Do we gain or lose spaces in the age of new communication technologies?


pp. 25-30 in Storytelling und Cyberchat. Die Bedeutung neuer Kommunikationstechnologien aus der Sicht unterschiedlicher Kulturen, ed. S. Fritsch-Oppermann (Evangelische Akademie Loccum, 2000).
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
We have just listened to a number of stories from different cultures from a story teller. I would like to think firstly about the definition of storytelling and how this may be broadened by the advent of new communication technologies.

Cathy Spagnoli defined story telling as what happens when one or several humans share orally to a live audience. It is an artform which is one of the worldLs oldest means of communication. It uses oral language and may be supported by visual aids, music, and other tools, and covers a wide range of subjects. I want us to think about whether stories have to be oral, and whether they have to be shared with a live audience? Do they even need to be shared with an audience at all?

Through my life I read, saw or listened to many stories. To me, a story can be told by voice, by written words, by pictures, and ultimately by a person's whole life. I think the way the earliest stories of human civilisation come to us is actually through pictures painted in the caves of our ancestors. These are real stories that have survived long after those oral traditions passed to the grave with the death of the tribes who wrote them. They may include pictures of hunting, pictures of daily life, and pictures of the afterlife. I will always remember the fantastic pictures and hierographic images of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, which told stories of peopleLs daily life. Some were told in the language of characters, and others even more simply in pictures. Pictures of people gathering grain, catching fish, and the pictures of the souls of animals and our future. In this case the stories are not oral, and they are told only when the tombs are opened up after millenia. In fact these representations may not have even been intended to be public stories to be told. Is it necessary for a story to be told only intentionally by the painter or author? These tomb stories may be intended for the private record between the deceased, the mourners and the gods.

We may also tell stories today by our actions, attitudes, behavioural perculiarities, and psychology, that we do not really intend to be told. I think story telling does not need to be intentional. This is because the monologue only becomes a story when the emergent result of the listenerLs consciousness makes it a story. Am I a story teller if everyone in this room is asleep! I hope you are not yet asleep, but would I still be a story teller if you went to sleep? Of course we have the video, which can be replayed back for those who want to listen or hear it again.

Then for a story it is not necessary to have a live audeince. Would it matter that the audience is alive? Does it matter that my story as I intend is really understood the way I intend it? If my story is reinterpreted and applied to the listeners life then it is a new space gained, but not the space I intended to make.

Does it even matter if there is no audience at all. When I talk to myself, which is said to be the only way to really get the right answer, is that a story too? I think so, but we all prefer to tell our stories to others and for others to get our point. Human beings exist as social beings, existence is in a mental composite of all minds coming together - this is the creation of a new social and mental space. It is in this space between the physical bodies that we create, perhaps this is the real space of the story.

New communication technologies really do make new spaces as Cathy mentioned. On the Internet we can report our stories either personally or anonymously. We can increase the number of people who can access to our story, both at the same time or at a later and unpredictable time. Internet allows us to interact with the on-line audience that is potentially 100 million and growing. Still it has not reached the proportions of the total world population that can be reached with the most popular of all books, the religious scriptures, psalms and teaching of the saints, but it will. There is still a place for the printed Bible, Koran or Bhagavad Gita, but the MacBible, MacKoran and MacEncyclopedia Brittanica are emerging to improve access of all people to these books and stories. I therefore think we have gained an extra space in the land that lies between our souls, a new media for stories to be told.

New methods in the Internet allow two way flow of interaction, so that the readers can edit and add to the home page to make together a new creation. In that sense we all become storytellers and write joint works together. We have seen this before in the on-line bulletin boards, which extended the newspaper "letters to the editor" sections that we were so used to. We need to improve equity and access, but these were always problems in the distribution of the story. In addition censorship is more difficult in the Internet versions, so the reader or listener can access more freely. The stories can be told by oration across the media of the computer, and for a number of years my computers have been able to read out the text in the files I put on the screen.

The internet allows anyone from around the world to read another story. This is a profound extension of the audience. Another profound implication is that the internet allows us to selectively read only what we want to read. We can type in a search word and then find the pages, or stories, that most suit the demands of our day. The internet also allows people to retell the same stories even more easily. Sometimes unethically, as we can see if we are a teacher reading the retold or copied excerpts of stories in student homework. I have even listened to my papers being read at a conference in the words of another person who copied the files from my archive of papers that I put on the Internet.

As Cathy also pointed out, there are wonderful opportunities for research given by cyberspace, but the information is only as reliable as the person who put it on the Internet. There is less quality control on the Internet then there is in the printed press. Let us be cautious in how we explore the richer exchanges and collections of work. Quantity can overwhelm us, so that there is no real quality control left to enable us to be enriched. We can become slaves as receivers of hundreds of Emails, and of the thousands of new information that pour into our life.

Clearly there are some spaces in our communities that are being lost as children spend more of their time emersed in the world of their personal computer. There will be less time for the face-to-face interaction between a story-teller and a listener. While people in all countries see computers as bringing many benefits, surveys also reveal that there are real fears of the changes they are bringing in our community. The nature of social interaction is changed.

People may be happier to sit in their room and call on the telephone than to come to visit a person. People may find it easier to say special thoughts in Email, or on the telephone than in person, but there have always been a place for the love letter, the dairy, or the novel. We can expect to see these new media being applied to this space, for both little and grand reasons. In fact the ease of Electronic mail has meant a more regular daily contact between friends and families then the traditional posted letters. It also provides a cheaper means of communication for loved ones separated around the world by the expense of international telephone calls. It may make our life even more planned and regular than it was, as we make the call home in the car to say, I will be there in 7 minutes, I am just passing Joe's bakery.

The tradition of storytelling may include to repeat the same stories between persons in the chain, and pass along the same story. Should we follow the exact word of the story, as we can if we have a written record of the former oral tradition? Or can we still put our personal touch into the story so that the story is gradually changed and moulded? Which type of story do we prefer? Perhaps we can see that there is an increasing tendency to be less creative and rather to be more repetitive and accurate given the new media we have to tell stories. The chain E-mail are rapidly sent around the world.

In conclusion I think we are making new spaces with the new media. In the end virtual reality will create stories so real that we cannot distinguish them from reality, as portrayed in the film, The Matrix, which pictures a world controlled by artificial intelligence so that the bioenergy cells that feed the artificial intelligence, human bodies, have their minds controlled in a virtual community that makes everyone feel they are living, loving and working hard \ yet reality is only virtual. I trust that we will not go so far, but we should be cautious on the limits we make to how much our stories are imposed by others and not by our minds. We are afterall, all story tellers, and every human being has there own special story to tell. That is embedded in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and it is up to us to make sure we do not forget that we should be telling stories. We also now have the potential to learn more stories from around the world then ever before. The collective story of our ecological existence is one worth preserving, let us make sure we do not get hooked into the world of cyberspace so much that we forget who we are. It is our responsibility to tell our story, and to listen to the stories of others.

This century we also saw the development of new media to tell stories, radio, television and cinema. These may have even replaced the personal orator in the hall or street corner, not only the written word. I wonder how many of you read the stories that are made into screenplays or cinema? I may be tempted to only give the time to watch a visual spectacle rather then reading through pages of numerous texts. In that way it is true that some spaces have been lost to tell stories, in the increasingly private world of the cinema. Yet other new spaces have been gained. Maybe too many for at least those who have access to the technology to see them. I do share the concerns however, that these new media make us too reliant upon ourselves and less reliant on others, as this will be something lost in our human family if we fail to take advantage of the access gained to the world through new media.

Computers and cell phones should exist for us, not us for them. People in many countries realise that, as was found when questions on the benefits and risks of computers were asked in the International Bioethics Survey in ten Asian countries in 1993 (Macer, 1994). The biggest fear is that computers will dehumanise our society.

I hope that we use them well with the warmth of the persons at the other ends of the wires and waves that we interact with, so that their potential for enriching our sphere of contact can be extended. Let us be users of new media to tell our stories, but I hope it is a long time before we are only the tools used by the computers to justify their existence and their consciousness. Always keep some space to be a story teller!
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