling class to control access to information. The larger population had been, for some 38 centuries—and to employ a modern term—illiterate, and thus royalty and the priesthood had been able to communicate secretively and exclusively among themselves, to their great advantage. It’s not hard to imagine how the common folk back then must have at times regarded written language as nearly magical, as comprised of mysterious symbols imbued with supernatural powers.

We are arriving at the nub of it now, aren’t we? Every medium of communication, whether it be used for telling stories or not, brings people together, but some media do it better than others. Stories build communities, and this is a point not lost on writers of language as divergent as Joseph Conrad and Rebecca Solnit. In his luminous Preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, published in 1897, Conrad writes that the novelist speaks to “the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” For a story to succeed, we must identify with the characters in it, and Solnit writes in 2013, in The Faraway Nearby, that we mean by identification that “I extend solidarity to you, and who and what you identify with builds your own identity.”

Stories are powerful vehicles, with profound potential benefits for humanity. But they can also bring evil. As Solnit has also written, stories can be used “to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live.” The Nazis had a story to tell, all about why life was difficult, and who was to blame, and how we might make life better.

The content of the story matters; the intent of the storyteller matters. And the medium by which the story is told has its effect. As storytelling media have evolved through time, the story is received differently, by different people. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes it isn’t.

To be continued…

Facetime

Last month the city of Nelson, BC, said no to drive-thrus. There’s only one in the town anyway, but city councilors voted to prevent any more appearing. Councillor Deb Kozak described it as “a very Nelson” thing to do.

Nelson may be slightly off the mean when it comes to small towns—many a draft dodger settled there back in the Vietnam War era, and pot-growing allowed Nelson to better weather the downturn of the forest industry that occurred back in the 80s—but at the same time, dumping on drive-thrus is something that could only happen in a smaller urban centre.

The move is in support of controlling carbon pollution of course; no more idling cars lined up down the block (Hello, Fort McMurray?!), but what I like about it is that the new by-law obliges people to get out of their cars, to enjoy a little facetime with another human being, instead of leaning out their car window, shouting into a tinny speaker mounted in a plastic sign.

For all the degree of change being generated by the digital revolution, and for all the noise I’ve made about that change in this blog, there are two revolutions of recent decades that have probably had greater effect: the revolution in settlement patterns that we call urbanization, and the revolution in economic scale that we call globalization. Both are probably more evident in smaller cities and towns than anywhere else.

Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan, about 1928
Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan,
about 1928

Both of my parents grew up in truly small prairie towns; my mother in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, present population about 750; my father in Sedgewick, Alberta, present population about 850. Sedgewick’s population has dropped some 4% in recent years, despite a concurrent overall growth rate in Alberta of some 20%. Both these towns were among the hundreds arranged across the Canadian prairies, marked off by rust-coloured grain elevators rising above the horizon, set roughly every seven miles along the rail lines. This distance because half that far was gauged doable by horse and wagon for all the surrounding farmers.

I grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a town which officially became a city while I still lived there. The three blocks of Main Street that I knew were anchored at one end by the Co-op Store, where all the farmers shopped, and at the other by the pool hall, where all the young assholes like me hung out. In between were Lilge Hardware, operated by the Lilge brothers, Wilf and Clem, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop, and Ludbrooks, which offered “variety” as “the spice of life,” and where we as kids would shop for board games, after saving our allowance money for months at a time.

Grande Prairie is virtually unrecognizable to me now, that is it looks much like every other small and large city across the continent: the same ‘big box’ stores surround it as surround Prince George, and Regina and Billings, Montana, I’m willing to bet. Instead of Lilge Hardware, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop and Ludbrooks we have Walmart, Starbucks and Costco. This is what globalization looks like, when it arrives in your own backyard.

80% of Canadians live in urban centres now, as opposed to less than 30% at the beginning of the 20th century. And those urban centres now look pretty much the same wherever you go, once the geography is removed. It’s a degree of change that snuck up on us far more stealthily than has the digital revolution, with its dizzying pace, but it’s a no less disruptive transformation.

I couldn’t wait to get out of Grande Prairie when I was a teenager. The big city beckoned with diversity, anonymity, and vigour. Maybe if I was young in Grande Prairie now I wouldn’t feel the same need, given that I could now access anything there that I could in the big city. A good thing? Bad thing?

There’s no saying. Certain opportunities still exist only in the truly big centres of course, cities like Tokyo, New York or London. If you want to make movies it’s still true that you better get yourself to Los Angeles. But they’re not about to ban drive-thrus in Los Angeles. And that’s too bad.

Handprints in the Digital Cave

There are now more than 150 million blogs on the internet. 150 million! That’s as if every second American is writing a blog; every single Russian is blogging in this imaginary measure, plus about another seven million.

The explosion seems to have come back in 2003, when, according to Technorati, there were just 100, 000 “web-logs.” Six months later there were a million. A year later there were more than four million. And on it has gone. Today, according to Blogging.com, more than half a million new blog posts go up everyday.

doozle photo
doozle photo

Why do bloggers blog? Well, it’s not for the money. I’ve written on numerous occasions in this blog about how the digital revolution has undermined the monetization of all manner of modern practices, whether it be medicine, or music or car mechanics. And writing, as we all know, is no different. Over the last year or so, I slightly revised several of my blog posts to submit them to Digital Journal, a Toronto-based online news service which prides itself on being  “a pioneer” in revenue-sharing with its contributors. I’ve submitted six articles thus far and seen them all published. My earnings to date: $4.14.

It ain’t a living. In fact, Blogging.com tells us that only eight per cent of bloggers make enough from their blogs to feed their family, and that more than 80% of bloggers never make as much as $100 from their blogging.

Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law Professor and regular blogger since 2002, writes in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy, that, “much of the time, I have no idea why I [blog].” He goes on to suggest that, when he blogs, it has to do with an “RW’ (ReWrite) ethic made possible by the internet, as opposed to the “RO” (Read Only) media ethic predating the internet. For Lessig, the introduction of the capacity to ‘comment’ was a critical juncture in the historical development of blogs, enabling an exchange between bloggers and their blog readers that, to this day, Lessig finds both captivating and “insanely difficult.”

I’d agree with Lessig that the interactive nature of blog writing is new and important and critical to the growth of blogging, but I’d also narrow the rationale down some. The final click in posting to a blog comes atop the ‘publish’ button. Now some may view that term as slightly pretentious, even a bit of braggadocio, but here’s the thing. It isn’t. That act of posting is very much an act of publishing, now that we live in a digital age. That post goes public, globally so, and likely forever. How often could that be said about a bit of writing ‘published’ in the traditional sense, on paper?

Sure that post is delivered into a sea of online content that likely and immediately floods it with unread information, but nevertheless that post now has a potential readership of billions, and its existence is essentially permanent. If that isn’t publishing, I don’t know what is.

I really don’t care much if any one reads my blog. As many of my friends and family members like to remind me, I suck at promoting my blog, and that’s because, like too many writers, I find the act of self-promotion uncomfortable. Neither do I expect to ever make any amount of money from this blog. I blog as a creative outlet, and in order to press my blackened hand against the wall of the digital cave. And I take comfort in knowing that the chances of my handprint surviving through the ages are far greater than all those of our ancestors who had to employ an actual cave wall, gritty and very soon again enveloped in darkness.

I suspect that there are now more people writing—and a good many of them writing well, if not brilliantly—than at any time in our history. And that is because of the opportunity to publish on the web. No more hidebound gatekeepers to circumvent. No more expensive and difficult distribution systems to navigate. Direct access to a broad audience, at basically no cost, and in a medium that in effect will never deteriorate.

More people writing—expressing themselves in a fully creative manner—than ever before. That’s a flipping wonderful thing.