Digital Authority

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Image by Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s something that’s been blowing my mind for a while:

In the paper age, written communication provided an authoritative record.  Text, once recorded, did not change.  It could be consulted multiple times, and more importantly for scholarly work, it could be cited.  Written communication provided a paper-trail for researchers; it allowed the development of knowledge to be traced and codified.  Ideas could be communicated asynchronously and without the presence of the author. However, written communication was received “as is.”  If the reader had a question, the author may not have been present to clarify. 

Oral communication, on the other hand, allowed for immediate clarification.  It was only when the recipient received information from a second or third hand source that the message’s twisting trail became apparent.  In the game Telephone, a message passes from one person to the next, often emerging totally transformed at the end of the journey.  Orally transmitted knowledge is the stuff of myth and rumor, and there is often no accountability for the source.  Both oral and written communication had advantages.

Today the qualities of written and oral communication are converging.  As we go paperless, we can more easily edit our written trail, be it a document, blog, or web page.  Crowd-editing and anonymous contribution challenges the authoritative nature of written communication. Written communication is more frequently synchronous through the use of Instant Messaging or productivity tools such as Google Docs.  Written communication literally becomes oral communication through the use of text-to-speech software. Audio recording, on the other hand, makes ephemeral oral communication indelible.  Stirring speeches and slips of the tongue can be immortalized for future generations.  The words and identity of the speaker can be locked in, and communicated without a garbling intermediary.

What does this do to our idea of authority? Can’t traceable, tangible oral communication now be used for scholarly work? Could I speak a paper rather than write a paper?

The film People are Knowledge presents some ways that oral clips could be used to fulfill Wikipedia’s citation requirements. It explores the intersection of Western scholarship with more oral cultures, making some great points about authority, knowledge and digital or written intermediaries. Fascinating stuff!

People are Knowledge (subtitled) from Achal R. Prabhala on Vimeo.


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