Q&A: Keeping culture alive

Dr Laurel Evelyn Dyson

Many people would say that it is encroaching technology that destroys traditional lifestyles. How can technology be used to help preserve indigenous knowledge?
In the past, we often saw technology used in very destructive ways. I would say that television was one of those technologies, because it was culture coming from beyond a community and bringing in outside values that sometimes clashed with the values of the indigenous peoples. But I think with modern ICTs we do have opportunities to reverse that, to have indigenous culture and knowledge going out to the wider world. We also have opportunities for people to use the technology to look at their own culture without being influenced from the outside.

In Mexico and Bolivia, for example, indigenous communities are producing documentaries and films from their perspective. This has led to a hugely vibrant video and filmmaking culture. It began with outside filmmakers teaching the indigenous people, but it is now at the stage where the indigenous people are training the next generation of indigenous filmmakers. In Bolivia, a lot of the programmes are even shown on television, and there have been film festivals throughout Latin America where these films have been shown.
With ICT there is an opportunity for communities to not only receive outside culture, but to also get their own voices out in the world.

Is this one way in which indigenous knowledge can benefit the rest of the world too?
It could be if indigenous communities want to get their message out to a wider audience. It’s certainly one way to set up a dialogue between their community and the outside world. But many communities don’t necessarily want that. Historically, they are suspicious of anthropologists and other outsiders who come in and rip off their knowledge to build their own careers and make money for themselves, or of big businesses that use indigenous knowledge to produce medicines, for example, that then go on to make huge profits for pharmaceutical companies. This suspicion among communities is something we really have to resolve.

What other factors make it difficult for indigenous communities to start using ICTs? Would it help to produce computer software in more minority languages and improve internet access in the rural areas where many indigenous peoples live?
Access is a huge problem for indigenous communities. And it’s not only language that can cause difficulties for them; there is very little computer technology that is also culturally relevant. For example, indigenous peoples often have low literacy levels because they don’t have a written culture. Even if they did have a system that was in their language, they might still not be able to read it. There are also issues with computer literacy, which is often quite low because people in indigenous communities haven’t had access to computers. It is important to develop systems which are designed specifically for them.

It would be very expensive to design a software system, for example, for every indigenous group. Few communities would be able to afford that.
That’s true, it does cost a lot of money, but there are still a lot of opportunities for indigenous peoples. One of the really big success stories has been mobile technology, which has swept Africa in particular, but also many other indigenous communities in rural areas. As well as answering people’s fundamental need for communication, the technology suits a lot of indigenous peoples. Mobile phones don’t cost as much as a desktop computer but still keeps people connected. It is also cheaper to set up a wireless network or deliver the internet via satellite in remote areas, where a lot of indigenous communities are located and where landlines and other infrastructure were never introduced.
Can technology help indigenous communities improve their income?
Most indigenous communities are quite poor and they would like to improve their income and use their knowledge to do that. The reality is that most communities haven’t really used ICT to improve their income. But e-tourism is one example where both indigenous knowledge and technology have been combined to generate an income.

This could be a big winner for many indigenous communities. The Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia has done that already. With the help of their local university, the community set up the e-Bario project. That is partly an e-tourism initiative where you can book a holiday on the web to stay with the community for a week or two and share the life of the local people. But the project has also supplied computer labs and trained school children and other members of the community on how to use computers and they are now connected to the internet. Hopefully, initiatives like this will bring actual dollars and cents into communities.

Dr Laurel Evelyn Dyson is a lecturer in information technology at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia (www.uts.edu.au),. She is editor of the book Information Technology and Indigenous People and led the evaluation of UNESCO’s ICT4ID Programme.

Related links

e-Bario project
The project provides community access to ICT through community information and communication centres for independent and self-directed learning from local and global electronic sources.
ICTs for Intercultural Dialogue
ICT4ID is a UNESCO programme to improve the creation and dissemination of local content that reflects the values, the experience and insights of the world of indigenous peoples’ communities and cultures.
Ara Irititja
Using this multimedia digital archive the Anangu people in Central Australia view and share repatriated photographs, films, sound recordings and documents about their culture.

02 April 2008

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