Some African village elders are using tablets to preserve ancient knowledge, embracing the potential of mobile technology and not fighting its influence on their culture.
The Herero people of Namibia are working with Danish researchers to build a program that makes elders’ wisdom accessible to those who have left the village. The Motorola Xoom application depicts a 3D village populated with virtual inhabitants who show how to slaughter goats, tame horses and light fires.
Tribal leaders created these mini lessons with help from the app’s inventor, Kaspar Rodil of Denmark’s Aalborg University. Other tutorials include instruction on medicinal herbs, animal husbandry and sun-based navigation. Rodil also plans to give the app a drawing component so village leaders can sketch diagrams on the touchscreen like they normally do in the sand.
“The idea is that we have as little friction as possible between the device and the user,” he explained.
Though they had never used computers before, Herero elders embraced the tablet as useful tool and not a threat to their ancient way of life.
“They are good in their look and in the sense that they will be kept there forever and they will never be forgotten,” one man declared.
“If this is how to use computers, then I have no problems,” an older woman added.
Keeping Culture Alive
Ancient cultures like the Hereros are not familiar with mobile technology, but it may soon become the only way to keep their ancient cultures and traditions alive, since many young Hereros leave their villages to work in a city, often never to return. If elders can reach youth through the tablet app, they may keep them engaged long enough to pass on traditions and languages themselves once they are older.
Technology plays a role in helping other cultures preserve their languages and traditions. Young people often decide between the ages of 16 and 25 whether or not to stick with their native language, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon.
“If the language isn’t being used by their peer group, then they reject it categorically,” Anderson concluded.
Anderson’s research suggests teens in the Philippines may save endangered regional languages like Kapampangan and Huave, since they are using them frequently in text messages.
And youth in Chile are using YouTube to post videos in Huilliche, a dying language that may survive thanks to the Internet.
“This really strengthens the use of the language,” said Samuel Herrera, head of the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City.
Further, National Geographic’s “Enduring Voices” project is collecting all available data on lesser-known languages, using mobile recording devices to keep them for future generations.
“We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate,” said project member K. David Harrison. “But a positive effect of globalization is that you can have a language that is spoken by only five or 50 people in one remote location, and now through digital technology that language can achieve a global voice and a global audience.”
These methods of language and culture preservation may also serve the Herero people well, especially as they are unafraid to embrace mobile technology.
Guarding Tradition from Technology
But many other ancient cultures continue to resist the march of technology, fearing it will destroy their time-honored way of life.
In Thailand, for example, the country’s “lese-majeste” law prohibits anyone from insulting the royal family or King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom many in the country revere as a demi-god.
As a result, even webmasters who unintentionally host offensive comments are subject to punishment under the Thailand Computer Crimes Act.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who ran a popular news website, recently received several months in prison for failing to delete one such comment quickly enough.
Premchaiporn’s sentence reflects the country’s intolerance for online freedom of speech, which may put off today’s technologically minded youth. If Thailand hopes to instill its values in the next generation, it may reconsider silencing them for posting their opinions online.
In India, the government is moving to censor what it sees as “blasphemous” or “disparaging” content that mocks its citizens’ traditions and religions.
This attitude has inspired plans for a 50-member U.N.-backed committee to purge offensive images from India’s Internet, a move with which many citizens disagree.
Anonymous hackers and supporters gathered in several Indian cities earlier this month to protest the government’s plans as well as its shutdown of file-sharing sites like Pastebin and The Pirate Bay.
India’s youth, who are much more connected to the Internet than their parents, generally agree that online content should stay unfiltered. But if earlier generations succeed in clamping down on Internet freedoms for the sake of preserving culture, they may find end up turning youth away instead of convincing them to embrace tradition.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Youth around the world, from Africa to Thailand and India, are growing up with the Internet and mobile technology. As these inventions become indispensable for business and education, young people will likely gravitate towards mobile devices and a free Internet and not remaining bound to local tradition.
If ancient cultures hope to keep their children engaged, they will need to reach out on their level and not spurning the technology they use. Only then will youth begin to renew interest in their traditions and culture.