Moss Rock Review – October 2011

Spinning yarns around a high-tech campfire

By just about any measure, the book publishing industry is undergoing change so blisteringly fast and fundamental in nature, that the whole concept of storytelling in printed book form may become an anachronism within a few years. Maybe we should rename this Book Scene column to be Storytelling Scene instead to seize a longer-term view!

Although I wasn’t there, apparently the first human beings (homo sapiens) appeared on the scene about 500,000 years ago. For all but the most recent 200 years, storytelling was done orally, in-person, by elders or minstrels. Only with the great culture upheavals of the Industrial Revolution did the general population get an opportunity to learn to read and buy printed books. If 500,000 years is represented by the span of your two arms stretched out fully, the time we’ve been a book-reading species is less than the thickness of your thumb. According to evolution theory, we humans aren’t yet genetically evolved for reading books (and therefore will be prone to abandoning them for anything more similar to sharing stories around a campfire). Darwin figured that it takes a finch on the Galapagos Islands 500 generations to make a significant genetic adaptation. For humans, at 20 years per generation, that would be 10,000 years. So we need about 9,800 more years for our DNA to react to an environment of sitting on our butts staring at squiggly symbols on sheets of paper bound into a codex.

So, if we aren’t (yet) suited to books, what are we genetically coded to do? Let’s review what storytelling was like 10,000 years ago, and then consider if the next media fits better than our current fixation with books. Presumably an ancient hairy human could talk and gesture, use props to demonstrate, sing and dance, maybe act out skits. I presume the audience gave feedback through nods, grunts and other actions, encouraging the storyteller to expand, elaborate, create or repeat information.

By contrast, books don’t have the voice, gestures, songs, dancing, or props — they are totally linear and have no potential for reader interaction. They are great, and I love them, but they sure don’t score well in this Darwinian challenge. (TV would rank higher: people grouped around a flickering light to be entertained/ educated/ indoctrinated seems quite campfire-tribal.)

Are the new media more in tune with our DNA? The world wide web’s great claim to fame is its non-linear nature. Apps on an iPad have video and audio files, and even respond to finger gestures, blowing, tilting, shaking; they even know where you are located on this Earth, even if you don’t. Seems they are more “natural” in many ways.

Lately, along with our work to publish some great new printed books, I’ve been working with a very talented team building an iPad app (based on the book It’s Cool To Be Clever and scheduled for a pre-Christmas release). I’m reminded that automobiles were first labelled “horseless carriages”, presumably to make them more understandable and acceptable. After many years people simply called them “cars” and stopped needing comparisons to the old technology. Similarly, stories on the iPad initially were called “eBooks” and are sold at the “iBookstore”. On screen, the words were displayed as if on a book’s page. When you pressed an edge, the page “turned”, complete with an animation of a curling sheet of paper. Only 18 months after the iPad was introduced, the latest apps are already playing down the book metaphor. Blocks or text are no longer confined to “pages”; instead they float by in response to finger swiping. Animations and video are becoming commonplace. Each story-app comes with a mini-library of background materials, allowing the user to follow a thread into the author’s past and research the story’s topics more deeply.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Public Library is organizing a “human library” in which library patrons can “book” (pun intended) a half-hour, one-on-one conversation with a person who has expertise or compelling life experiences to share. Apparently this concept began in Copenhagen in 2000, and has been adopted/adapted in more than 30 countries. Seems a bit like coming full circle, eh?

(c) copyright 2011, Bruce Batchelor

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