My relaxations include listening to books on tape while taking long walks. Over the weekend I was enjoying a fabulous rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Listening to this rich and beautiful tale made me think about the differences between oral storytelling and the linear print tradition that supplanted it. Now we have hypertext (a concept that turned 60 years old this month). Does hypertext unify the oral and linear traditions? And how does all this affect our thinking?

Perhaps you’ve read Tolkien and, even if not, you’d have to have been buried in a hole (not a hobbit hole, obviously), to have missed at least the movie version of this tale of good and evil, heroism and treachery. So I can bypass the review and get to the difference between oral and print traditions, print being easiest to understand because you are caught in its spell of one-word-after-the-other-leading-to-some-point.

Print — or rather mass printing and literacy — are the 500-year-old legacy of Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg, storytelling was a performance art, a non-technological peer-to-peer phenomenon to use a modern reference. The oral tradition was not only P2P, it was custom-made. The words were not always exactly the same. As National Geographic noted in an article about the oral antecedents of Tolkien’s trilogy, the story was not a manufactured commodity. It had a variability that reflected the abilities of the story-teller and that person’s interactions with the audience.

Print changed that. Words weren’t exactly carved in stone. But they were impressed on paper and thus on minds in a very specific way. The diffusion of knowledge made possible by the spread of books had many, many consequences, the most positive of which was that long period of scientific and social advance called The Enlightenment.

So let’s fast forward to hypertext, a word coined in the 1960s, but presaged in a July 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the man who was quite arguably also the godfather of the military-industrial complex. But let me not digress.

We live hypertext. We can link anything. I’ve written previously about the power of writing in hypertext. But my own thinking is too linear. I can’t help myself. I used to be a bookworm. Now I’m a writer. But walking around this weekend with Tolkien’s blend of print and oral story echoing in my ears, I wondered how thinking will change when the young people, growing up with the option of ingesting information in a linear or eclectic way, start taking over the world.

This global Internet, and its many forms of communication and community, represent a historic inflection point. Looking back I know that much grief followed Gutenberg as well, specifically, the long wars over religion that were tied to translations of the Bible. Now we see beheadings publicized on the Internet and read reports of terror attacks and learn about groups claiming credit on Web pages and I wonder if this social upheaval is déjà vu all over. A glimpse into the mirror of Galadriel would provide some hints, but my understanding is that the elves have lost their magic. Oh, darn. We’ll have to muddle through as best we can.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media