Oral vs. written tradition and new technologies

Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference Saturday Sessions
Audible's CEO Don Katz's keynote address at the Podcast Expo brought together very many interesting points regarding the relationship of the oral and written tradition and the role of new technologies in giving new importance to the ultimate pre-technological medium: storytelling. (Audio here)

He reminded the audience of some of these points (his keynote is worth listening to for other reasons as well as are the other keynote speeches available through this link):

  • Every time a new medium (or a new way of delivering content - which ultimately often creates new media) is introduced, the established media oppose it both on economic but also on essentialist grounds (e.g. overprotection of 'copy rights' accompanied by statements regarding the dilution of the purity of the original medium). His examples:
    • Some ancient Greeks' mistrust of the written word (then a new technology)
    • St Augustine's and others' proscription of silent reading (there was an interesting In Out Time tracking the changes from public to private reading in 17th century Britain)
    • Sheet music business' opposition to the recording industry
    • Film industry's opposition to video recorders and player (this is of course a very commonly cited example)

  • New technologies facilitate the delivery of content in unexpected ways: e.g. in mid-19th century America, it became possible for public orators to get very rich (or at least to make a living) thanks to the railway which reduced the travelling time between speaking engagements.

Along the same lines, I have written an article more than a year ago about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, suggesting that the relatively modern dominance of the novel (and the accompanying equivalent in a two-hour drama or film) as the commanding narrative medium of the time may be coming to an end to be replaced by TV shows (such as Buffy, Sopranos, Veronica Mars, etc.) and TV novellas.

In neither case is it suggested that the new medium will replace the old (afterall you can still buy sheet music or listen to a story being told around the campfire), it is simply a matter of what one might call 'narrative dominance'. It is also possible for what was once the dominant way of telling stories (and other mythopoeic activities) to come back. Katz's talk gave some examples, eg. the resurgence story-telling groups such as born-again Christians. Sometimes this could be attributed to a deeper shift (such as the impersonal nature of a medium, which is why there are no AA meetings by post) or simply to logistical convenience (which is why some of Audible's clients listen to their NY Times in the car instead of reading them).

(PS: I like the Audible service but it have not been able to use it because of their excessive DRM demands which were never compatible with my MP3 players.)