Aspen Ideas Festival: Using apps, social media to empower indigenous communities

Social media can help spread much more important stories beyond what you had for breakfast this morning.


ASPEN, COLO. — There is a "tsunami of destruction sweeping the planet" — more specifically, the destruction of indigenous communities, traditional culture and diversity, according to National Geographic Society fellow and documentary photographer Chris Rainier.

Lecturing at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday evening, Rainier offered what might be considered a surprising (maybe even controversial) follow-up suggestion: use new forms of technology and social media to "celebrate ancient traditions and share stories of cultures living on the edge that lie deep in the desert of our existence."

Also the last photo assistant to Ansel Adams, Rainier recalled that he learned from the renowned photographer about the message of art, but also how to use photography as a social tool.

Additionally, one of the great privileges of being a traveler, Rainier suggested, is being able to "make contact" with cultures that most people don't (or even can't) see.

"For me, photography and travel is about reserving judgment, stepping into another culture, and discovering things," Rainier said.

Referencing the tradition and practice of artistic physical scarring within many indigenous tribes in Africa as well as New Guinea, Rainer cited that many cultures believe the human body itself is just "a canvas for a story to be told."

Rainier asserted that it is a "privilege for us all of us to be alive" at this "crossroads of human evolution" between encountering traditional societies and being able to spread knowledge about those cultures through technology.

He suggested to the audience to imagine an online course in multiple languages that could create courses for jobs — a sustainable model where these communities aren't forced to move to urban environments.

Rainier listed some projects already putting that concept in motion, including apps being developed by Nokia, Apple and the Google Translate team.

Thus, Rainier acknowledged that while some critics would imply these advancements in technology are "making the world flat," he countered that we should remember that traditional societies are "yearning to be part of the dialogue."

Rainier also pointed toward National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, also in partnership with Google Translate as well as YouTube, for preserving endangered languages.

The initiative estimated that more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth could disappear by 2100.

With the goal of preventing language extinction, the Enduring Voices team goes into communities worldwide from Eastern Siberia to the southern tip of South America to not only record native speakers teaching the entire structures of these languages, but also associated oral histories and folklore as well.

Rainier remarked, "If you want the younger generation to speak that language, make it available and relevant."

Rainier concluded that "we're in a race against time" for preserving these cultures, encouranging anyone in the audience with connections in the technology world to get involved now.