Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

The enemies of storytelling down through the ages 
.     Storytelling was an honored practice in primordial times as we huddled around campfires in little villages and shared stories about the wolves that were attacking the village, or the crops that had failed or the weather that had changed. Storytelling was the only means by which the village could assemble its knowledge and survive.

    In the last couple of thousand years, storytelling has been under a cloud of disapproval. Understanding the source of the disapproval is a key to recovering the power and benefits of this incredibly powerful technology. 

    Plato: It is hard not to blame Plato as the original source of the disfavor in which storytelling has fallen, since a literal reading of The Republic shows that he urged that 

storytellers be censored or banned from the cerebral republic he was describing. 

   In his masterly explanation of The Republic in  Preface to Plato (1963), Havelock demonstrates that fully half of The Republic is aimed at attacking the power of poetry and narrative. Plato's attack was so devastatingly successful, that a modern writer like Anthony Gottlieb can barely understand what Plato was trying to prove: see The Dream of Reason, chapter 11.

   However, Plato himself was one of the master poets and storytellers of all time, e.g. Symposium, a dinner party to end all dinner parties, and was obviously aware of the power of storytelling. There has been a tendency for his followers to adopt what Plato appeared to be preaching, rather than what he himself practiced. 

   There is the possibility of an ironic interpretation of The Republic: Plato was really showing why a fully rational society was impossible. But this is not entirely compatible with Plato's efforts to realize the vision in Sicily.

    Aristotle: Aristotle also played a role in the denigration of storytelling. By placing a huge emphasis on the taxonomy and classification of what we know, he created a model for science which left storytelling in a peripheral role of illustrating abstract propositions. Abstract knowledge moved on to center stage. 

    Francis Bacon: The arrival of the scientific method and experiment provided a route for verifying which stories were true, or more strictly, which stories were false. Scientists were thus able to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from myth. It was however less obvious to the scientists that the accounts of the experiments that they provided were also stories of a kind. 

    Descartes: The separation of the self from the world meant the supposed abolition of feeling and emotions from rational discourse. It was only recently with the findings of science that the impossibility of separating thought from emotion was discovered. 

    Modern science: Feeding on their success in using experiment to fact from fiction, scientists began to claim that their experimental method was the sole guide to discovering the truth, and began to claim a monopoly on all forms of truth. The antagonism towards storytelling may have reached a peak in the twentieth century with the determined effort to reduce all knowledge to analytic propositions, and ultimately physics or mathematics. In the process, we discovered the limits of analytic thinking. We learnt of Godel’s proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic, and began to absorb the implications of the indeterminacy of quantum physics and complexity theory, but many years of schooling had instilled in us a continuing itch for reductionist simplicity. This itch reflects what Freeman Dyson calls the Napoleonic approach, and leads to hierarchy, procedures, rules and a distinctive form of myopia. 
    Command and control approaches to management: Abstract knowledge became a method for maintaining control and imposing regimes and unsuspecting publics. 

    Teachers:  Education systems succumbed to the prevailing fashions and abstract syllabuses proliferated. Exceptional teachers used storytelling, but the average teacher stuck to the syllabus. 

    Professionals: Abstract knowledge buttressed the power of the professions, as professional jargon, known only to initiated, and communicated in abstract fashion, enabled cadres of professionals to protect territory and maintain control. 

   The limitations of abstract thinking:  The result of all these efforts over several thousand years means that there is a huge cultural, social, intellectual, political and financial superstructure that has a vested interest in favoring abstract thinking and communication and that is hostile to narrative thinking and narrative modes of communication. 

   In many ways, abstract thinking has served us well. But it is an approach with diminishing returns in a period of massive turbulence. As we enter the 21st Century, there has been a growing recognition, that abstract thinking alone doesn't help us much in coping with a rapidly changing world, where innovation is the key to success.

    Innovation – what Dyson calls the creative chaos and freedom of the Tolstoyan approach  –  swims in the richness and complexity of living. It breeds on the connections between things. As participants, we can grasp the inter-relatedness of things in the world – and so are able to connect them in new ways – much more readily than when we are seeing them as an external observer through the window of rigid analytic propositions. 

   The storyteller needs to be aware of the immense superstructure supporting the enemies of storytelling and should not be surprised to encounter a huge wave of prejudice in the practice of storytelling. The best approach: don't argue (which would implicitly accept the primacy of abstract thinking). Instead: tell stories!

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Stephen Denning 
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