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The month of September and the start of spring remains a period for renewal in many senses. A new season in the cycle of nature. Heritage Month presents a revived sense of cultural pride as well as an opportunity to reflect and think about many people’s perspectives about their lives.
Talk around culture in corporate circles has become synonymous with creating uniformity and process in working environments between individuals of different personal backgrounds, skillsets, ambitions and cognitive competencies. A sense of ‘community’ is relevant in social as well as professional settings. Communities possess degrees of knowledge and historic treasure that must be passed forward and engrained in the storytelling narratives. Likewise, in corporate organisations, the working culture and diverse recognition of culture, creed and orientation holds strong.
In understanding and recognising the changes and transformation that digitalization has brought to the realm of cultural heritage in Africa, we must start by delving into what the defining and application of heritage is. Is it the ways of doing and being of a particular people or locale; handed down by posterity? Is it a trans-generational knowledge engendered on a sense of pride?
Once alignment on heritage is done, the second component to unravel is culture. What is culture? The established norms within a group of people, manifested as ideals, customs and socially acceptable norms.
So, if people have been going about their ways since the beginning of time, guided by heritage and cultural norms, how then does the evolution of technology and digitization transform and enhance their lives?
The deepest part of cultural heritage speaks to the very values of the people passed on over time. Historic archives have numerous use cases on this. A common thread on this narrative remains the need to preserve, project and propagate the very essence of a people.
Our own Wale Odeyemi, Executive Head of Strategic Marketing at Vodacom Business Africa, defines this culmination perfectly. “In this new digital age, herein lies the gap that digitalization is filling. While acting as the bridge between the past, the present and the future, the present capabilities are the bridge that has made the easy migration of such values, ideals, designs, cultures to osmosis across borders limitlessly. While a significant part of cultural heritage can easily get lost over time, digitalization is helping to preserve these. A bridge between the competing or complimentary push-pull forces.”
A new digital era
There are many aspects of cultural heritage in Africa that are getting lost or diluted over time. As the world gradually converged into a global village, bowing to pressures of globalization, how do we balance the need for preservation of critical elements of local culture? Various generations view and adapt to these pressures differently. Even in the context of a multinational business, where the key objective is to internationalize the brand and its value propositions into foreign markets. The prospect of future growth, sustainability and opportunities, by appropriating strategic capabilities and advantages it possesses for said organisations still requires it to adapt or localize its products and services from its native form, into variants that the local target market can relate to. Balancing the competing pressures of localization with that of centralization from the multinational’s cost optimized centres of excellence often determines the output price of said market propositions.
The same analogy can be applied to cultural heritage’s preservation in the new age with varied applications, languages, slangs, dialects from foreign nations in the form of art, music, cinematography etc., which are adaptable to local languages and vice-versa. In digital technologies:
The internet, Social media, Content platforms,
Mixed Realities (MR/AR/VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and
Machine Learning (ML) are leveraged by African’s living or traversing the diaspora. These technologies are utilised at present to position, preserve and experience their cultural heritages through specific interest groups, communities or even on e-commerce platforms.
Similarly, voice recognition and local language translations are now a core part of many platforms and applications like Wikipedia, Google Search/Ads and Siri. It is no longer sufficient for a text to speech recognition software application to translate without incorporating the local dialect and nation.
The next interesting wave of transformation we are witnessing is where digitalization itself is an intrinsic part of culture. The mobile phone in particular in Africa is becoming the ubiquitous form of social technology, adopted by all generations. While smartphone adoption rates are still low, more so in rural and suburban areas, the traditional 2G/3G feature phones are utilised extensively. Many African cultures value the art of gift giving; it is not uncommon to celebrate a loved one with a mobile phone as a gift. The etiquette of acceptable language, while using digital and social communications are adopted easier among many cultures, while still preserving and adapting esteemed values such as respect.
This Heritage Day, Africans at home and in diaspora are celebrating their cultures. Pictures, video clips, citations, media and history are generated and cross-shared on several digital platforms and technologies. Any celebration today without visual documentation for social media or family WhatsApp groups could very well feel like it did not happen at all. Digitalization provides a route for communities to transform celebration, communication and collaboration. We can still dress up in our traditional attires, we can still recite our national anthems, we can still eulogize our past heroes, and we can still cook our favourite meals and practice our traditions to refresh the present generation of our heritage. The key differentiator now is that we can do it across borders and maintain social distancing regulatory boundaries.
Culture in and of itself speaks of “acceptable norms”. By the time, the COVID-19 health pandemic is curbed and our next normal is in full swing, the true, crucial extent of technology and digitalization to our lives will be evident. Technology and digital enablement of communities will enhance the realm of cultural heritage in Africa and our ways of being and working. There is an African adage, which states: “Until the Lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the Hunter”. With digitalization, we can indeed transform the way Africa’s cultural heritage is celebrated and how our stories are told.
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