Orality & the knowledge society

Here we introduce initiatives which contribute to knowledge production and transfer in oral cultures and promote the inclusion of African societies in the global knowledge society.

“Our knowledge management has changed” – an interview with Hans-Christoph Hobohm

Hans-Christoph Hobohm, Photo: private Never before have we communicated so much as today. Have smart phones and social networks really defined a new kind of speaking? Are we experiencing a “comeback of orality”? An interview with Hans-Christoph Hobohm, Professor of Library Science at the University of Applied Science Potsdam.

Mr Hobohm, as an information scientist who deals with the archiving of knowledge, have you observed a comeback of oral forms of communication? What exactly is meant by this?

The interesting thing about digitalization, that is, the “disembodiment” of information, is that it allows us to come into direct contact again with our communication partners – although for a long time the opposite was thought. In the case of e-mail we could observe very early how the style of writing noticeably changed in a direction we’re familiar with from direct interaction during an actual encounter. Technology has now given us the opportunity to talk face to face with each another on, for example, Skype or YouTube, and to convey all the elements of non-verbal communication such as facial expression, voice and gestures.

Though the use of the new media, especially mobile devices like smart phones and tablets, is still text-based.

That’s right. The generation of digital natives no longer use their phones for making calls but rather above all for writing text messages. But I don’t see any real contradiction here. “Comeback of orality” doesn’t mean that we suddenly stop writing. It’s only the way we write that has begun to change. And so too, and this is perhaps even more important, the significance of the so-called book culture as a technique for grasping the world.

Entry into a “next society”

You’ll have to explain that.

We live in a time of fundamental media upheaval. The way we store and share information, our knowledge management, is about to change greatly. The Swiss sociologist Dirk Baecker already described this beautifully many years ago as the entry into a “next society”. Early human history was entirely shaped by oral communication, which was superseded by writing in antiquity, and then in modernity finally by the more complex medium of the codex and the book. Today we’ve realized that all these media can be combined in a most productive way, that we can use elements of oral communication to store and share knowledge more intelligently.

How does this process express itself in concrete terms?

You can see it, for example, in how libraries are changing as sites of knowledge archiving. Only recently has law required the German National Library to archive non-physical, that is, digital media. The American Library of Congress has made it its task to collect all text messages sent by U.S. citizens through the short message service Twitter so as to have a picture of something like a modern narrative of an entire society.

Because you just mentioned “narrative” – what role does so-called “story-telling” play in this new form of archiving and knowledge management?

In the area of management exactly that’s the big hype – in my opinion, quite with some justification. The idea of presenting complex relationships in the form of a story, a narrative, touches on one of the key concepts of modern information science: the distinction between information and knowledge. Mere facts are relatively useless unless they are embedded in a narrative, which conveys not only explicit but also implicit knowledge.

And this happens in the telling of stories?

Exactly. The meaning reveals itself without really having to be explicitly nameable. Just think of how many times you’ve begun a personal conversation with some irrelevant remarks. But that’s quite important in order to integrate the content you’ll then present in a meaningful overall context.

Risks of digitalization

To what extent can new technology help us to develop this implicit knowledge?

Basically, this is always about trying to capture the “non-material cultural heritage” of a society, whether it is the stream of short messages on Twitter, reports of contemporary witnesses or the rituals of a small ethnic group. And since our recording devices are becoming more powerful and easier to handle, I’m very hopeful that we’ll make great progress here in the area of archiving. But digitalization can also be risky.

What do you mean?

To begin with, it’s always dangerous to trust technology too much. After the Navajo Indians documented their orally transmitted culture on videos in the 1980s, they discovered ten years later that the tapes were no longer readable. We information scientists call this the problem of long-term digital archiving.

But many countries, especially in Africa, have high hopes of the new possibilities of digital documenting.

And quite rightly too. On the other hand, we should always be aware that digital recording alone isn’t enough. We’ll also always need people who can describe what is seen in the images. As we’re often dealing with very heterogeneous ethnic groups, exactly such experts are often lacking. And there’s then the danger that, in the end, we’ll be standing before a huge database of video information in which we can’t find anything.

Klaus Lüber is a cultural and media scholar and works as a freelance author for “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Die Zeit” and “Die Welt”.

Visit us at Goethe-Institut Johannesburg