The centuries-old practice of chronicling the social and cultural worlds around us in the form of stories has evolved over the centuries to take on multiple forms. There was a time when people told anecdotes and epics around bonfires. In my childhood, my nani jan told me stories of fairies and distant kingdoms to put me to sleep. It evolved into a more embellished form with the advent of theatre. After the invention and production of paper, scribes wrote down these stories and epics as beautiful manuscripts. The commercialization of the printing press caused a revolution in books and advertising. Along came the movie in the 20e century, and film and television have taken over as the new “IT” medium for storytelling.
With the advent of the Internet at 21st century and user-generated content, everyone can tell stories. Information overload in the era of post-modernism was unlikely to be without consequences. A tendency towards fascism and populism in national political landscapes around the world, coupled with a post-truth identity and narrative construction using language, knowledge, literature, art, media and various subcategories of digital culture, has made digital storytelling the new playground for great political power.
Another revolution in digital storytelling is knocking on our door today with Web 3.0 – specifically augmented reality, virtual reality, and non-fungible tokens. While virtual reality allows a 3D parallel universe to co-exist with this world, augmented reality superimposes computer-generated graphics or video onto what we can see, feel, hear, touch and smell around us, as in the Pokemon Go game. NFTs are digital works of art on the blockchain, which can be standalone works of art or part of collections, which sometimes number up to thousands of pieces.
It is imperative for Pakistan, a developing country, to embrace innovation, taking advantage of futuristic technology to retain its past. When talking about the war on terrorism, the human cost, economic and social impacts are often mentioned. However, the ignorance of creativity and cultural heritage in society in general and in decision-making spheres, when priorities are centered on survival, appeared less often. Being a resilient nation has cost us dearly. Lack of support structures, economic security for related professions, social stigma attached to art for many reasons and lack of respect for culture also result in intolerant and polarized inter-ethnic discourse.
Pitching ethnic identity against nationalism, rather than bringing the former under the aegis of the latter, is a colonial ideological straightjacket that we must break. Pakistan was founded on the idea of unity in diversity, which is a value to which we must cling, personally and in state politics.
Oral literature is an extremely important aspect of cultural heritage in this regard. The documentation of folklore, tales and epics, which are transmitted from generation to generation, is crucial. With rapid, tradition-killing urbanization, low literacy, little to no translation efforts, and a lack of focus on documentation, Pakistani folklore is in danger of disappearing forever. Mythology keeps languages and poetry alive, thus being an excellent tool for preserving the vernacular at the risk of being lost. Written by corporations, it tells us how we remember our heroes and villains, the games we play, the food we eat, and how we celebrate and mourn, making it a holistic window into a culture. An inherent respect for culture and a sense that other cultures aren’t “that different” can potentially be our most important weapon as a society in combating the cultural superiority complex we often see in informal online discourse. .
With the advent of Web 3.0 technologies and a booming IT sector, Pakistan has immense potential that it can realize in the legacy technology sector. Web 3.0 is based on systems designed to be inherently inclusive and to work with or without state sponsorship. Cultures are changing and the future is digital – which is why there is an urgent need to bridge this gap between past and present. A systemic effort to virtualize local traditions, with AR, VR and NFT, will help the conservation of intangible heritage and create creative and economic opportunities.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10e2022.
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