Oral versus written transmission of knowledge.

It is hypothesised that the tools we use to transmit information radically influence the way “we process, organize, store, and transmit representations of the world”, [1]  indeed, there is a current body of thought that speculates that the members of our species underwent a fundamental neuropsychological change when we shifted from oral transmission of knowledge to written transmission of knowledge, and that we have now begun a similar evolutionary shift as western society begins the transition from written transmission to the widespread use of computers for the storage and transmission of information.

Certainly, it stands to reason that such shifts in information storage and transmission would serve as an evolutionary driver (in part) owing to differences in memory allocation and use.  However, one is inclined to think that 200 odd years is a short time in evolutionary terms and that this could be part of the reason Indigenous Australians can struggle in a western cultural frame.

Taken in isolation, one is inclined to conclude that there is no salvaging traditional cultures which have, until recent times, exclusively transmitted knowledge orally.    That being said there are a growing number of people and groups making use of technology to store and transmit traditional languages, increasingly in song form [2]  – the logic being this is similar to the transmission of information by means of songlines.

Assuming the accuracy of the evolutionary hypothesis and also of the Whorfian hypothesis, it stands to reason that new technologies will be far more effective than traditional written methods in preserving indigenous cultures and languages, being closer in form to the way information is transmitted in indigenous societies.

 

[1] Sherry Turkle ‘How Computers Change the Way We Think’ (2004) 50(21) The Chronical of Higher Education B26.

[2] ABC RN ‘Singing indigenous language back to life’ on The Drawing Room (18 June 2015) <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drawingroom/singing-indigenous-language-back-to-life/6555700&gt;

William Murray

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