Language and Culture Documentation vs. Cultural Digital Natives

I feel that in the language and culture documentation community that there is a tension between “documenting” and “globalizing”. In the sense that what we as digital natives and cultural technologists think is “living” is in part “documenting”.

Now, in some sense “Language Documentation” is an academic pursuit of its own right independent of linguistics if it has a plan and tries to capture elements of the expression of the culture and language as it is spoken or acted out. I think there is a bit of confusion in the literature as linguists move from linguistics to language development and community development. This is particularly evident with the use of video in language documentation. Granted, there is a great deal of variance in the use of video for language documentation. But add to the language documentation movement’s zeal, a dose of empowerment ideology and we come up with what seems like “let’s give everyone in the town/village a voice recorder and a video camera and tell them to document their language and culture how they want to”. So, I wonder is that really any different than what digital natives are doing in cultures where there is a high degree of digital penetration? Is this really language documentation or is this really evangelism of a global digital culture?

I think the following video, Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody) by College Humor (text reproduced below), points out how “language and culture documentation” is already occurring in cultures where there is a high degree of digital object penetration.

Where there is a high degree of digital object penetration the digital objects are bound to change the culture and the cultural diversity at a global scale… (If everyone in the world has an iPhone then… there is some commonality in user experience and in connecting with that object.) So, in a sense the introduction of the digital element does change the culture; not that cultures have not been changed throughout history by inventions, but with inventions come attitudes and behavioral responses to those inventions.

So, give someone in a community a video camera and a YouTube account and you might get something like the following video. But that does not mean that it is language and culture documentation - or does it?

Lyrics from Look at this Instagram

Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody) Written by Dan Gurewitch & Owen Parsons GUY: Look at this Instagram Eggs benedict, side of ham (flipping to a new photo) Started out as a lemon tart Then my phone went and made it art

GIRL: (photo of her intricately-painted fingernails) And these are my fingernails The beauty is in the details (photo of girl holding cocktail; also pushing boobs together with close arms) Drinkin mai-tais on a cruise Just a coincidence it’s also boobs

GUY (photo of own feet while lying on the beach) Everyone look at my feet Get jealous that I’m at the beach You prob’ly knew I was going there You saw my plane’s wing in the air (photo of plane’s wing from inside the plane)

GIRL (photo of tall skyscrapers from the ground) Are you bored of city lights? Try seein’ ‘em in black and white (same photo in black and white) Puttin’ glasses on a cat I’m the first one to think of that!

Oh, oh, oh… He thinks he’s people

CHORUS (GUY & GIRL): Every time I take a photo of an old door, Every sign out in front of an abandoned store It’s such a thrill to add a filter Lo-fi, lo-fi

Every time a thing reminds me of a penis (photo of a phallic object) Every fortune cookie fortune that I’ve ever seen is on my feed, it’s guaranteed with five likes, five likes

GUY Look at this coffee foam Now look at this pretentious tome (photo of the cover of Infinite Jest) Now look at this garden gnome I’m friggin’ Michaelangelo!

GIRL Fireworks in the sky A super close-up of my eye Now a selfie, lookin’ cute In the same room where I poop (photo: the classic bathroom mirror self-shot)

GUY Sometimes I just wanna browse A hundred thousand pics of clouds (distracted by a nearby waddling duck, he chases it, holding his phone out) Hang on, I need to get this duck Hold still, goddamn it, f**k!

Oh, oh, no It’s all blurry

CHORUS 2 (GUY & GIRL): No you haven’t really ever seen a setting sun ‘Til you’ve seen it on the screen where you play Temple Run I’m so hell-bent on documentin’ Peach pie, peach pie

Think it’s bad now, wait until I’m 33 So many pictures of my kids you’ll want to murder me (fumbling with the camera while his child walks in background) Missed their first steps ‘cause I’m obsessed with Red-eye, red-eye!

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Hugh Paterson III
Hugh Paterson III
Collaborative Scholar

I specialize in bespoke research at the intersection of Linguistics, Law, Languages, and Technology; specifically utility and life-cycle management for information products in these spaces.