The First Annual Story Field Conference

Three Storytelling Societies

by Yochai Benkler

Imagine three storytelling societies: the Reds, the Blues, and the Greens.
Each society follows a set of customs as to how they live and how they tell

Among the Reds and the Blues, everyone is busy all day, and no one
tells stories except in the evening. In the evening, in both of these societies,
everyone gathers in a big tent, and there is one designated storyteller who
sits in front of the audience and tells stories. It is not that no one is allowed
to tell stories elsewhere. However, in these societies, given the time constraints
people face, if anyone were to sit down in the shade in the middle
of the day and start to tell a story, no one else would stop to listen.

Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides
which stories to tell. Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night
by simple majority vote. Every member of the community is eligible to offer
him- or herself as that night's storyteller, and every member is eligible to

Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere. Everyone
tells stories. People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups
of two or three, sometimes in very large groups. Stories in each of these
societies play a very important role in understanding and evaluating the
world. They are the way people describe the world as they know it. They
serve as testing grounds to imagine how the world might be, and as a way
to work out what is good and desirable and what is bad and undesirable.

The societies are isolated from each other and from any other source of

Now consider Ron, Bob, and Gertrude, individual members of the Reds,
Blues, and Greens, respectively. Ron's perception of the options open to him
and his evaluation of these options are largely controlled by the hereditary
storyteller. He can try to contact the storyteller to persuade him to tell
different stories, but the storyteller is the figure who determines what stories
are told. To the extent that these stories describe the universe of options
Ron knows about, the storyteller defines the options Ron has. The storyteller's
perception of the range of options largely will determine the size and
diversity of the range of options open to Ron. This not only limits the range
of known options significantly, but it also prevents Ron from choosing to
become a storyteller himself. Ron is subjected to the storyteller's control to
the extent that, by selecting which stories to tell and how to tell them, the
storyteller can shape Ron's aspirations and actions. In other words, both the
freedom to be an active producer and the freedom from the control of
another are constrained. Bob's autonomy is constrained not by the storyteller,
but by the majority of voters among the Blues. These voters select the
storyteller, and the way they choose will affect Bob's access to stories profoundly.
If the majority selects only a small group of entertaining, popular,
pleasing, or powerful (in some other dimension, like wealth or political
power) storytellers, then Bob's perception of the range of options will be
only slightly wider than Ron's, if at all. The locus of power to control Bob's
sense of what he can and cannot do has shifted. It is not the hereditary
storyteller, but rather the majority. Bob can participate in deciding which
stories can be told. He can offer himself as a storyteller every night. He
cannot, however, decide to become a storyteller independently of the choices
of a majority of Blues, nor can he decide for himself what stories he will
hear. He is significantly constrained by the preferences of a simple majority.
Gertrude is in a very different position. First, she can decide to tell a story
whenever she wants to, subject only to whether there is any other Green
who wants to listen. She is free to become an active producer except as
constrained by the autonomy of other individual Greens. Second, she can
select from the stories that any other Green wishes to tell, because she and
all those surrounding her can sit in the shade and tell a story. No one person,
and no majority, determines for her whether she can or cannot tell a story.
No one can unilaterally control whose stories Gertrude can listen to. And
no one can determine for her the range and diversity of stories that will be
available to her from any other member of the Greens who wishes to tell a

The difference between the Reds, on the one hand, and the Blues or
Greens, on the other hand, is formal. Among the Reds, only the storyteller
may tell the story as a matter of formal right, and listeners only have a
choice of whether to listen to this story or to no story at all. Among the
Blues and the Greens anyone may tell a story as a matter of formal right,
and listeners, as a matter of formal right, may choose from whom they will
hear. The difference between the Reds and the Blues, on the one hand, and
the Greens, on the other hand, is economic. In the former, opportunities
for storytelling are scarce. The social cost is higher, in terms of stories unavailable
for hearing, or of choosing one storyteller over another. The difference
between the Blues and the Greens, then, is not formal, but practical.
The high cost of communication created by the Blues' custom of listening
to stories only in the evening, in a big tent, together with everyone else,
makes it practically necessary to select 'a storyteller' who occupies an evening.
Since the stories play a substantive role in individuals' perceptions of
how they might live their lives, that practical difference alters the capacity
of individual Blues and Greens to perceive a wide and diverse set of options,
as well as to exercise control over their perceptions and evaluations of options
open for living their lives and to exercise the freedom themselves to be
storytellers. The range of stories Bob is likely to listen to, and the degree to
which he can choose unilaterally whether he will tell or listen, and to which
story, are closer, as a practical matter, to those of Ron than to those of
Gertrude. Gertrude has many more stories and storytelling settings to choose
from, and many more instances where she can offer her own stories to others
in her society. She, and everyone else in her society, can be exposed to a
wider variety of conceptions of how life can and ought to be lived. This
wider diversity of perceptions gives her greater choice and increases her ability
to compose her own life story out of the more varied materials at her
disposal. She can be more self-authored than either Ron or Bob. This diversity
replicates, in large measure, the range of perceptions of how one
might live a life that can be found among all Greens, precisely because the
storytelling customs make every Green a potential storyteller, a potential
source of information and inspiration about how one might live one's life.



Given the discussion earlier in this chapter, it is fairly straightforward
to see how the Greens represent greater freedom to choose to become
an active producer of one's own information environment. It is similarly
clear that they make it exceedingly difficult for any single actor to control
the information flow to any other actor. We can now focus on how the
story provides a way of understanding the justification and contours of the
third focus of autonomy-respecting policy: the requirement that government
not limit the quantity and diversity of information available.


Excerpted from

The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

by Yochai Benkler

Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006


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This conference is being organized with support from the Kellogg Foundation and the Co-Intelligence Institute.
Illustration credit: Dana Lynne Andersen, in
From Lava to Life: the Universe Tells our Earth Story by Jennifer Morgan -- Courtesy of Dawn Publications