“Writing,” according to Walter Ong, “is the most momentous of all human technological inventions. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.” The transition from oral culture towards written culture, also represents the first major technological shift that profoundly altered mankind’s relation with the world and the self. For Robert Logan, the introduction of the phonetic alphabet in Western civilization can be seen as the first material system of organizing thought. From memory to material, sound to sight, closed to open, tribe to media, the constructs of reality for humans around 3,500 BC underwent a severe rupture as the dialectics of ancient world met a glimpse of the modern for the first time. Shortly after the advent of writing technology came the word of God and law of Pharaoh. Semiotic markings translated into universal ideas and local laws. Suddenly, civilization took on a technological code of structures and strictures, organizing principles of micro-stabilization and meta-narrative. With the written word came a definitive, literal contract with man that served in many ways as the first step towards enlightenment and conformity.
In our current digital age it sometimes feels as if we are undergoing another profound rupture like the ones that occurred in the transition from speech to writing and eventually from writing to print. Despite Western culture’s obsessive digital progression, we have not yet reached an age of complete global consciousness and communication. Today, parts of the third world lag behind in literacy and still largely live in an oral culture. However, development and integration of cheap Internet technologies are making for it possible for one country to move from speech to digitization within a few years.
An example of this sort of ITC development in the third world can be found in a Web 2.0 inspired project called Oral Wiki. The Oral Wiki is a phone and Internet based technology that is being developed to serve as a tool for the informal justice system in post-civil war Rwanda. In sub-Saharan Africa informal judges play a very large role in society and are often the only access to justice for most rural people. The Abunzi system in Rwanda is an informal judicial system that handles roughly 70% of civil court cases in the country. The majority of the cases the Abunzi hear regard land disputes left over from the 1994 genocide that ravaged the country. While most Abunzi have a hand written archive of arbitrated decisions, they do not have easy access to a record of cases decided by fellow judges. Oftentimes, the Abunzi must travel 30 miles by foot just to consult with a fellow judge on a case and share knowledge orally. Thus they are left to transmit the laws and preside over cases with little or no technological advancement.
Cindy Jeffers has been researching the Oral Wiki project over the last few years as a Research Associate at The Distance Lab. According to the site, “the Oral Wiki is a proposed database technology that would store audio recordings of Abunzi decisions. It would provide record, playback, tagging and commenting functionalities akin to those found on wikis. It would be accessible by phone and internet and would enable the ranking of decisions made by Abunzi.” Essentially Abunzi would call a free phone number via mobile, Internet, or landline. Then, using a numbered keypad they can decide to make a recording of a new case or listen to examples of best practice rulings from other cases. The database would also be available online for those with access.
The project was conceived to benefit not only the Abunzi judicial system but also the poverty-stricken communities desperately trying to return to normalcy following the genocide. Ideally, the concept that the law would be electronically distributed allows for a degree of agency to be held by the people that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. Jeffers has also received encouragement from the Rwanda government as the project is in alignment with the country’s vision to move Rwanda from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based society by 2020.
The technological breakthrough that happens in our current digital culture has potential to transform societies on scales never before seen. It took tens of thousands of years for humans to develop writing technologies. Now, in a globalized digital world the potential for building a networked architecture that affords for new efficiencies and ways of living is growing exponentially every decade.
Of course, technology is not always intrinsically good, but it’s hard to criticize a project like Oral Wiki. It advocates communal connectivity, democracy, and knowledge-sharing, while attempting to still preserve local traditional cultures and systems. From oral to digital culture, the transformation of the reality via technology continues to reorganize and reconceptualize what it means to be human and live on this earth as one world.