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  • Telling Stories, or How Do We Know What We Know? The story of Cultural Indicators and the Cultural Environment Movement
  • George Gerbner (bio)

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Figure 1.

An illustration from the Website of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch:

Most of what we know, or think we know, we have never personally experienced. We live in a world erected by the stories we hear and see and tell. It is a world of incredible riches of imagery and words, conjuring up the unseen through art, creating towering works of imagination and fact through science, poetry, song, tales, reports, and laws—the true magic of human life.

Through that magic we live in a world much wider than the threats and gratifications of the immediate physical environment, which is the world of other species. Stories socialize us into roles of gender, age, class, vocation and life-style, and offer models of conformity or targets for rebellion. They weave the seamless web of the cultural environment that cultivates most of what we think, what we do, and how we conduct our affairs. [End Page 117]

How will future historians deal with that process? How will they be able to examine the common cultural environment of stories and images that shapes, every day, from infancy on, the shared action structure, thematic content, and representation of actions, places and people? How will they trace the mainstream and the sweep of that environment of stories? And how will they know what to do about it?

Their source, possibly the only source, will be our Cultural Indicators (CI) database of media content and effects, and the action program based on it, the Cultural Environment Movement (CEM), an organization created to democratize media ownership, employment, and representation.

The historical inspiration for CI and CEM comes from the story of storytelling itself.

The Story of Storytelling

The storytelling process used to be handcrafted, homemade, community-inspired. Now it is the end result of a complex media manufacturing and marketing process.

The stories no longer come from families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, and often not even from the native countries, or, in fact, from anyone with anything to tell. Increasingly, they come from small group of distant conglomerates with something to sell.

This is a profound transformation in human socialization and governance.

For the longest time in human history, stories were told only face to face. A community was defined by the rituals, mythologies, and imageries held in common. Writing was rare and holy, forbidden for slaves. Laboriously inscribed manuscripts confered sacred power to their interpreters, the priests and ministers. [End Page 118]

State and church ruled in a symbiotic relationship of mutual dependence and tension. State, composed of feudal nobles, was the political, economic, and military order; church was the cultural arm.

The industrial revolution changed all that. One of the first machines stamping out standardized artifacts was the printing press. Its product, the book, was a prerequisite for all other upheavals to come.

Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher once said: “If one were permitted to make all the ballads, one need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” That was at a time when “ballads”—the myths and stories of a culture—were hand-crafted, home-made, community-inspired. Today, they are the products of a complex global mass-production and marketing process.

Printing begins the industrialization of story-telling. The machine-made book can be given to all who can read. Readers can interpret the book (at first the Bible) for themselves, breaking the monopoly of priestly interpreters, and ushering in the Reformation.

When the printing press is hooked up to the steam engine the industrialization of storytelling shifts into high gear. Rapid printing and distribution create a new form of consciousness: modern mass publics. Publics are loose aggregations of people who share some common consciousness but never meet face-to-face.

Stories can now be sent—often smuggled—across hitherto impenetrable or closely guarded boundaries of time, space, gender, race, class, and status. Books lift people from their traditional moorings as the industrial revolution uproots them from their local communities and cultures. They get off the...

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Print ISSN
pp. 116-131
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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