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Explanatory notes on Content, Media and Language issues

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Explanatory notes on Content, Media and Language issues

By Tunde Adegbola and John Dada
The advent of the Information Society has facilitated an easier access to globalized knowledge. Unfortunately, the inequity in access is fast turning developing countries into dumping grounds for foreign ideas and values that may ‘undermine or overwhelm local cultural heritage and economic livelihoods’ (Ballantyne, 2002).
Some of the major indicators of access are to be found in the media, language and content. An inclusive information society must strive to provide locally relevant information in appropriate format. It should facilitate the sharing of ideas and knowledge between and within communities. This is where the crosscutting and mutually re-enforcing nature of these issues becomes more relevant: the medium must convey the content in the appropriate language.
The current imbalance of content, uni-directional information flow, and monopoly of language all work to the detriment of indigenous African languages, and they adversely affect cultural identity & expression, and Africa’s socio-economic development.
This session on ‘Content, media and language issues’ will explore how awareness and strategizing based on these issues can promote an inclusive access to the Information Society. The information society is the poorer for excluding sections of the Civil Society through restricted ownership and control, marginalization on the basis of language, gender, culture and religious beliefs. Individual and country-level experiences of participants will be useful in terms of determining how to promote the supply and demand for local content.
The roles of content and media in the information society
The human being is a social animal and for this reason human societies emerge in response to the need for interaction between people, primarily to derive synergy from cooperation. This interaction thrives on the free flow of facts, ideas, information, knowledge and beliefs. It is the packaging of these facts, ideas, information, knowledge and beliefs for the purposes of storage and presentation that we refer to as content.

Media provides means by which content is stored and transmitted. Before the advent of modern information communication technologies (ICTs), human memory, tablets, papyrus and paper were some of the media employed in the storage of content. Transmission was achieved by various means including word of mouth and the physical movement of tablets and paper. The creative use of moonlight story telling with children, the town crier, itinerant traditional theatre and the ‘talking drum’ in traditional African societies underscores the importance of media in communication between contemporaries and the transmission of cultural values between generations. Furthermore, the invention of the telephone and the development of the ‘plain old telephone service (POTS)’, the use of the phonogram record as well as the audio and video tapes to document human realities were major steps in fulfilling the fundamental need of people to communicate. Today, in the modern days of ‘pretty amazing new services (PANS)’ however, new ICTs have revolutionised the storage and transmission of content. Progressively larger volumes of content can now be packed into smaller spaces and can be transmitted to any part of the earth and even much of space, beyond our environment almost instantaneously. A lot of human interaction is now mediated by ICTs and so access modern ICT media has become an important issue in social inclusion.

Central to all human interaction however is language which it the fundamental means of communication between people. Based on a protocol of auditory, visual or tactile cues, language is the main ‘software’ medium of human communication, within which the totality of all human knowledge and collective experiences are codified.

The information society may be defined in various contexts but at the essential core of all these definitions is the role of new technologies in redefining the means, modes and pace of interaction between people and peoples. A tendency towards the information society may therefore be seen as a tendency towards the ideals of the human society in the sense that the information society is expected to enhance the efficient development and free flow of content.

The lack of access to media in the form of storage, processing and communication hardware has been identified as a serious incapacitation to Africans in their bid to participate in the information society. Valid as this might be, it must be noted however, that inability to engage many of these media hardware in many African languages still leaves yet another high hurdle to cross in Africa’s race towards the information society.

The complex interplay of content, media and language therefore presents to the information society a fundamental challenge. A tendency towards the information society may be viewed as a positive move towards idealised human interaction, but inability to control content due to inequity in access to media may turn out to ‘undermine or overwhelm local cultural heritage and economic livelihoods’ (Ballantyne 2002). The issues of control of content and equitable access to media therefore must be urgently addressed by the civil society through a process of participatory policy development.

Convergence of media in electronic systems

Digital technology is the main propellant of the ICTs that are at the core of the move towards the information society. One of the salient characters of digital technology is the uniformity in the nature of encoding, storage and transmission of content regardless of the form in which the content originates or is to be used. It is this salient character that enables content in the forms of text, speech, music, still images and motion pictures to be processed uniformly and stored on the same types of media as digital data. This has brought about a convergence of media in electronics systems at various levels. There is convergence in computing, telecommunications and various traditional content industries such as broadcasting and publishing.

Convergence encourages economy of scale, with the results that modern ICT media are cheap, interactive and reusable. This promotes easy aggregation of the critical mass of users needed to bring about the much talked about information revolution. Digital electronic media offer many other advantages over various traditional media. They can store and transmit information in various forms including text, photos, audio, video, animation and various combinations thereof. This has led to the concept of multimedia in which information can be presented to the user in various forms, on one medium at the same time. Furthermore, modern media offer a level of interactivity, which enables users to rearrange content in order to acquire different points of views and access new levels of information. For example, the compact disc (CD) a typical digital medium has become very popular for the storage and distribution of large volumes of text, music, still images and video. It is hardly surprising therefore that its successor is called the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD). Though of the same physical size as the CD, the DVD can accommodate more than twenty times the amount of digital data the CD can accommodate. This character of versatility is a major character of modern digital media and its capacity for promoting convergence.

Due to the economies of scale brought about by convergence, access to ICT has become essential for full participation in the society of the information age. As convergence continues to enhance the importance of information and its various media therefore, frameworks for equitable access to media must be developed otherwise, inequity in access will become a major exclusionary factor and the cost of the lack of access will continue to rise.

Linkages between electronic media and other information and communication systems
Long before the advent of hi-tech digital media, people communicated effectively by the use of word of mouth, and this they did creatively by storytelling. Writing introduced such media as stone and wood tablets, papyrus and later on paper. While writing presented a new and more effective means for documenting and communicating human thought and experiences it did not destroy the art of storytelling, rather it presented yet another medium by which stories could be told. The invention of audio and video recording as well as radio and television also provided similar impetus to traditional theatre and other forms of creative communication.

It may be said therefore that new media usually take their cues from traditional media. The above-mentioned changes were not too difficult to manage due to the relatively slow pace in the change in means, modes and media. However modern ICTs present a radically different demand due to the sheer rapidity in the changes they bring about. It is necessary therefore to make deliberate effort to assuage the effects of cultural alienation that may result due to the introduction of modern ICTs as the information society unfold.

There is a dire need for training to enable people use and appropriate new media technologies. Unfortunately these training needs seem to be poorly understood at present. The tendency is to view the required training as one that bestows work related skills, whereas the reality points to a need in the first instance to bestow basic skills for living in the information society. As the ‘e-mail’ replaces the ‘air-mail’, people will need to be computer literate not only to communicate facts with their bosses and colleagues at work but also emotions with their siblings and grandmothers at home.

As traditional media get subsumed in new media, we need to ensure continuity in content and media by effective blending of the traditional and the modern. The introduction of modern media due to contact with foreign technologies should not be misconstrued as a need to necessarily embrace foreign content. Cinema for example, is a very popular audio-visual medium with great capacity for cultural imperialism. The pictures from Hollywood constitute the main images of the USA in the perception of the average African and the Indian film industry has achieved a lot in promoting Indian values around the world. In Africa however, film production has been largely concentrated in francophone Africa due to the great support provided by the French for the cultural development of their former colonies. Unfortunately, these films seem to lack certain essentials for the African. For this reason, they have turned out to be more popular with audiences in international film festivals than with the Africans in African cinema theatres, even in Ouagadougou that may be regarded as Africa’s film capital. Of recent however, due to the relative ease in acquiring video production and post-production equipment, there has been a rise in the popularity of locally made home video production in some parts of West Africa. These productions, even though originating from largely amateur producers with little or no formal training in filmmaking, they present images and treat issues that address the fantasies of their African audiences. The audience therefore can easily relate to and understand these films. This is why these productions have been commercially successful in Ghana and Nigeria and have become very popular in many other parts of Africa. Unfortunately however, the didactic potentials of the medium for development have not been fully exploited. CSOs can take advantage of this wave of activities to disseminate development information by facilitating training that will not only provide filmmaking skills but will also bring pressing development issues to the attention of script writers and producers. In addition, CSOs’ funding of films that engage development issues will encourage production of films with relevant subjects.

Role of broadcasting (community, public, private)
Broadcasting can play a significant role in the information society. It does not require any technical modifications for it to be appropriated for local languages and other cultural factors. It is therefore an efficient means of addressing a large number of people at the same time.

By design however, broadcasting is not an interactive medium. The Yoruba word for radio asoromagbesi expresses this weakness succinctly. An asoromagbesi is a speaker that never entertains response. Communication is most effective when there is avenue for feedback yet traditional broadcasting does not ordinarily allow for feedback. It is on this need for feedback that phone-in and write-in programmes on radio and TV are based. More often than not, those who control the broadcast medium use their viewpoints to control and shape society, hence the need to democratise access to the broadcast media so that society can benefit form the diversity of opinions that abound. With inadequate capacity for feedback, broadcasting could be used a tool for subverting the people’s will. Military dictatorships in Africa have had a field day in using the broadcast medium in this way to satisfy their selfish ends.

However, a network of community radios as a medium of self-expression for small communities can play the role of a feedback medium. Traditionally in Africa, broadcasting was the soul preserve of governments but in the recent past, space for commercial interests in broadcasting has started opening up and civil society participation is beginning to be encouraged. In this scheme of things, the tripartite of government, commercial and civil society interests can be organised to enter into ‘dialogues’ via the broadcast medium thereby removing the one-way limitation of broadcasting and enriching society with a diversity of content. In order to achieve this, small communities should be empowered and facilitated to use community-based broadcasting as a feedback medium to complement commercial and public broadcasting.

Whose voice is heard in the information society?
Modern ICTs have the capacity to empower the disadvantaged to participate in decision processes that affect their lives, give them access to economic and social opportunities, and enable them to adequately deal with misfortunes and disasters. Having defined content as the packaging of ideas, data, facts, information, knowledge and beliefs for storage and communication, it stands to reason that even though some content may have universal applicability, others may apply peculiarly to specific peoples. There are specific contexts that produce relevant content for empowerment in certain circumstances. There is a need therefore to match foreign content by the expression and communication of local knowledge that is relevant to local situations. ICTs need to be conveyors of locally relevant messages and information that provide opportunities for local people to interact and communicate with each other, expressing their own ideas, knowledge and cultures in their own languages. In addition to cultural biases, content may sometimes require gender, generational and physical abilities considerations. Every segment of society must be able present and access content in the language they can understand.

From the above point of view therefore, the question ‘whose voice is heard in the information society’ may actually be a veiled way of asking the question ‘who has access to media in the information society’. History abounds with illustrations that access to media determines the voice that is heard in society. Democratisation of access to media is a major characteristic of open societies. A fundamental challenge of the information society therefore is how to ensure equity in access to media. It is in this spirit that the International Telecommunications (ITU) proposed the principle of universal access and obligations for access. “If the Net is where we will work in the future, then we need access to a cyberspace which has not been colonised by AOL or MSN. and 'Digital Rights'”.

African charter on broadcasting
The African charter on broadcasting is based on the felt needs for upholding freedom of expression and of the media, right to communicate and access to media, independence and pluralism in radio and television broadcasting. It also upholds the management of the frequency spectrum as a public resource and in public interest, removal of barriers to free, independent and pluralistic broadcasting and the rights to communicate through broadcasting in Africa as well as addressing the implication of broadcasting as the main source of public communication and information for most Africans.

The ICT regulatory environments in some African nations do not recognise community broadcasting as distinct from public service and commercial broadcasting. In such environments the same level of financial burden is place

For these reasons therefore, it is necessary to steer the regulatory mechanisms of African countries to take due account of these needs and take advantage of the African Charter on Broadcasting as a useful document that can be used to lay the foundation of policy formulation.

Development of content in local languages
Text is a very efficient mode for the storage and transmission of content and so literacy is an important factor in development. For this reason, peoples whose languages have not been reduced to writing tend to suffer certain disadvantages. Usually, a language is unwritten because its speakers live on the fringes of National life, in geographic, social and economic isolation and disadvantage. Unfortunately however, the fact that a language is unwritten further compounds its speakers’ problems due to the increased isolation it brings about.

Development of textual content is probably the most problematic for African languages. Recording of speech with modern ICT media does not require any specialised devices in order to accommodate African languages neither does the recording of visuals. However, to develop textual content, it is necessary to have certain specialised hardware and software complements. For example, there is a need for specialised keyboards and specialised fonts for textual manipulation of content in most African languages on the desktop computer.

In the same way that languages that are unwritten suffer in the present era, cultures whose languages cannot engage ICTs in the information era are bound to suffer even greater disadvantages. Used in the proper contexts however, ICTs can help to address some of the problems that arise from this deficiency. Language technologies such as speech synthesis and speech recognition can assuage the problems that accompany illiteracy. But if care is not taken, as more and more of human interaction gets carried out through the mediation of ICTs, languages that can not engage modern ICTs may be doomed for extinction and the cultures that they support may become endangered.

The UNESCO 1999 report on National Informatics Policies and Strategies recommends among other things the use of local languages (in informatics products), and that (Informatics) content should reflect culture. This, UNESCO argues will not only preserve and communicate local culture but will also encourage the use of ICTs. Audio-visual media such as radio and television are powerful means of documenting, communicating and preserving local cultures. Unlike text-based media, they do not require any modification to accommodate local languages. They should therefore be used as ready tools to express local content whiled solutions are being sought to the problems presented to local languages by text-based media.

Homogenised content producing a monoculture
Current trends in ICT development are bound to turn the Internet into a global information infrastructure and thereby the main infrastructure resource for education, information and entertainment. At the core of global informational capitalism however, is the comoditisation of information, resulting in international trade in cultural products and a promotion of global cultural industries. In such a situation, the principles of market forces can be expected to give advantage to ‘industry leaders’ while the ‘small business enterprises’ of the global culture industry may atrophy. If the commercial interests of the information society are not balanced with other equally valid interests such as environmental integrity and cultural diversity, we may end up with an information society in which the whole world will listen to the same news, read the same books, watch the same movies, play the same video-games and speak the same language! A monoculture based on homogenized content.

There are close to 7000 different languages in the world today, yet the internet is dominated by the English language, eighty percent of its content currently originates in the United States and less than three percent of it from the African continent. This Anglophone imperialism is but a mere precursor to what we are to expect should the logic of mere commercial profit is allowed to steer our drive to the information society. Manuel Castell has drawn attention to a concept we nay refer to as the dichotomy of physical and logical spaces. Colonisation was about physical spaces such as land, natural and mineral resources while globalisation is about logical spaces such as cultural resources. If any society becomes so incapacitated by lack of media access to the extent that they cannot own and contribute their cultural resources as globalisation unfolds, then globalisation is bound to manifest as another wave of colonisation.

Variety may be the spice of life but diversity is an essential ingredient of nature. It is the natural antidote to the adversities of inbreeding and a foundation for sustainability. Language as the soul of culture is an important aspect of human existence. It is the software complement of our physical environment and the essence of our social habitat. Hence there is a need to wrestle language and culture endangerment with the same fervour as specie endangerment and the degradation of our physical environment. The value in the protection of local languages goes far beyond mere linguistic patriotism.

Government as a trustee of the civil society must be constrained by the civil society to play this role creditably. Active participation in policy processes is a viable intervention of the civil society in governmental affairs. It is a responsibility that the civil society cannot afford to shy away from.

Case Study 1.
The Mainframe Foundation
The Mainframe foundation employs digital cinematography to achieve attitudinal change by the production and screening of documentaries, short films and feature films based on traditional Nigerian cultural values. Digital cinematography has been used as a means of reducing production costs associated with traditional filmmaking and distribution in the celluloid medium. These films have been screened in urban and rural Nigeria and the Republic of Benin using mobile cinema units consisting of a combi bus, a digital projector, a DVD player, a sound reinforcement/public address system and a portable electricity generator.
The mobile cinema project of mainframe foundation in the last 12 months has been involved in screening the Zimbabwean film ‘Yellow Card’ in various secondary schools in the Lagos State of Nigeria. ‘Yellow Card’ addresses the issue of teenage sexuality and the attendant problems of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. The screenings which were embarked upon with financial support from the Lagos State Government of Nigeria has confronted close to 100,000 young people with the reality of HIV/AIDS and the distractive effects of teenage pregnancy. The UNICEF country office in Nigeria is at present in negotiations with Mainframe foundation to expand the screenings to other parts of Nigeria.
Also of significance is the screening of the films ‘Saworoide’ and ‘Agogo Eewo’ two Yoruba films (though subtitled in English) that address issues of governance and conflict resolution. Mainframe foundation has been screening these films as component of civic education towards the forth-coming general elections in largely in the rural areas where lack of electricity makes television impossible.
Case Study 2
African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I)
African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I) aims at appropriating modern ICTs for use in African Languages. This is achieved through both advocacy and service delivery.
Through its advocacy programmes, Alt-I is involved in awareness building African in universities and research centres of the need to engage in relevant research in Human Language Technologies (HLT) with emphasis on African languages. It is also involved in developing research capacity in HLT among African academics and researchers. Aware of the multidisciplinary demands of HLT, Alt-I has been assisting African universities in building bridges between various relevant departments in curricular review and development of multidisciplinary programmes of study.
In service delivery, Alt-I has developed an efficient computer keyboard layout for the production of textual content in Yoruba (a major African language spoken in south west Nigeria, south east Republic of Benin and some other parts of West African and the diaspora). Work is also being done towards standardisation of the mapping structure of the full Yoruba character set. In addition, Alt-I has also developed a Yoruba text-to speech software with which a common multimedia personal computer can read out Yoruba texts typed in standard orthography intelligibly.
Future projects on the Alt-I programme include speech recognition of Yoruba utterances, machine translation of Yoruba into English and vice-versa as well as natural language understanding of Yoruba statements.
It is the hope of Alt-I that availability of a text-to-speech and speech-to-text system for Yoruba will not only force a redefinition of the term illiteracy but will also make the computer available to many differently-abled Yoruba speakers

Role Play 1

Relevance of media content for women
The following are the headlines for a regional radio program. Prepare flash cards with the following messages, and distribute to each member of the group. Each person should call out the message on their card and describe to the group what (s)he thinks will be the typical reaction of women in rural Uganda to the Call Out.

  • There is a micro finance service for purchase of fertilizer at the Rural Cooperative Stores

  • World Cup finals for wrestling will be in Bamako next week

  • A new variety of cassava tubers resistant to the mosaic disease we be available to interested farmers at the Ministry of Agriculture

  • A new radio program presented exclusively in Hausa language will be presented by Salamatu next week Monday from 3.00 – 4.00pm. The program will discuss the recent fuel price increase, a new health clinic for the Tafan community, and the polio vaccination program

Role Play 2

Relevant ICT for communication:
Loud speakers, Town crier, Cow Horn, Word of mouth Radio BayanLoco consists of six loudspeakers strung on poles and distributed throughout the village. It is used by the village head to make announcements and summon community meetings. Make cone-shaped cardboards and place them strategically round the classroom. Participants should discuss the merits, engineering problems, cost-effectiveness of this ‘radio’, and the other forms of technology mentioned above
Prompts and Probes for the session

  • Participants to come prepared with facts and figures of on-going local, national, sub-regional initiatives relevant to the issues of this session.

  • Development of a low tech template for Broadcasting that can be made available to community media practitioners in Africa, Case Study 1: The Mainframe Foundation

  • Legislation for establishment and recognition of community radios,

  • Re-packaging of content on CD ROMS – what opportunities for documenting local content and languages?

  • Development of human language technologies (such as voice-enabled technologies for differently-abled people, braille key board in African languages)

  • Potentials of Radio for addressing these issues (infrastructure, skills, African Charter on radio broadcasting, Community Radios, Statutory regulations, Radio Forums – national sub-regional, Best practices, Resource Sharing, etc) . Case Study 2: African Languages Technology Initiative

  • Examine the roles of Civil Society

  • Determine the place of multilingualism in information technology – keyboards in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Urdu, ?Hausa, ?Yoruba. What are the opportunities for Africa’s myriad languages? Case study : African languages Technology Initiative

  • Discuss what investment and funding strategies can be put in place for content creation and democratization of access for marginalized people and communities

  • Media

What are the traditional media experienced by participants? E.g. rote learning of voluminous verses, town criers, moonlight story telling, praise names (oriki), griots and traditional theatre.

What modern ICTs have participants experienced?

In what ways have these modern ICT media affected traditional media?

What advantages and disadvantages attend the use of modern ICTs in participants’ experiences?

How can traditional and modern media be blended in order to take advantage of their relative strengths?

  • Broadcasting

What avenues of feedback are available to recipients of a broadcast?

How can these avenues be expanded and organised by CSOs – radio listening clubs; e.g. Women Farmers Advancement Network, Community Radio projects – e.g. AMARC

How can we appropriate radio, television, cinema etc as means of transmitting vital social values?

Can these media provide alternatives to such traditional media as moonlight stories telling in urban centres where children are less likely to have access to such ‘luxuries’?

  • Local Languages

Can the common desktop computer produce text in the languages of participants in standard orthography?

To what extent?

What are the compromises in using the PC to produce text in these languages?

What are the general responses to this state of affairs?

What are the coping strategies? For Example, in Yoruba the absence of sub-dots and tone marks renders words ambiguous
How can we use ICTs to address the problem of language endangerment, particularly endangerment due to current trends in ICT developments?

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