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Electrocuting Oral Tradition

Photo by Sandra Henry-Stocker | CC BY 2.0

What little we know of prehistory comes from divining the remains and rubbish of hominids who didn’t write down what they were up to. The day may come when alien archeologists puzzle over what we were up to after books went extinct. Texts they encounter may refer to a thing called “Internet,” which they will then seek for. When it doesn’t turn up, they will go on to other things, wondering where all the stories went.

Once upon a time all our stories were invisible, weightless. For millennia, people passed them on by speech, song, and mime. Their stories had no tangible presence, unless you count neurons. There were no libraries except those that individuals had in their heads, no publications, no media at all, just here-and-now news, gossip, poetry and lore, orally transmitted across generations from parent to child and through time and space by migrating tribes and wandering bards and minstrels.

Writing gave weight to words, changing all that. From stylus on clay tablet, to quill on parchment, to pen on paper, to printed books, to typewritten manuscripts, stories became symbols on pages you could hold in your hand and, if you were properly trained, understand. Storytellers mostly type their texts now. Some still write in longhand, but that’s well on its way to becoming a lost art. And despite the fact that typewriters are relatively modern writing instruments, they too are almost history.

Of course we still type, and now more than ever, just not on paper. It seems like paper, but our words straightaway become bits in data files we can’t see, touch, or interpret. We need machines to show or read them to us, machines that run on electricity and software logic that are a lot harder to master than typewriters.

The oral tradition got a temporary boost from telephony. With it, stories could be exchanged farther, wider, faster, and once again completely ephemerally. Until recently, that is. Now, more often than not, phone conversations mostly involve curt epigrams streaming soundlessly from the ether, ungrammatically deprecating human speech with staccato abbreviations, misspellings, chockablock with annoying caricatures. Welcome to the TextTweet storytelling era.

But we still tell stories aloud, sometimes using microphones and cameras to capture our performances. Some get taped and broadcast, others digitized into data files that can be played back pretty much anywhere, anytime. Embodied as bits delivered by electrons, our yarns course through wires, fibers, space satellites, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to bark out the mouths of headsets and loudspeakers. Constantly the world hums with ephemeral narratives, billions and billions each day, much of them spam.

As in Neolithic times, such stories are invisible, merely masquerading as printed matter. We can print them out but mostly we don’t. Why use up ink over a Web page when we can easily share it? On said page extraneous matter—blurbs, pictures, menus, videos, links, ads—may vie for our attention. It takes a lot of instrumentation to play all that jazz. And so, Web pages have come to contain vastly more code—stories computers tell one another—than content.

The first draft of this story was delivered to readers worldwide as a 127,000-byte Web page by a server in New York City in 2013. It was shorter then, just 590 words—3284 characters that took up nine lines of the web page, one for each paragraph. My text was nestled into 2400 lines of HTML and Javascript code, comments and white space. The code displayed the document in a browser and managed the user interface widgets.

All of that code still wasn’t enough to make the page presentable. Another document (called a Style Sheet) handled that. That file provided 146,000 bytes of CSS code that every story on the site required to properly render.

The picture up top shows an outline view of that story as a Web browser sees it, with all blocks of code folded up so as to fit on the screen. The portion containing my nine lines of text is ensconced in that grey band running across the middle of the image. It wasn’t easy to locate the part I had written.

There are 88,000 stories archived at the writers’ community cowbird.com, where I posted my draft. If you peeked into the source code of any of them, it would look almost identical to mine. So identical that only two or three percent of content would differ from one story to the next. That’s just like our DNA, is it not? We celebrate our uniqueness in stories, but we are all pretty much alike on the biological level, and now so too have our stories become. I find this both comforting and scary. Comforting for how it expresses our basic commonality. Scary because of how devilishly complex online arts now are, opaque to any human creator’s ken. While traditional publishing is complex too, at least the book you see is what you get. It’s just ink on paper bound up somehow, not bunches of bits embedded in semiconductors and an occult slew of itty-bitty components.

Like half the population, I have a blog. As websites go, it’s quite modest—a dozen pages and 60-odd posts, perhaps 60,000 words in all plus pictures. My site is powered by 20,000 files of PHP code sprawling across 600MB of server real estate—a thousand characters of code to support each one I’ve published so far. If one of those files gets bollixed up or goes missing, my blog could inexplicably fail (already has) and I’ll have to call in a geek (already did) to fix it. I love having the power to express myself but oh, the overhead! And even though I’ll never use most of the features in the blog’s kit bag, I’ve bloated it with more than a dozen customizing add-ons. It’s the same craving for fiddly functionality that causes us to install apps on mobile phones.

In less than a generation, most of our communications have been virtualized, offloaded onto hidden machinery uttering gibberish in tongues of code, routing and ruling our interactions as roads rule where we drive. Going digital (was there ever a choice?) has accelerated the production and consumption of knowledge but also squirreled it away in whirring lockboxes wrapped in impenetrable layers of gnarly code. We hear so much happy-babble about “disruptive technologies,” like smartphones, digital photography, social media, driverless cars, and cryptocurrencies, urgently obsolescing older ways of doing things, driven by an unslakable thirst for innovation, accelerating our lives at 4G, just as we’ve always been urged to hope would happen.

The new ways may be more capacious, efficient and groovy but also insanely intricate with amazing ways to fail (software bugs, disk failure, exploding batteries, not to mention financial crises) and to bite us (file corruption, identity theft, ransomware, mass surveillance). And as robust, resilient, and self-repairing as it may be, the Internet’s not invincible. A natural disaster or concerted cyber attack could disrupt enough satellites, ground stations, servers, switches and power grids to punch huge holes in the cloud and render our precious devices darkling glass bricks. Think Puerto Rico on a national scale.

Barring disasters, we will keep spinning invisible, weightless stories like ancient bards and raconteurs, their anecdotes, tales, poems and sagas now tweets, posts, lyrics and narratives, but weightlessly encoded into semiconductors, not our brains. If we hew to oral tradition, we can dictate stories. Our device will listen intently and decode our speech directly into digital prose. Its recipients, in turn, may ask their devices to read our stories aloud, as Alex (my Mac’s robot reader) does on thisaudio track Bard in a box, so to speak.

From now on, at least as long as the good times last, our stories will come ex machina. It’s fun, easy, and inexpensive too, but you might want to get hold of a typewriter while they still can be had and practice your penmanship, just in case.

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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at Progressive Pilgrim Review.

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