Can Unwritten Collective Cultural Knowledge Be Protected?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Who will take responsibility for those voices deemed a valuable commodity, but who cannot speak loud enough to be heard by the powers-that-be?

By Edward Nawotka

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“Tell me a story…” It’s a phrase that is fundamental to human existence, one that it literally older than history itself.

We all have stories to tell — whether of an individual, a family or an entire culture — stories that may never get written down, never get published (though with the massive growth of self publishing…who knows).

In today’s feature story Kelvin Smith speculates that the next logical step for digital giants like Google is to pursue a means of exploiting this previously unrecorded oral history and knowledge — much of it residing in developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He also questions whether or not it will be possible to preserve the integrity of the information in the digital medium and whether or not it will be possible to protect the communal property rights.

Sadly he feels that the world’s track record suggests otherwise.

If this process is to extend into non-tangible areas of knowledge and culture in America and Europe, the battle may not, as with Google Street View, be fought and lost in our own back yards. It may be waged by proxy in other parts of the world where the protection of communal property rights, entitlement to self-determination by peoples and nations, and respect for human dignity at all levels have been so evidently lacking on many occasions in the past.

The race towards the digital future is taking place at a breakneck pace and it is possible that such collective knowledge may merely be subsumed in the blink of an eye without even thinking.

Smith further asserts:

Cobbling together some solution on Creative Commons lines will not do, and WIPO’s suggestion of an adaptation of copyright to protect community rights will not address the “concern that documentation of traditional knowledge may make it more susceptible to misappropriation or misuse.”

Do you think that collective unwritten knowledge can be protected from “misappropriation or misuse”? If so, how? Who will take responsibility for those whose voices may be deemed a valuable commodity when collected, tagged, exploited and sold online, but who cannot speak loud enough to be heard in the physical world by the powers-that-be?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.