Friday, September 28, 2012

Digital Age Meets Oral Tradition

As I was laying awake way too early a few mornings ago, I found myself contemplating the evolution of human storytelling.  "In the beginning was the word," or so it says in the Bible.  In the beginning of human storytelling was the oral tradition, where bards and actors learned and created tales in their heads to share and disseminate throughout the community and pass down from one generation to the next, each weaving their own special threads into the fabric of the story.

Then came literacy; a select few scribes could write the words down, preserving one author's intent for posterity, at least for those who could read.  Since reading and writing were elite skills, the oral tradition still played a vital role.

Then along came the printing press, throwing literacy skills open to the whole world.  And now we're in the digital age.

How is the digital age like the oral tradition?  I had a vision this morning as I sat down to back up my writing onto a thumb drive, a vision of all of us transferring our thoughts from our human brains to our digital brains, a place where they only exist while the machine is working.  The computer is our bard.  It learns the words for us.  It learns them exactly as we write them.  Social media serves the evolutionary role of oral tradition, passing the words around the community and sometimes changing them or their message in the process.

And it all disappears as far as posterity is concerned unless it is written down, because our digital memories are only good for posterity if the technology doesn't change.  Just as the library at Alexandria burned, our digital records can be wiped out.  What remains to posterity depends on the nature of the disaster.  Some stories will live on in human biological brains.  Some may be reconstructed from the dead technology by future digital archeologists through painstaking restoration processes.  Some will survive in print.

Guess I'm getting all big-picture and philosophical this week.  Why not?

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