ORAL HERITAGE & DIGITAL STORYTELLING

LCS strives to help reconnect dispersed communities and urban members of minority cultures to embrace, grow and re-interpret their traditional narratives, strengthening their cultural identity across the generations. We empower community members to take ownership of their own oral heritage and cultural capital by combining traditional oral storytelling in their own languages with new millennium digital technology. LCS works not only to signal the world of the cultural homogeneity that will otherwise result, but also to actively assist and empower indigenous communities to proudly rejoice in and retain their diverse cultures.

Stories are the essence of a culture. For indigenous peoples, stories create world views, teach practical skills, transmit custodial knowledge of biodiversity and carry the understanding of how to live in fragile or hostile environments. Furthermore, the recounting of myths and narratives are vital for maintaining ethnic identity and group solidarity. Stories have social functions, representing the collective memory of the people, combining the past with the present and attaching meaning to space and time. They encapsulate the deeper beliefs and values of a culture, inspire and promote role models, ways of living, behaving and believing. In summary, storytelling is at the heart of social life, personal and cultural identity. Once the stories are no longer re-told, the culture is indeed dead.

LCS balances two approaches: respectful engagement of minority or indigenous communities and appropriate use in their own language of mobile digital technologies.

NEW TECHNOLOGY OPTIONS

Living Cultural Storybases assists the revitalization of indigenous identity by suggesting digital methods for conservation of their cultural legacy of stories, songs, poems and music, its exchange and for dialogue. We have envisaged many novel possibilities for mobile, digital oral technologies and Web 2.0 social network tools to interconnect both young and old, and for direct exchanges in their own language across the indigenous community’s territory and with those that now live in cities or even other countries. The communities must however decide what access devices, systems, secure databases or private networks are appropriate and sustainable for their own cultural and geographic context, ease of use and affordability.

 

Several of the communities in which LCS members work have had little or no exposure to modern digital technology. Gadgets most Westerners take for granted, such as laptops or MP3 players, are either unheard of or unnecessary within their lifestyles. Technological experience is not assumed in the training that the young people receive in story collecting. The gear they learn to use—the initial LCS kit—digital cameras, audio recording equipment, video cameras, mobile devices and digital stores, consists of inexpensive, robust, off-the-shelf equipment. This ensures that community members can master the technology, and that replacement models will be affordable. Some provision of computer and Internet access is of course required for uploading and editing content, even if that is occasional or offline from the field.

Moving forward, LCS envisions a living, evolving database—the Storybase—of cultural content, created by and for the community itself. We have trained community members in uploading and classifying their content, digital editing methods and the creation of their own first websites, such as blogs which can contain spoken stories. Eventually, a single backend system will be synchronized with content from mobile interactive devices, from communally-placed touchscreen devices and from input on the Web.  The flow of new content into or out of the database, should be mediated by community representatives, controlling the access to their community’s data.

These developments will mark the start of networks of remote story exchanges, conversations around cultural narratives and evolving Storybases. We envisage financial opportunities for the communities that can help their sustainability. For example, our Digital Weave venture will weave digital tags into handicraft goods produced by the community. When scanned by a bar code reader or a readily available handset, this device will deliver the story or history behind the item and could connect the purchaser with the artisan. Community radio is a well-proven model for empowerment. Streamed community radio over the Internet and podcasts offer powerful possibilities for two-way interaction and minority language support or promotion of desirable tourism at low cost. In these ways, if the communities wish, LCS could create financial opportunities and new channels for their voices to be heard.

VISION

Living Cultural Storybases aims to create Storybases that are made for, and by the communities themselves, enriching the enthusiasm of youth with the wisdom of their elders, and fostering the survival of living culture and heritage. Unlike anthropologists who have recorded vanishing oral legacies and documented what has passed or what will soon pass, we believe that our approach assists these communities in keeping their own languages, values and traditions alive in a changing world.

The networked world combined with cheap, low-power digital audio devices bring new opportunities: to bring together dispersed minority and underserved cultures to debate their values and choices, allow them to celebrate their heritage and history, and encourage their oral tradition. Traditional communities and their urban Diaspora can thus be reconnected in a self-empowering dialogue around an exchange of stories, poems, songs and commentaries.

We do not see the Internet evolving as a flat network for 7 billion people, equally online without any social structure. Instead we want to create a rich, virtual online "connection landscape," which will contain private, family, sacred and community meeting places, a diversity of cultural resources and conversations in a multitude of languages– not just the Internet’s current entertainment spaces, ‘market places’ and corporate intranets.

Cultural identity and ownership, like personal identity and ownership requires privacy and security. Endangered minority cultures deserve protection of their intellectual property rights, just like land rights, against ‘digital colonialism' and cultural piracy, whether bio-piracy or plagiarism. This virtual future landscape is completed by common meeting grounds where multi-lingual dialogues are encouraged, shared knowledge and cross-cultural understanding and respect are fostered.

Our technical vision for 2020 is therefore:

• The Internet is overlaid with a mosaic of overlapping cultural and ethnic nets. These easy-to-use ‘ Virtual Cultural Networks' support secure distributed communications, local content and private cultural resources, accessed by a variety of appropriate devices and channels.

• Authentication is supported to belong and set the level of participation via cultural processes according to place, birth right, status, initiation rite or by special invitation to trusted outsiders: a multi-level, multi-faceted access-rights model for communities, groups, families and individuals.

LCS helps minority communities build living, evolving digital repositories in their own language of their cultural narratives and knowledge, i.e. ‘Storybases’.

Both the process of building the Storybases and the resulting community resource empower the community, strengthen cultural identity, pride and social cohesion, reconnect the generations and their urban Diaspora, and create new cultural and economic opportunities.

RESPECTFUL METHODOLOGY

LCS has used the same participatory methodology in two different countries with widely differing cultures, geographic, religious and political contexts, validating our mission and proving our methods. We engage local team members, who have trusted access to the community. Next we empower young people in digital technologies to preserve their own cultural heritage. The youth are keen to collect and annotate stories or history recounted by their community's elders, learning respectful interviewing, professional recording, editing and real media skills with digital tools that will help them in the future. The elders are keen as they feel their voices are heard again.

A foundation for us is that free and full prior, informed consent is always obtained and traceable. This implies not only respecting story copyrights, but also e.g. recording the origin and context of the story and the audience with whom their narrative is, or is not, intended to be shared by the storyteller. This becomes essential when we in a later phase close the loop, returning comments or counter stories from the remote audience to the storytellers to stimulate a dialogue. Multimedia exhibitions celebrating local storytelling craft are highly motivating events and occasions for a more general celebration across the generations of cultural heritage.

 

It is a delicate balance, bridging the gap between grass roots and high-tech. The co-design of more sophisticated and powerful digital tools can only proceed at the pace by which truly informed decisions between the many digital choices can be made by the community, after experiencing prototypes. Although details of the LCS approach are adapted at different locations to account for cultural differences, gender relationships, financial situations, political and historic legacies and the overall realities found on the ground, our common methodology gives us hope of fast replication in the face of the cultural extinction rate.

COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP

LCS may bring new options in technologies or partnerships, but strives to encourage situations where the communities serve and support themselves. The best guardians of the languages, customs and traditions of any community are members themselves- the experts in their own way of life and heritage. Sustainability only comes from community participation and ownership – not only of their cultural content, such as which genres are deemed important or which stories can be shared with outsiders – but also of the whole process, its evaluation metrics and its pace.

Every minority community we have approached has praised the LCS mission and approach. In Peru, we have seen the first fruits of the ideal of community ownership. Work in an entirely new zone there was spearheaded, organized and undertaken by the local LCS team members, using the training they had received in previous areas and utilizing the same methodology and digital solutions which had been applied in other work zones.

OUR TENETS

Diversity is precious
Culture is experienced and enacted, i.e. lived , it can't be preserved like an artefact
Cultures are not static, they evolve
Stories are the essence of a culture
Once the stories are no longer re-told, the culture is dead
The communities must own the process and its pace
Bottom-up, not top-down
Outsiders can facilitate - bringing in a global perspective, extracting general principles and developing digital tools which can help nurture other minority cultures