Volunteers wanted for Living Cultural Storybases: using mobile digital tools for cultural preservation

By Howard Rheingold, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 17 weeks ago.

From Timbuktu to the Andes, the highlands of New Guinea and Thailand, Paul Rankin has studied the impact of information and communication technologies on the portion of the human race who are more interested in oral communication than keyboards -- and who hold a disproportionate amount of our species' cultural heritage (5% of the world's populations represent half of the world's languages and cultures). Rankin, who spent decades as a human interface researcher for Philips laboratories, has been thinking of a primarily oral-auditory interface to "virtual cultural networks" that could take advantage of the Internet for the work of cultural preservation. Rankin spent a year at Stanford as a Reuter's Digital Visions Fellow, developing "Voices in Your Hand," the hardware component, an inexpensive, sturd,y digital audio recording, playback, and transmission device. Now, with the world's languages and cultures threatened by a accelerating extinction and homogenization, Rankin needs h elp building Living Cultural Storybases. He needs funding, of course, but also computer science skills, grantwriters, web design, cultural research and impact evaluation, business skills. Contact coordinator@storybases.org.

New technologies can strengthen the oral traditions of endangered minority cultures, if they provide appropriable systems that support a dialogue in the local language linked to content. Many anthropologists or artists over the years have collected some of the rich stories from elders of tribal communities - 'last chances to preserve' the oral heritage for outsiders. We want to go further, to create Living Cultural Storybases for the communities themselves. Living Cultural Storybases are vibrant and accessible evolving digital repositories of cultural information that offer a means to gather, search, share and access the cultural life of a community. Spoken stories and visual material should be accessible by old and young alike, so they can record and contribute further content, understanding better their own identity within the context of their unique cultural system. This core of cultural material becomes the seed to stimulate community conversations about their own heritage and the development choices they face. Aspirations for the future may lie with the young, but the old are the custodians of their proud heritage.


''It's like standing by watching the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria, without trying to put out the fire." (Bruce Batchelor)

The 370 million indigenous peoples, rooted to a particular place by history, legend, and language, represent only about 5% of the Earth's population but more than one half of the intellectual legacy of humanity- its languages and cultures.

Yet it is these same people who are the most marginalized, fractured and least represented in society: they are virtually being swept away by poverty, disease, conflict, land appropriation and inappropriate technology. One language disappears every two weeks. For every group dispossessed, urbanized or assimilated, a culture vanishes taking with it ancient knowledge of the environment, unique ways of living, alternative belief systems, irreplaceable skills, artistry and stories - the rich diversity of humanity. Up until now, the digital revolution, rather than creating a “global village”, has accelerated this worldwide cultural demise. ICT access is scant and inappropriate for indigenous people, while content is dominated by the languages, interests and ideologies of the largest economic blocks.

AIM: Self-Empowering Narratives These same technologies causing the “digital divide” could nurture indigenous languages and cultures. Until now ICT initiatives have addressed the immediate developmental needs, rarely even acknowledging minority languages or traditions. ‘Living Cultural Storybases’ seeks to go further: facilitating appropriate, two-way access for all community members to gather and share cultural knowledge through spoken stories, poems or songs. Storytelling is at the heart of social life and personal identity. The recounting of oral narratives plays a vital role in maintaining ethnic identity and group solidarity. They encapsulate the deeper beliefs and values of a culture, promoting heroes, role models and morals, ways of living, behaving and believing. Stories have social functions, representing the collective memory of the people, combining the past with present and attaching meaning to space and time.

The Living Cultural Storybases’ aim to 'nurture the oral heritage of minority cultures in a digital world' will be realized through balancing two approaches: social and technical. We will:

a) Develop trustworthy and participatory methodologies that engage and empower dispersed communities and displaced members to embrace, grow and re-interpret their traditional narratives. This includes strengthening a sense of cultural identity, motivating youth pride in their cultural inheritance, promoting the intergenerational transmission of oral heritage and supporting community dialogue and decision making in their own language.

b) Evolve a generalizable technology which provides appropriate, secure, two-way access for the entire population around a dynamic database architecture for storing and sharing their own stories. The system should reflect and respect the culture, through the database's ontology, role-based access and protection of their intellectual property. Two-way spoken access will be via devices that are appropriate and easy-to-use by all within the community setting, thus encouraging further contributions and discourse.