The tyranny of the written word

Digital technologies have the potential to annihilate the rich sources of oral history. It is time we stopped looking at infotech with rose-tinted glasses


R Swaminathan | November 18, 2011

Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

Every word is deeply marinated in history. Peel it and you will uncover a spell-binding story. Emden is a city in Germany best known for Volkswagen’s factory producing its high-end car Passat. Emden is as German as Bavarian sausages Weisswurst. But when you hear many a grandmother in Tamil Nadu warn prospective victims about their particularly destructive grandchild saying “Paar Emden waran (Look out Emden is coming),” the word appears to be as Tamil as Thiruvalluvar. Tamil is like the old-world discreet European banks. It doesn’t borrow nor does it lend easily. The few words that it has grudgingly picked up are from Sanskrit. It prides itself as one of the world’s oldest surviving classical languages. So for a German word to become an integral part of Tamil lexicon something spectacular must have happened. And it did.

SMS Emden was a light cruiser of the German Imperial Navy in World War I (1914-18) tasked with taking down Allied commercial and military ships in the Indian Ocean. Even on good days Madras – Chennai as it is now called – pulls down its shutters early. Ninety-seven years back, with no 24/7 television or always-on internet, the city would drift off to sleep even earlier. One balmy night on September 22, 1914 when the city was fast asleep, SMS Emden sneaked into the city’s harbour at precisely 9.30 pm and rained its bombs on several large oil tankers of Burmah Oil Company. Within minutes the blazing harbour roused the sleeping city from its slumber. Five naval sailors were killed, 26 crew members of the oil tankers were injured. At 10 pm, after about 125 shells had been lobbed, SMS Emden quietly slipped away. Just as silently, Emden slipped in into the Tamil lexicon. You will not find this story on the Internet. Not on Facebook nor Twitter or Wikipedia. Not even in Google. Yet this is a true story, as much a part of history as the ones about Ashoka the Great that you read in your school books.  It is now confined to only those who have heard it from their grandparents.

Word of the mouth stories weave a rich and varied tapestry of life that is curiously as lasting as it is ephemeral. Oral history is such that for every story that gets passed on from one generation to another, there are ten others that fade into oblivion. That’s the nature of the beast. It is after all competing with histories that are written down, documented and preserved for posterity in a variety of ways. One needs means to get histories documented, structured, written down, published, distributed and circulated. The complex dynamics of socio-cultural power is such that only certain groups have access to tools, techniques and the methodology of structuring their stories into documented histories. Documented histories also jostle and compete for space with each. Some of it is healthy and some of it is ham-handed and diabolical. If the attempt to muzzle AK Ramanujam’s Three Hundred Ramayanas by Delhi University reeked of brute muscle power, the efforts made to undermine Dr Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya – a version of the Mahabharata from Karna’s perspective – in Maharashtra by a conglomeration of right-wing forces has been downright diabolical. An entire generation of Marathi manoos has grown up without even seeing the cover of the book.

In a world obsessed with quantifiable data, MoUs and promissory notes, the written word has appropriated the academic sanctity and credibility from the spoken word. History has also become another product in a marketplace. It requires a visible form. Written histories compete with each other, almost like how a packet of glucose biscuits competes with cream biscuits in a mall shelf. Oral history has no such structured form. Its form is in its collective imagination. Sometimes this imagination is represented through acts of folk theatre and art. Oral history is constantly mutating, transforming and adjusting to new social realities. In a sense, then, oral history cannot have a singular form. There will always be multiple forms of the same story. It’s this undocumented diversity that has been its strength as well as its weakness. Zulus of South Africa explain this complex dynamics of social power the best with their simple saying – Until the lions have their historians, history will always be written by the hunters.

Written histories and oral histories have been in competition ever since the invention of the modern printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, with written histories getting stronger with each advance in technology. Despite the muscle, power and reach of the written word, oral histories have held their own till now. It’s been a familiar and comfortable narrative for over 570 years. But three emerging digital trends are poised to change this narrative forever. Together, they pose a fatal threat to oral histories like none before.

The first trend has been a push towards digitisation of books. One hundred and twenty nine million books have been published since the advent of the modern printing press. Collectively they represent knowledge in a codified form. Google and Harvard in a joint project have already digitised 15 million books across English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Hebrew languages. More is on the way. They have already sorted out these 15 million books and, after accounting for replications and repetitions, have chosen 5 million books. Currently only the keywords, 500 million of them, are available in the public domain at One can compare the keywords from 1800 to 2000 to see how social trends have evolved. It’s only a matter of time when the books themselves are available in the public domain. This is the future.

Over 5 billion people, of the planet’s 8 billion, have access to mobile phone devices. Mobile phones are transforming themselves into multi-utility wireless access devices capable of handling different forms and formats of content, information and transaction. For the first time in history, the medium is largely independent of the message. The form and format of the written word and the visual limitations of image and moving pictures meant that repositories of the written word like books, journals and newspapers and repositories of moving images like films and television necessarily had to keep the medium wedded to the message. Digital technologies have brought about a relative autonomy between the two. In doing so, it has resulted in economies of scale for businesses, shattered geographical boundaries, made accessibility of knowledge cheaper and democratic and has led to an information revolution. But it has also amplified and accentuated the domination enjoyed by the written word. In this world, histories, more than ever, will need to be documented in a structured and formal manner if at all they are to be relevant. In literally forcing oral histories to turn written, the rich, varied and colourful cultural tapestry that one calls life will be lost.

The second trend has been an exponential growth in computing power. More or less everyone is aware of it. But very few understand the extent of this growth. Computer technology is progressing more each hour than it did in its entire first 90 years. So much so that it is estimated that by 2015 it will surpass the brain power of a mouse. Now, hold your breath. It will surpass the brain power of a human being in 2023 and entire brain power of the human race by 2045. It’s this extent of growth that one needs to understand. There are a few people like American technologist Raymond Kurzweil and English biologist Aubrey de Grey who insist that human evolution will end in 2045 and we will integrate ourselves with the internet through an embedded chip in our brains creating a new race of super-intelligent androids who can continue to live forever in a virtual form. It might sound a little far-fetched now, but then iPod 20 years back would have sounded like a piece of Steven Spielberg science fiction. Integration with the internet is already happening. Our information, transaction and knowledge needs are increasingly fulfilled by the World Wide Web. We may or may not become androids. But we will surely be moulded by whatever is available in a documented form on the internet. Oral histories and their numerous fables and stories will not find a place in this new world.

The third trend has been the use of algorithms, which have started shaping our lives more than we care to know or acknowledge. This trend is most advanced in the financial services space. Believe it or not, there are over 2,000 physicists working in the Wall Street who write pieces of mathematical codes that do automatic trading of huge amounts of stocks. Not many know about it, but today over 70 percent of the trading in Wall Street is done by piece of codes – algorithms. So effectively you have got a large portion of the stock market which is on auto-pilot. No one knows, including owners, board members and shareholders of companies, what will be sold or bought at what time or at what price. On May 6, 2010, Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged about 1,000 points — or about nine percent — only to recover those losses within minutes. No one till today knows exactly what had happened. It’s called the Flash Crash of 2.45. Algorithms are acquiring artificial intelligence. They are also used by search engine giants, social networking sites, e-commerce portals to shadow every move of yours (More on this in a later column). 

This unique combination of digitisation and wireless access devices, exponential growth of computer power and the increasing use of algorithms will sound the death knell for oral histories. The stories that were part of life, and become life itself as time went along, are in the danger of being lost forever.

By and large digital technologies are empowering. They are relatively autonomous and independent sources of information and have tremendous potential in establishing transparent processes of governance. They have applications in different fields, from education, health and financial services to entertainment and aeronautics. The importance and the future of digital technology cannot be disputed.

But digital technologies also have a darker and seamier side. They have the potential to unwittingly aid the systematic genocide of diverse socio-cultural viewpoints. They can and do accentuate socio-cultural divides and often help and aid groups and forces that are in a better position to consolidate their hold on socio-cultural discourse. It’s time we start shining the light on the darker and seamier side of digital technologies. It’s for us to take control of the technologies before they take control of our life. If they do, then it’s no longer ours to call.



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