A tree with a door in a forest..
For millennia, storytelling has been the bedrock of cultures around the world. It still is for societies relatively unblemished by technological advances, but there are trends afoot within industrialized societies and the developing world that do not bode well for the future of story, or for the future of the human race. As we have objectified the natural world and reduced it to a “thing” to serve us, essentially positing the world as something separate from ourselves, an object to be manipulated to meet our needs, we have also found powerful ways to depreciate storytelling in our lives—the very thing that has made human civilization possible.
I liken what is happening to storytelling to clear cutting a forest to harvest its “resources.” Deforestation does untold damage to the ecosystem. Even if we replant trees, the rich, interconnected life that had been there rarely ever returns. Neat rows of pines can’t reproduce the complex environment supported by a diverse old growth forest, undergrowth, and all of the animals and microbes that depend on that diversity. Likewise, when we stop sharing stories with our community around a central fire, on our front porches with our neighbors, and in our living rooms with our children, we in turn strip away ritual containers that have nourished us for millennia. Something dies in us similar to what occurs when old growth forests are denuded. I refer to this as destorification. There are so many things in today’s culture that rob us of our birthright to story, but they have insidiously hidden behind the curtain of improvement.
Jerry Manderi in the early 1990s chronicled how technology has, in many cases, destroyed traditional cultures all in the name of a mythical thing we call progress, replacing ancient rituals of sharing through story with a different fire—the television screen. He had started the first nonprofit advertising agency to assist native peoples in North America to tell their story when controversial political issues threatened their way of life. In the 1980s the Canadian government was pushing Inuit tribes living on the tundra in the far western reaches of the country to get wired for cable TV. They proclaimed a bevy of benefits, painting a wonderful picture of modernization—connection to the rest of the country, being informed about events in the wider world, and economic development. It all sounded logical and desirable. Mander was invited in by one community’s elders to consult on the prospect of bringing TV to every home. He counseled against getting connected, fearing this rudimentary and seemingly benign technology would have unseen and deleterious consequences for the Inuit. The voices favoring progress, though, drowned him out, and the people voted to have cable TV installed.
In these communities, it was not uncommon for three generations to live under the same roof. While the parents were out hunting and fishing, the grandparents would provide a steady hand in raising the next generation. But when TVs were installed in their homes, grandparents began spending ten to twelve hours a day watching, especially daytime soap operas, neglecting their oversight of their grandchildren. In these stories they saw lives that were dysfunctional and filled with despair, but they didn’t realize that these were fictional representations. The characters on “As the World Turns” soon made it onto their prayer lists, for surely these people needed divine assistance. The destorification of their culture became readily apparent on a number of other fronts as well. Children were also watching TV all day and into the night, comparing their lives with fictional characters who had enormous financial wealth on shows like Dallas. We can only imagine what that did to their self-concepts. Behavior problems never before seen in their schools began emerging. Mental health issues started rearing their ugly heads. Traditional crafts that had been practiced for centuries came to a screeching halt, literally dying overnight. Most importantly, people stopped telling the traditional tales. With one click of the remote, the culture became virtually extinct.
Today, we must wonder what price are we paying as technologies more insidious than TV invade our personal spaces and crowd out authentic, soulful connections? Is our addiction to these tiny screens truly enriching our lives or depleting us? Is the content from unlimited apps warming us, or is it an icy light robbing us of life? Are the stories conveyed on YouTube and Facebook building a resilient, caring culture and a source of learning, or are they a toxic, addictive elixir, demanding we drink more and more? In the midst of this technological juggernaut, how can we revive the importance of storytelling? Can its simple approach to connecting teller and listener be what we most need today?
Next Week: What Does it Mean to Lose a Metanarrative?
i In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander, Sierra Club Books, 1992.