Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Is Technology Killing Storytellers?

June 1, 2011
Digital Communication & Gaming

There is an ongoing debate concerning the extent to which technology is both enhancing and altering the ways we as humans communicate with each other. But what has technology done to us as storytellers, or more specifically to those who practice the art of storytelling? The focus of my brief essay is to examine the impact of technology on current practitioners of this art form.

Scholars like Ong, Goody, and Havelock have well established the necessity and primary elements of oral forms of communication. Other scholars such as MacIntyre and Fisher have established that storytelling is an essential part of the human experience and we make sense of life through the stories we tell and hear. Storytellers have played vital roles within societies for millennia to inform, educate, and entertain the public because of the power that stories have to resonate with the lives and experiences of the listeners.

Further, current scholars such as Sanders, Birkerts, and others have made claims about how technology is killing the printed word and forever changing how we even learn to communicate. While there is much scholarship to establish and fuel this debate, the role of storytellers has largely been ignored. How have all of these advancements affected local storytellers that set up shop at bookstores, libraries, and schools? How have these same advancements changed how children listen to stories? How are the storytellers of today being forced to tell their stories differently from those who read and told stories to previous generations of children? Is there still a place for traditional storytellers today? None of these questions have simple answers.

Is technology killing storytellers? I can answer that question with a confident yes, and no. Storytelling as an art form is very much alive and thriving. Each new technological toy gives people today, or at least those who can operate them, a new and different way of telling their stories and experiences to others. However, these same toys are making it harder for traditional storytellers who rely purely on the magic of their words to have the same impact they once had. When given the choice between listening to someone tell a story with no visual effects, no musical fanfare, and no catchy sound-bytes, or listening to a fully interactive, sensory-overloading roller-coaster ride of a story, children today will almost always pick the latter. Children today are engulfed in technology and are being given fewer and fewer opportunities to witness and experience traditional storytellers, which makes traditional storytellers more and more obsolete to emerging generations of children.

But I still haven’t really answered the question, is technology killing storytellers? Technology is not killing storytellers, but it is forcing them to adapt to new generations of children who are being trained to listen in different ways than even the current storytellers were. When reading and writing were introduced to the public on a large scale, they both changed the way storytellers practiced their art. What we have here is no different, except that waves of technologies are forcing storytellers to adapt much more quickly and much more often than in the past. Storytellers adapting to literacy had centuries to adjust. Current storytellers adapting to emerging technologies may only have a few years, months, or even weeks to adjust before the next technological toy is in the hands of their listeners.

So what exactly is changing here? Methods of storytelling, in some cases, are just as they were centuries ago. However, children today are very different from children centuries ago. At a very young age, children now are being enculturated with media literacy. The norm now is to dazzle, pacify, and overwhelm children with technology based on the assumption that they will have to rely on these same technologies to function within their ever-changing culture.

Regardless of date or location, for storytellers to be accepted and effective, they must give the people what they want. The Snow White fairy tale, for example, has hundreds of versions dating back several centuries and encompassing the entire globe. Each version was different because they were fashioned for different audiences. But not only did the content change between versions, how the versions were told changed also. Disney’s version of Snow White was very different from The Brothers Grimm versions because it had a different audience that responded to different stimuli. The same fairy tale is being re-told today, but is also having to adapt to today’s audiences.

Does this mean that storytellers at bookstores, libraries, and schools must change? Yes. Change here is inevitable. Does this mean that there is no longer a place for storytellers like Mrs. Turman who read stories to me when I was four and kept me captivated with nothing more than a stack of books and an imaginative voice? No. I am not advocating that traditional methods of storytelling be abandoned at all. Such action would be a travesty to all future generations of children. But as audiences change, whether over long periods of time or a matter of weeks, the storytellers must change as well.

So what does all of this mean for those of us who are academics, researchers, teachers, or storytellers? What are we to do now? Simply put, we must keep telling stories, and keep asking questions about stories. But, now more than ever, we must also listen to the children we are telling the stories to. How are they telling their own stories? How do they use the available technologies to relay their experiences and understand the experiences of their friends? By listening to the technologically savvy kids today telling stories, we might just gain some insight into how to better reach them with our stories. We might also get a clearer glimpse of the future of storytelling itself.

About the author (s)

John Saunders

Huntingdon College

Assistant Professor