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Claiming the edges as central

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central.” Toni Morrison (Morrison & Wendt, 1998)

Scrolling slightly mindlessly through TikTok, I came upon a snippet of an interview with Toni Morrison. While powerful in many ways, it was this quote that struck me.

My work has an agenda. I am committed to post-literacy, the idea that we are entering a world where literacy is no longer the symbol of power, and that orality (yes, it is a word!) is privileged at least as much as literacy has been. Across the world, indigenous and tribal peoples from oral cultures have had their lands and language taken away by the powerful, usually wielding books alongside their guns. Indigenous people have been quick to recognise the power of literacy, and have worked hard to gain these trappings of power.

Learning the tools of the oppressors have however only made us better servants. We need to find a better way, a way that works for us and our ways of seeing the world, not just one that makes us slightly shit replicas of the modern, westernised world. The rise of digital means we can rely less on reading and writing to meet the needs of our people, rather we can increasingly rely on the tools we know better - sound and image.

At the software company I work for, one customer desire is to use voice recordings for case notes. This has been difficult, as we have been going down the route of AI transcription. If the Kiwi accent weren’t difficult enough, AI transcription services can barely make sense of Māori words. ‘Kia ora’ is hard enough, ‘whakawhanaungatanga’ is impossible. In conversation with a customer today, we (both) realised how blinded we were by the literacy lie!

Customer: …so any chance of that voice recording for case notes?

Design team: Yeah…it’s a bit tricky…we use so much reo Māori the AI can’t quite make sense of it

Customer: Ah yup, that makes sense…it would save so much time though…and give us so much more time with whānau…

Design team: …it would be so much simpler if it didn’t need to be transcribed, and was just an audio file…<pause>

Customer: <pause> that’s a really good point…

Design team: Hang on…we know the clinical teams need text case notes, does your team really need that too?

Customer: I was just thinking that! I am not sure we really need written case notes, lemme check!

Turns out that they didn’t. ALL of us (them included) were working on the assumption that the case notes had to be written…they didn’t. Photographs and audio recordings worked well enough for what they did. The poison of literacy is so deep that we have been allowing it to take away from much more important things - such as spending more time with the communities we are working with.

My argument is NOT that literacy is not important, or that it should be abandoned. (I am after all using the written word to share my observations). I am asking that we allow a Zapatista Pluriverse…a world where multiple universes exist in parallel, and where one universe does not dominate. This is the edge I will stand at, and claim as central.

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