D-Lib Magazine
March 2002

Volume 8 Number 3

ISSN 1082-9873

Digital Division is Cultural Exclusion. But Is Digital Inclusion Cultural Inclusion?


Karen Worcman
Founder and Director, Museum of the Person

Red Line



The Internet and digital technology create new possibilities for the development of cultures, education, communities and knowledge. In the summer of 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported a meeting, "Digital Collectives in Indigenous Cultures and Communities", held in Hilo, Hawaii, that brought together people from different backgrounds to discuss the way digital technology might be used so that the cultures of communities in general, and indigenous communities in particular, would be preserved and public perception of these communities improved. In this article, I intend to examine some of issues surrounding digitization of cultural resources and to call attention to certain points that need to be considered when preparing collaborations that will result in projects that effectively serve as forms of social and digital inclusion.


When Maurita Holland invited me to participate in the NSF-supported meeting in Hilo — "Digital Collectives in Indigenous Cultures and Communities" — it seemed to me to be one of those magical moments of life. Apart from the meeting being held in Hawaii — an extraordinary place — the chance to be a participant of an interdisciplinary and transcultural group discussing the way in which technology can be applied to benefit communities in general, and indigenous communities in particular, was the synthesis of work I have been doing over the last 10 years.

I am an historian and Director of the Museau da Pessoa (Museum of the Person) [Museum], a virtual museum. The museum aims to preserve, integrate and transform into information life stories of any and every person in society as well as to promote social change by reinforcing individual and community identity and self-esteem. Founded in Sao Paulo in 1991, the Museum of the Person holds approximately 6,000 life stories and more than 5,000 digital photographs collected during projects, in recording studios set up in public places, or sent to the museum via the Internet. Since it was founded, the Museum of the Person has aimed to create a virtual network of life stories as a way to democratize History.

Museum of the Person projects have repeatedly proven the strong social impact of preserving the histories of anonymous persons and fragmented groups. I cite as an example the completed project entitled "The history of professions in extinction" that took place between 1997 and 1999 [CUT-Central Unica dos Trabalhadores Project]. The book resulting from the project recorded the stories of Brazilian workers and provided a new resource for the study of Brazilian national history. Workers used the book as part of an education program organized by the workers union, and it inspired two other publications authored by the workers themselves. The social impact is revealed in the words of a worker during the launch of one of the books: "I never imagined that the stories of our lives would be the theme of a book, nor that the task of writing it would be ours; this will leave a mark on our lives and also on the history of the formation of the working-class in Brazil."

Participants in the Hilo meeting considered the innumerable forms of collaboration possible between individuals and institutions that were present at the meeting. Participants debated many issues, but there was one common aspect in all these debates: the desire to identify the way in which the process of creating a digital archive of cultural and historical output of indigenous communities could also become an instrument to strengthen, not only indigenous communities, but other types of communities that have also been, up to now, excluded from official History.

My objective in this article is to focus on how the creation of collaborative programs might result in projects that communities can use as tools of social development rather than projects serving only the academic community.

To this end, it is important to analyze the extent to which digital technologies and the Internet can be instruments of social and cultural inclusion and, more precisely, how the use of these technologies can be linked to the preservation of the history of a particular cultural group.

Digital Technology and Social Inclusion

Undeniably, the availability and proliferation of digital technology signifies a huge global transformation. The use of this technology in the field of History opens a broad range of possibilities that, I believe, can and will be greatly explored in the future. Initially, improvements in information storage and retrieval technologies have motivated initiatives to "transport" to the digital world great library collections in order to save the "treasure" of our past and present knowledge, and avoid the nightmare of the library of Alexandria.[Alexandria]

The Internet has brought great changes to the processes of information creation and information access. It has led to the creation of digital archives and digital libraries housing information that can be widely disseminated.

The existence of digital technology enables individual users to become producers of information themselves (in a traditional library, there is a clear division between those who produce the knowledge—authors, editors, etc.—and those who use it.) The resulting transformation of information creation and access is reformulating the very concept of knowledge. Previously there was always a mechanism that validated for us what was considered to be knowledge. As Umberto Eco put it, "Until the present, society filtered information for us by means of manuals and encyclopedias" [Eco page 189]. Digital technology and the Internet have challenged assumptions of what constitutes knowledge. Today, a 14-year-old child is just as capable as a university professor of creating a web page about the history of the North American Civil War, but how can the information on that web page be validated as knowledge? The new possibilities provided by the Internet generate what Eco calls "the present crisis of history" [Eco, page 190], because today the process of filtering information to find knowledge has become much more complex. "With the web, all wisdom, all information possible, even the least pertinent, is there at our disposal. We have amplified our capacity to record information, but we have not yet discovered a new parameter of filtration."

Preparing new generations to discriminate one piece of information from another on the web constitutes a new challenge. On the other hand, the Internet has greatly diffused the "power", perviously so concentrated, to "create" what is officially recognized as knowledge. It has opened up new channels of communication and participation. When we think about potential applications of digital technology and the Internet, we should seek and evaluate the opportunities for promoting digital and cultural inclusion of communities in socially marginalized communities.

When planning projects to create digital archives of the knowledge held by indigenous communities with oral traditions, it is important to consider the way in which the creation of these collections assists the process of strengthening the identities of the communities. Will digitizing the culture or history of these collective entities in fact include the communities in the process of formation and diffusion of their knowledge? Or will the digitization process simply reproduce the western conception of storing in "museums and libraries" what those in the west deem to have cultural value? Does the mere act of digitizing artifacts and recording narratives of oral traditions contribute to reinforcing the self-esteem of the group whose cultural knowledge is being digitized? It is undeniable that when the oral traditions of a community without a written language are recorded, that community's history will be preserved. But preserved for whom? How can repeating the colonialization and appropriation of a group's culture, such as that which occurred previously with physical resources, be avoided when its knowledge is being recorded for the virtual world?

Of all the things the Internet can help accomplish, it is necessary to determine which is the most essential. In my opinion, democratizing the production and diffusion of information should be the most important goal. Inasmuch as the members of communities acquire digital technology, they themselves can also become producers and keepers of their own history, integrating it or not with the social history of other communities. It is in this sense that socially excluded communities (indigenous and others) can use digital technology and the Internet as forms of social and cultural inclusion.

History and Collective Memory

Projects involving digitization of history and collective memory have the potential to spur innumerable social and cultural transformations. The first great transformation would certainly be the re-evaluation of what today is socially established as "History".

It is important to distinguish what is meant by Memory and History. Individuals are their memories. As Sacks says, "Can you even imagine memory's absence? If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye, but if he has lost a self — himself—he is no longer there to know it" [Sacks]. Memory is, par excellence, selective. Individuals retain that which, for one reason or another, has had significance or meaning in their lives. History is the organization and translation for others what individuals filter through their memories.

Just as personal history is the organization of what has been selectively retained in memory, the history of the group is the organization of that which was selectively defined as significant in the collective memory. The organization of what is considered significant is what gives cohesion to a group. In this sense, the historical narrative is a consolidation of the values of the group. It guarantees the continuity of the group and provides identity to each one of its members.

In groups with oral traditions, the historical narrative is ever-present. The narrative's importance as an essential element in the maintenance of continuity is entirely conscious and explicit. When he had become old, Xavante [Xavante] was given the opportunity to record in a book the story of his people. Xavante said, "This is how we will carry on living. I'm an old man, and while I'm alive I will carry on passing down the tradition. Even though we wear the clothes and have learned some things from the warazu [Warazu]. We will continue our tradition."

While what each individual keeps in his memory has to do with the sum of his life experiences, in the group what is kept in memory has to do with what, at each moment, the group has already selected as significant in its history. The history of every individual is the fruit of the manner in which he or she lived his or her experience. It is the intersection between the individual and the group. Nevertheless, in the end it is the individual who either filters or does not filter the events in his or her memory, and it is the individual who makes the final construction of his or her narrative.

But who constructs this history in the group?

The established social structure determines which group memories have value. Typically, this same social structure guides the construction of historical narrative, recorded and consolidated in documents, books and films. Thus, democratization of history is about creating alternative forums so that communities excluded from "official History" are enabled to record and preserve their collective memories. Democratization of history also involves providing the instruments to allow groups to produce and publicize their historical narrative from their collective memory. Constructing and publicizing what the community itself believes its historical inheritance to be is the way memory and digital technology can be used as tools for social transformation.

Social Impact

Projects that integrate communities, memory, and digital technology can have a measurable social impact on communities.

One such impact is that groups will be able to record their own stories. For economically and socially marginalized communities to have the opportunity to recount and preserve their histories is a basic way of raising their self-esteem and is a fundamental part of the conquest of citizenship.

Creating a digital archive of a group's culture provides the opportunity for research and a new awareness of the world. Beyond allowing for a more democratic perspective of history, the formation of this kind of digital collection can serve as a reference for development policies for, and interaction with, communities. This is because the collected narratives represent values and expectations of communities or individuals who do not normally have a "voice" in western society. Experiences such as the project conducted by the NGO Save The Children in Somalia serve as an example [La Fond]. Interviews with Somali women uncovered the reasons why the women do not let their children participate in the official vaccination program, and the project showed how important oral memory can be as a way of hearing and understanding the values of individuals and groups.

Another impact involves social and digital inclusion. As I have already commented, to merely digitize the artifacts and historical narratives of communities does not guarantee social inclusion. On the other hand, to simply distribute computers among communities (indigenous and others) does not guarantee digital inclusion. It is necessary to first make computers and their use meaningful to the people who will be using the computers. Communities need to be engaged in the digitization of their own stories as a means of social affirmation. It is also critical that communities feel the "need" and/or have the will to publicize and integrate their cultures. This "need" may have several motivations, such as one stated explicitly on the Ideti [Ideti] website: "No one respects what they do not know. We must show the whites who we are, the strength of our culture. Only then will they respect our rights, because they'll understand and admire what we've got." Wabua Xavante.


There are many challenges to consider while preparing a program of collaboration for digitization projects involving cultural groups. The first of these challenges is digital exclusion.

Of the world's population with Internet access, currently 41% is concentrated in the United States and Canada. In Latin America a mere 4% [Silveira] of the population has access to the Internet. Only about 3% of Brazilian citizens have Internet access, and of this number, 61% live in the Southeastern region and belong mainly to the economically advantaged classes. The socially excluded communities and the indigenous communities are, for the most part, excluded by default from using the Internet. From this perspective, the Internet and digital technology may represent a widening of the abyss that already separates rich and poor. Obviously, this means more information for those who already have it and less for those who don't. However, with the idea that digital exclusion contributes to the ongoing cycle of poverty, there are now countless initiatives by governments, large corporations, and social organizations aimed at promoting digital inclusion for economically disadvantaged groups. If the current digital inclusion policies are successful, a large part of the population (including indigenous communities) may be expected to acquire access to digital technology and the Internet.

The second great challenge to consider while planning collaborative digitization projects is determining how to successfully create and preserve digital history in such a way that it will be incorporated into and used by the community from which it comes. It is important, on one hand, to discover channels through which the members of these communities (even the youngest) can master digital technology. But it is equally essential to be aware of the form in which this new media can be incorporated in a consolidated process of oral transmission of values. It may be that the most important factor of the digitization project is not the creation of the "digital collection" as such, but the group's engagement in the process that motivates new generations to value their history [Pappiani].

The third great challenge is to create channels allowing projects such as these to be self-sustaining. Public resources for digitization initiatives are extremely scarce in countries like Brazil, and it is important that this type of initiative does not become just one more element in the domination and dependency of certain cultural communities. Partnerships between the communities and universities and training members of the communities to be able to use digital technology themselves could be analyzed as possible ways of creating sustainable digital resources.


Copyright, language, organization of information, and other issues challenge digitization projects and remain to be resolved before collaborative projects will result in digital and cultural inclusion of socially marginalized communities. Nonetheless, these challenges can also be motivators and, once overcome, can constitute a base for digital technology and the Internet to become, de facto, a new way of constructing "knowledge." This more democratic "knowledge" will serve to integrate — not exclude — all peoples of the world.

Notes and References

[Alexandria] At the beginning of the third century B.C., the ancient city of Alexandria was the birthplace of a great library: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Anticipating our modern libraries in the way it was run, it had a catalogue of all the works it possessed — 700,000 listed and classified manuscripts. However, a fire, which ravaged Alexandria, destroyed the library and its vast storehouse of knowledge. <>.

[CUT] This project was realized by the Museum of the Person in partnership with the CUT-Central Única dos Trabalhadores — (the Brazilian Worker's Central Labor Union) between 1997 and 1999. The objective was to record the life stories of workers whose professions were in extinction. 32 life stories were recorded from the service sector-hat maker, for example,and also from the industrial sector — such as technicians from the metallurgical sector whose work is nowadays done by machines. The results were saved in a database and published in a textbook used by the CUT in career retraining programs for workers from all over Brazil.

[Eco] Eco, Umberto. "Para todos os fins úteis" In: Jean Claude Carriere et al. Entrevistas sobre o fim dos tempos. Rio de Janeiro, Rocco, 1999. pp. 171-200.

[Ideti] Ideti <>. IDETI is a non-governamental organization created and run by four indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil with the aim of protecting, publicizing and improving the public perception of the culture of the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

[la Fond] La Fond Anne. "Why an immunisation program failed to make its mark on women: Somalia" In: Thompson, P. & Hugo Slim. Listening For a Change — Oral Testimony and Development" London, Panos Publications, 1993. pp. 95-104.

[Museum] Museum of the Person <>.

[Pappiani] Pappiani. This was the point raised by Ângela Pappiani, who has been working with indigenous communities in Brazil for more than 20 years. According to Pappiani, when she recorded for publication the stories of old Xavantes in villages, what was really important for the community was that it it created an opportunity for the younger generation to be exposed to traditional stories.

[Sacks] Sacks, Oliver 1984. "The Lost Mariner", In: New York Review of Books. Vol. 31.2, 16 February 1984.

[Serebura] Sereburã et al. Wamrême Zara — Nossa Palavra: Mito e História do Povo Xavante. SP, Editora SENAC São Paulo, 1998.

[Silveira] Silveira, Sérgio. A Exclusão Digital. SP, Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2001, page 19.

[Wurazu] The word for White men in the Xavante language.

[Xavante] The Xavante people call themselves A'uwe Uptabi, or the true people. They number about nine thousand and live in 55 villages in six different reserves in the state of Mato Grosso in the central west of Brazil.

Copyright 2002 Karen Worcman

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DOI: 10.1045/march2002-worcman