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Sunday 22 April 2018
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Commentary

Can technology preserve indigenous culture?

DARA HEALY

WE STOOD up outside the local television station talking about culture, heritage, the leatherback turtle, national pride …

The irony of where we were standing was not lost on us. That is, in front of the station formerly called TTT – Trinidad and Tobago Television – a symbol of independence and national pride, now mutated into, well, something else.

What better place than to ask questions about the value of indigenous culture to a nation? Or interrogate how technology can be a catalyst to preserve culture, and ensure that younger generations do not become further removed from their indigenous core. Can our local media survive on a business model based on local entertainment content?

Conventional wisdom related to the last question says no. Businesses have attempted to pursue a local content approach but have not survived due to lack of advertising revenue or sponsorship. But I am not convinced that the issue is content; it can’t be. Our local soaps, films, innovation in music, dance and other aspects of the arts are comparable, and in many instances better than similar global offerings. No, it must be about something else.

Culture was defined in the 1980s during a Unesco conference as “the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” Technology was accepted as part of the totality of culture, interwoven between all of the sociological, political, religious and other aspects of life.

This assessment of technology and society remains true today.

One only need observe the way people currently interact with culture and the arts. It is difficult for a cultural event to be successful if it is not shared on social media. The medium is immediate and pervasive – everywhere, at all times. The key is thus to understand how information is being accessed and find ways to insert an indigenous and national agenda into the mix.

In pre-television days, the radio drama, a format popularised by organisations like the BBC, served to bring culture and the arts into the home in an accessible, affordable way. Television revolutionised the way we received and interpreted culture.

Unfortunately, while access to television broadened our window to the world, the content was not managed from an indigenous perspective. The result was that we ended up having a national station with predominantly foreign programming.

One expert writes that technology “cannot be considered … to be culturally neutral.” The rationale that it is too expensive to produce local content still plagues our television and film industries. Local culture still battles for media space.

But consider this. The recent disgraceful riding on the backs of leatherback turtles is a perfect example of why we need to remove technology from a neutral, abstract interpretation to being an active preserver of our cultural values.

Why? The majority of our people in our society come from indigenous world views. These include First Peoples, Ifa/Orisa, Hindu … who teach living in harmony with nature, using only what we need to survive. If these and other values were constantly represented in our media channels, citizens would be less likely to casually ill-treat animals, dispose of refrigerators in our rivers, litter, and all the acts that violate our planet.

As we talked, we tried to find ways to define our narrative again; find alternative outlets to tell our story. How to explain in a simple format like the radio drama, why poking, killing and sitting on the backs of wildlife is in direct contradiction to who we ought to be. How to demonstrate why “manners” matters. Why we should grow what we eat…

Technology may play a role in addressing these imbalances, in the fight for the minds of our people. But policymakers must first have the ideological clarity to understand its benefits and pitfalls. But where are they? And even if they had the foresight to recognise that technology has given us a chance to correct the mistakes that were made with TTT and other local institutions, what are people going to watch? Indeed, what programmes should we be producing?

Renowned TT economist Lloyd Best tried to warn us: “We may not be able to dictate to the world but we must speak to the world out of our frame of interpretation. That to my mind is nothing short of mandatory.”

To be continued

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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