2005-01-03

I'm impressed by SunirShah's huge table on TextCulture and the stuff on HistoryOfAcademia.

Oral culture is a subject I'm very interested in, both because I think it has been a very important cultural force in the past, and because I believe that a big part of social skills still involve talking to people. The traditional print culture and the current internet culture seem to make oral skills unnecessary, but when you start working in a team, you'll note that writing mails and memos is not enough.

The term "oral culture" has a focus on epics, traditions passed from master to student, and all that. The skills involved in this are not really all too relevant today. But from oral culture to narrative structures – the how to explain things – is but a small step: How to make things believable, captivating, enthralling, mesmerizing, motivating, convincing, that remains important.

Furthermore, the entire cultural background of shared stories is huge pool of strong memes, and if we understand them better, if we can detect them better, if we know them better, then we can start to use them better. They can become tools to use in our daily lives. Not great tools, not epic tools, but small things. Rhetoric tools, motivational tools. When writing a web page, we can structure the text such as to appeal to the part of our neo-cortex that evolved together with oral culture.

Also note that oral culture is still very much alive within our present day society: Whenever you see a community with an honored master and humble students, where the old wisdom is sacred and has to be conserved as well as possible, you're seeing an example of oral culture. I've experienced this in martial arts, for example, and I've heard it about Persian classical music. The written word is sometimes not good enough when trying to explain "the quality without name" of things. How can you write down how it feels to move just right, to turn just right, to throw just right, or how to improvise just right? Trying to put it into words will make you a poet, and still your words can only be understood by those that have shared your experiences. Which is why we see elements of oral culture: Masters, old sayings, meeting with other masters to reinforce what you know, to learn new variations of the same, to pick up the memes.

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