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The Art of the Interactive Storyteller

Part 2...

Before I get into the oral tradition, it is important that you understand how we got to the point of me being here today.

Between the invention of writing and the means to communicate, using electricity, society moved steadily toward, for want of a better term, a literate society. For the purposes of this discussion, printing technologies will be regarded as the demarcation point where the oral tradition, or orality, literally went underground.

The rise of literacy in the 1500's and the decline of orality, according to many social historians, resulted in the split of society into two distinct social classes- those who could read and those who couldn't. This dichotomy put the illiterate at the lowest rung of the social order and was distinguished by the way they use language. If you are familiar with the Simpsons you know this individual. Go ahead, click on him.

Between the mid 1800's and today electricity allows us to transmit communications vast distances. What really changed things, though, was radio. Marshal Mcluhan's Gutenberg Galaxy 1 dealt with how communications technologies affect what is being communicated. According to McLuhan, radio brought orality back to communications technologies. Though this may appear to be obvious, McLuhan points to the aural images of orality vs. print's visual imagery as being significant indicators that changes in communications modes - paper to electricity, written to oral - includes significant psychological shifts.

You can't read the radio. You can't watch the radio. You listen to it. As you do, you form mental images of the information being communicated to you.

Let me give you an example of this. The School of Media Studies at Humber College has a radio broadcasting area. The people who teach in that faculty are all seasoned professionals and they will tell you the most common thing they encounter when they meet their listeners is, "Gee, you look a lot different than I thought you did." Did you catch that: "than I thought you did." The announcer did not conform to the mental image held by the listener.

In fact no two mental images will be exactly the same because we filter them through the context of our cultural experiences. In many ways this is exactly the effect television, digital media and the Internet have upon us. They reinforce, or are firmly rooted, in the oral tradition because they spring from orality. One of orality's hallmarks is the ability to tell a story ... not write one.

According to the social historian Walter Ong , oral peoples "commonly and in all likelihood consider words to have a magical potency which is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded and hence power-driven"

I come from a relatively new country, which was first discovered in the 1600's and not fully explored for another 300 years. Populating the country were our Aboriginal people and they had no written language. Instead, they had an oral tradition, which remains strong to this day.

One of our First Nations is called the Innuit. Before contact with the European's their nation encompassed much of Northern Canada and Russia. Here, in the Innu language is how they would start fires using gunpowder.


What you have just experienced is what Jack Goody and Ian Watt in "The Consequences of Literacy" termed a culture of primary orality. There are no written texts. There is no place for one to go to look it up.

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photo Tom Green
Tom Green

Who is tom green?

Teacher, author, raconteur. Here's a run down of what I have been up to over the past few years. My Bio.

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FITC 2004