Is Modern Technology Hindering Storytelling?

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 24-1: Communicating Yesterday's Stories Today, Web Exclusive
By Patrick Eaton

Historically, there have only been a handful of Native American tribes that had a written language. As a result, storytelling has played an intimate role in tribal history, often being the primary means of passing information from generation to generation.

Without a doubt, modern technology has helped combat the loss of culture for many tribes. Access to online information and published documents and stories help preserve history and culture. People can learn their native languages, even if they don’t live on or near their reservation.

However, modern technology has also hindered many aspects of tribal culture. For example, some believe that stories of creation or certain characters should never be told online.

Modern technology is also robbing us of storytelling skills. In a recent storytelling workshop here on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, elders spoke of what life was like on the reservation when they were children. This reminded me of when I was younger, I would go with my grandfather to visit with his friends. I remember listening to those old men tell stories of what life was like when they were young. I remember hearing stories from “the war,” and stories from the Great Depression. I remember hearing the old men talk about the weather and how they could tell the severity of the upcoming winter by different characteristics and behaviors of the animals. They knew how much longer winter would hang on by conferring with each other about the types and numbers of migrating birds that were returning to the area. They were always talking about growing bigger tomatoes or marigolds. In general, if you needed to know something about something, you could ask an elder, and if they didn’t know, they could get you to someone who did.  This was social networking.  As I looked across the audience, I noticed that many of the younger generation students had left because they were no longer required to be there in-lieu of class time. Out of the few remaining, I could see at least a couple were on their smart phones. I realized then that social media could be hurting the storytelling process. 

Typically, listeners of stories go through a 3-phase process :

–          Anticipation to hear the story
–          Actively listening to the story
–          Processing information from the story, relating to personal experiences, and drawing conclusions.

I can remember, growing up, the anticipation of the first day back to school. Even more than wanting to see friends, I wanted to hear of summer adventures. By the end of the first week the words, “What did you do this summer?” were well worn, to say the least. But there was usually a day when some time was set aside for a share and tell about the summer’s excitement. But now, by the time kids get back to school, they have already read the “status updates” on Facebook and have seen the pictures that are uploaded and posted as soon as the pictures are taken. Knowing who did what and when has become yesterday’s news.

 Today we are robbed of the anticipation of hearing people’s stories.  Seeing their emotion as the story was told really added to the effect of the story itself, creating a connection between the storyteller and listener. We have traded that connection for a high-speed connection that allows us to read others’ status updates when it is convenient for us, and if we are busy and don’t pay close enough attention, no big deal, we can always go back and read it later…right?

 What happens when you’ve missed that last segment of the news, or the punch line of that joke while watching TV? We use the DVR or TiVo and rewind it so it can be watched again, further enabling our inability to pay attention, and actively listen.

As a result, we lose our ability to effectively listen to other people tell their stories.

Not only has modern technology allowed us to be lazy listeners, it has also driven us to be lazy communicators. For example, instead of calling people, we send text messages. We have shortened our language to a phonetic and pictorial alphabet. Instead of calling our significant other on our lunch hour and telling them that we love them, we can send them a text using two symbols and a letter: <3 u. I don’t know about you, but it seems much more sincere to actually hear someone tell you that they love you instead of seeing that in a text message. We have depersonalized our means of communicating. If we can find a way to send someone a message that requires less effort and will be quicker, I am certain that it will become the newest fad.

With the new technology now, we don’t have to wait until dinner to share the news of our day with our significant other. We usually send a text or update our Facebook status so easily and often that it seems redundant to tell a story about your day or listen to someone else’s story about their day, because we have already heard it, and it is old news by now. As a result, we lose our ability to effectively tell stories.

Modern technology can help combat the loss of culture that faces many tribes today. But at what cost? Modern technology is rapidly changing the way we communicate, which can seriously hinder our storytelling and listening skills, which are essentially skills that were taught in many cultures, as a way of preserving history and tradition. We must be careful and, like everything in life, use it in moderation.

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