Cultural Sustainability & new media

This article is not about science or technology (albeit there will be some references).

It is about cultural heritage- and its transmission.

Trying to use our technology to move beyond the mere literacy or numeracy, and adding instead cultural awareness.

While preserving our cultural diversity for future generations.

Why the title

It is just a series of coincidences.

Recently, I saw that 3D TVs started being accessible (albeit not yet affordable) for the consumer market, and an old idea (I think that it was called “odorama”, in the 1960s or 1970s) is now being revamped into “4D cinema”.

The fourth dimension? Bringing special effects into the movie theater.

If you want: converting movies into a park ride.

Another coincidence- I finally found a decent, documented, and accessible book talking about language as a multidimensional phenomenon.

The book, that I quoted already in previous online postings, is “When Languages Die”, from K. David Harrison.

While cultural anthropologists wrote for decades about this subject, “cultural heritage” is often defined, selected, structured by people whose training sets the written language at the center.

I started traveling around Italy at a time when Italy was still way behind other developed countries in the adoption of TV as the main distribution medium, visiting Southern Italy in the Summer in late 1960s, before moving for few years in Calabria, until 1972.

At the time, Italy had just a couple of state TV stations, with limited broadcasting- and a significant chunk of the population in some areas had limited literacy.

I tried to find reliable statistics on the evolution of literacy in Italy, but when I see a literacy of above 98%, I wonder how literacy is computed.

And how do you transmit culture and educate, when there is a low literacy?

By using what we would now call “multimedia” or “performing arts”.

Storytellers, “sagre” (annual celebrations), and so on: all of them were essential components in the transmission of culture before literacy programs.

You know that I am a bookworm (well, almost).

Nonetheless, as a child I learned from my father, while acting as his “gobbo” (literally- the hunchback: the guy suggesting the lines to actors on stage), that the written word is just a part of the meaning.

Voice, interpretation, environment, props, lights, storyline, prior lines uttered: everything adds to the meaning, “framing” each new word added, both in the text, and in the mind of the audience.

And a friend of my parents, who has an art gallery, explained in museums and when giving a private preview of exhibitions that he hosted the intricacy and cultural sophistication of African and Oceanic textiles, statues, and other cultural artifacts: also the smell, texture, thickness, specific “touch” of materials has a meaning.

As the book quoted above summarizes with examples from languages that are about to disappear, writing an oral culture is no substitute for the multi-faceted communication that was delivered by storytellers or other non-written ways of transmitting culture.

But as it is shown by the forthcoming “full experience” movie theaters, our technology, constantly shrinking in size, is fast becoming cheaper and approaching what Arthur C. Clarke defined as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Incidentally: if you are in Brussels, on April 29th there will be a conference on “The Magic of nanotechnology” (information:

More about nanotechnology in few days, with a short sci-fiction story, following another quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”

Cultural sustainability

Since the first half of the XX century, mass-media created a cultural convergence- based on the dominating culture.

And after the 2nd World War this trend increased, with the current dominance by US companies of the online media and social networking further expanding the homogenization.

The Internet reduces the time, cost, skills required to join the global culture, and you can observe the side-effect on everyday communication, ranging from imported words, to communication approaches such as the simplification of language in text messaging, now filtering through written documents.

A global culture risks being a culture without roots- and this is the reason why a sensible use of technology could create a more sustainable cultural development, built on local differences.

Keeping the local cultures alive requires an active community- and some cultures will eventually disappear, simply because the environment that created them will evolve.

Instead of trying to crystallize existing cultures, by creating groups that stay forcibly in or recreate a disappearing culture, we can try to move beyond keeping just buildings or written material as part of the cultural heritage.

We are lucky: XXI century technology allows to build a global culture while ensuring the sustainability of local cultures- size is not necessarily a need to sustain at least the memory of a culture.

YouTube 2020?

Today I am raiding the store of Arthur C. Clarke quotes: ”
New ideas pass through three periods:
– It can’t be done.
– It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing.
– I knew it was a good idea all along!

But why should I reinvent the wheel?

The title and those three phrases will be certainly clearer than few pages outlining technologies-yet-to-be.

It is quite simple: we had Yahoo, and its “virtual library” of links.

As in a library, Yahoo originally classified each link according to specific categories.

Then, we had YouTube, and its video memory, complementing paper-based books (and their electronic versions).

I don’t know if you ever saw a 3D-scanner, and a 3D-printer.

The first one has been used for some time to “scan” actors and their movements, to be used in movies, while the latter has been used to produce mock-ups, but eventually will be possible to produce real objects.

A further evolution could be to use the new sensors that are being designed for smell, texture, and so on, and store that information as well, to be “retrieved” by some Virtual Reality accessories.

Again- already are on the market some accessories to convert mobile phones into pocket microscopes or laboratories, adding “smell” along with “sight” and “hearing”.

But if we evolve our information and sensors (from a “voice recording” to a “smell, wind, pressure, humidity, etc” recorder and a texture/touch scanner), we will allow future generations to experience cultures that by then will be disappeared.

And non-written cultures sometimes can give us some lessons in sustainable technology.

I give you just an Italian example (it happens to be a UNESCO site): the “Sassi di Matera“.

Air conditioning wasn’t common in Italy until few years ago- but now, due to new research on sustainability, old technologies are being re-discovered.

While resources are being devoted to saving books and buildings, the same level of effort is not applied to our culture.

Pity- because this would be a worthwhile feature or contest to add to some of the new service portals created by companies such as Apple or Nokia.

Cultural memory

But how do we build a cultural memory, while waiting for new technologies?

Some politicians seize any chance to push on students compulsory “local” studies, e.g. by introducing the study of the local dialect and customs.

A culture is not just a language- otherwise, we would be all using Esperanto.

What is the point of imposing to study a disappearing language that nobody uses and has no written culture (as most dialects and local languages were used mainly as verbal communication tools)?

In some cases, these “revivals” verge on the pure populist forgery- creating a written culture where none existed before.

Well, when we have millions of travelers with mobile phones that can shoot movie, record audio, use the camera to identify plants and artifacts… every traveler can contribute.

Including people that go back home once in a while, visiting remote areas, observing disappearing customs.

As I wrote above- instead of the usual “prize for the weirdest video”, companies could add a prize to contribute to our shared “global cultural memory”, e.g. something akin to “airmiles”.

Call it “cultural miles”, if you want.

In the XXI century, crowdsourcing is not complex: post the rules, allow members to be part of the “peer-review”, and you have anybody visiting anywhere with any digital recording device converted into a volunteer researcher- or reviewer.

Moreover- people who have the personal connections can more easily collect the “cultural memory” as is, not as it is presented to visitors.

In business as in cultural surveys, you obtain more “unfiltered” information if somebody who belongs to the environment is actually collecting the information.

As external observers are considered an audience to perform for, not people to be involved in the cultural activities.

In Italy, plenty of small villages are simply disappearing, and in some cases have been already converted into resorts.

All across European Union this is a risk, as most of the traditional cultural expressions are considered relics of a not-so-prosperous past.

Slightly more than 50 years passed from the Treaty of Rome- and also without traveling to other continents, we have our share of languages and cultures that are disappearing due to neglect or economic development.

And it is difficult to create a new unified European culture, if we lose our cultural memory.

One memory?

I know that most people see YouTube and Google as a behemoth that will be the universal repository and dispenser of our aggregate knowledge.

But do we really want to have a single collection point of human knowledge?

Collecting knowledge implies classifying and structuring knowledge- including reorganizing priorities.

Do you remember the 1970s movie Rollerball (not the remake)?

Skip all the rest- the first scene that I remember is a visit to the central library in Geneva, where a water-based computer stores all the written knowledge of humankind.

A “bubble” lost information about a certain time, losing an Italian author called Dante and few others…

If we create a single, unified knowledge store, we have also to consider multiple possible way to access the information, to avoid reducing cultural diversity to a single framework- and to ensure the long-term continuity of our knowledge.

And maybe multiple storage areas- say, one per continent.

On a smaller scale, I applied a similar approach to knowledge retention and management in various environments.

The main issue is identifying the basic building blocks, and then having something that allows the knowledge creators to keep contributing and innovating their contributions (see on BusinessFitnessMagazine the issue BFM01).

Eventually, we will have a single, shared memory, but built on local memories.

If you want, the old “Thinking globally, acting locally” (or “glocal”) still holds true.


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