Take a taxi in almost any city in the developing world, and you will encounter oral culture. If the driver can’t find your aunt’s house, he will ask along the way. He’ll stop to talk to street-side vendors, rickshaw or motorbike drivers waiting for fares, and commuters at intersections.
Why Won’t He Use a Map?
Even if he is well educated and new to the city, he probably doesn’t use a map. If asked why, he’ll give many reasons: people are everywhere and ready to help, available maps are often unreliable, and local road conditions change frequently.
And then, there’s trust: he believes that information from people’s testimony is more reliable, more current and more practical than information from maps. And don’t worry – the pathways may be unfamiliar to both you, but he’ll find your aunt.
Their Ancestors — And Ours
But oral culture is experienced most deeply in villages of the developing world. In oral villages the daily practices of life are passed down the generations by memory, song, story and traditional authority: parents, grandparents, chiefs, esteemed elders and ancestors.
We often associate oral culture with ignorant superstitions and dangerous rites. But oral traditions are also very practical: they have shaped the tools and institutions people need to solve the problems of daily life. Oral practices shape how villagers find each other, buy and sell things, run their businesses, make public decisions and hold their leaders accountable. We can use them to our advantage in combating poverty and innumeracy: see OIM Solutions.
Oral culture is the heritage of their ancestors — and ours. Nanotechnology and Mars exploration would be unthinkable if we could not communicate through spoken language — an enduring legacy of oral culture. Many modern institutions – from parliaments and juries, to technical committees and ‘hand-shake’ contracts, reflect our continuing faith in oral practices.
Why Would They Doubt Us?
Nevertheless, the oral world often doubts literate culture. Socrates, whose world glowed with the early dawn of writing, launched a vociferous attack against it (contained in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus). Socrates accused the writers and rhetoricians of his time of debasing truth and cultivating public cynicism with their clever arguments: the product of individual guile rather than accountable and engaged discourse.
It is neither useful nor good to romanticize orality or support its perpetuation. But if we do not understand it, we will needlessly slow the transition of hundreds of millions of poor people into the modern world. The mistakes lamented by Socrates are still pervasive in the tools we give villagers to manage their financial accounts, and build organizations to address their needs — from cooperative marketing of their agricultural produce, to water-management groups and parent-teacher committees.
By lighting the path towards financial inclusion and safer village organizations, we can liberate millions of people into the true potential of modern life.