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August 20, 2009

Oral culture, the weight of history, and letting go of your data

oralcultureBOSTON, USA – We all suffer the weakness of seeing the world from deep within our framework of reality. From that perspective, we feel that the world is moving fast; innovations are improving exponentially and will, forever; that we live at the height of civilization and the things we do are the most advanced and correct.

To snap me out of that frame of reference, and start to imagine a different future, I like to question what we think is not only the basis for modern civilization, but immutable and required for forward “progress.”

I keep coming back to the concept of Cloud computing, where data and software no longer reside locally, but are “out there” coursing through internet pipes and machines. In the last week, in response to one of my Cloud articles, there were some comments about ownership, security, and permanence (indeed, one was selected as comment of the week). Below, I hone in on one pillar of modern civilization – literacy – and show how it can enlighten us to a possible Cloud future.

Like bottles on a wall
Large corporations are not known for questioning the basis of their business. My favorite business book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” has many examples of companies doing right by their customers only to be knocked off their throne by a challenger that presumably came out of nowhere.

I read that book before joining Nokia and it helped me see that, at a corporate level, Nokia periodically reassesses the basis of their business, indeed, the whole reality of the company. That’s how it has lasted 140 years, starting as a pulp mill, through rubber and consumer electronics, and now growing into being a solutions company.

So, it’s not unlikely that on a given day, folks, whose business it is to drive the company into the future, are questioning the very basis of civilization.

Look who’s talking
This day and age, literacy is regarded as a requirement for civilization. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s hard to find someone who cannot read. In the Southern Hemisphere, literacy is the key to education, jobs, and improved socioeconomic health.

If you really look at the history, widespread literacy is from the last 100 years or so. Things like public libraries, private book collections, public schools are all recent creations. It’s not unexpected that we think the power and richness of our culture is from the strength of literacy.

But now, with the dominance of TV, movies, and social networking through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, I feel that we are returning to an oral society. Our culture is no longer being encoded in books or long reams of digital documents (indeed the concept of the Web page is being whittled away and fragmented), but passed on from person to person, much like oral culture of old.

Illiterate and proud of it
OK, so we’re not completely illiterate, we still need to read things. But the traditional notion of literacy, as in reading tomes and literature bound up in packages, is falling by the wayside. And that is fine, folks.

What does that have to do with the Cloud? Well, the Cloud is where so many records of our culture are ending up. And, if we think of an oral world, sometimes there may be no one to carry some nugget of culture forward (hm, might just be that no one can find it in Google).

What I mean, is that the idea of “permanence” of information is recent and fueled mostly by us all growing up in a literate, documented, meticulously recorded world.

I’m not saying that everything will be ephemeral. Way back at the start of civilization, they saw the value of some level of record keeping. But all the richness of our stories and beliefs are not required to be recorded in every minutia.

Loosen up
So, embrace the temporary nature of our oral web: don’t try to keep every SMS, don’t fret about your Facebook newsfeed only going back a short while, don’t read every tweet in your stream, feel free to delete your cache of RSS feeds, and really, do disconnect for a while. The Cloud is your stomping ground, not your life recorder.

Culture moves on a grander scale than we do and we can always reconnect and recover from gaps and losses – there’s always someone else carrying the flame. And if we don’t, then that’s the magic of being human and we move forward and learn anew.


And still..
The funny thing is the I am usually very obsessive of recording what I can record. I was a Lifeblogger in more ways than one, having a calendar that stretched back years, email kept for ever, saving every SMS and photo, following every tweet, and so on.

Yet, while writing this article, I was updating a phone and lost a few thousand SMSes. Then I thought back to how I now treat all my streams, like Twtiter, like a cocktail party I come and go to, catching what I can, but not fretting about what I miss.

It might have to do with some big discontinuities I am crossing right now, but I can see moments of “bankruptcy” where starting anew feels good and there’s no anxiety about data.

If I can finish on a wistful note: the connections I have are what matter, and I can always find the folks I want to keep in touch with. All those bits and bytes flying around between us are just flavorings to a relationship that goes on long after the bits are stale.

It’s that second (digital) life enriching my first (physical) life thing, isn’t it?

Image from the Southern Foodways Alliance