Saturday, March 9, 2013

African Drummers Invented an Internet

Maybe in 50 years we'll reminisce how there used to be one internet that covered the globe. But even before the telephone was invented, there were internets of a sort that covered regions in Africa. Probably there were others all around the globe, maybe even now the dolphins have their own version of an internet, disconnected from ours.

An internet, for the purposes of this article, is "a digital communications network that connects intelligent nodes distributed thoughout a region".

Even civilizations without written languages needed to communicate with each other. If you lived in a rain forest where villages were separated by miles of bush, the best way of communication with a neighboring village was to use drums. The "talking drums" of Africa used digital codes that could be understood from distances of as much as 5-10 kilometers. The codes weren't at all like Morse code, but were based on the tones of spoken languages.

A "talking drum" has two tones, so the signal is essentially binary. To overcome the lack of consonants, drum languages would add habitual phrases to words to disambiguate one word for another, resulting in an error-correcting code. Ruth Finnegan's chapter on "Drum Language and Literature" in Oral Literature in Africa gives some wonderful examples.
In the Kele language the words meaning, for example, ‘manioc’, ‘plantain’, ‘above’, and ‘forest’ all have identical tonal and rhythmic patterns. By the addition of other words, however, a stereotyped drum phrase is made up through which complete tonal and rhythmic differentiation is achieved and the meaning transmitted without ambiguity. Thus ‘manioc’ is always represented on the drums with the tonal pattern of ‘the manioc which remains in the fallow ground’, ‘plantain’ with ‘plantain to be propped up’, and so on. Among the Kele there are a great number of these ‘proverb-like phrases’ to refer to nouns. ‘Money’, for instance, is conventionally drummed as ‘the pieces of metal which arrange palavers’, ‘rain’ as ‘the bad spirit son of spitting cobra and sunshine’, ‘moon’ or ‘month’ as ‘the moon looks down at the earth’, ‘a white man’ as ‘red as copper, spirit from the forest’ or ‘he enslaves the people, he enslaves the people who remain in the land’, while ‘war’ always appears as ‘war watches for opportunities’. Verbs are similarly represented in long stereotyped phrases. 
So that's how information was transmitted digitally, but it's not an internet yet. For that, you need a network. It turns out that drummed messages of note would be retransmitted to the next village. In modern terminology, packet switching. I imagine the drummers used a protocol similar to that used by Ethernet to ensure a clear channel for retransmission. Thus announcements, warnings, poetry (maybe even advertisements!) were packet-switched between nodes based on topic and relevancy.

A lot of expressive power of the drum language was used for names. From Oral Literature in Africa:
Personal drum names are usually long and elaborate. In the Benue-Cross River area of Nigeria, for instance, they are compounded of references to a man’s father’s lineage, events in his personal life, and his own personal name . Similarly among the Tumba of the Congo, all-important men in the village (and sometimes others as well) have drum names: these are usually made up of a motto emphasizing some individual characteristic, then the ordinary spoken name; thus a Belgian government official can be alluded to on the drums as ‘A stinging caterpillar is not good disturbed’. Carrington describes the Kele drum names in some detail. Each man has a drum name given him by his father, made up of three parts: first the individual’s own name; then a portion of his father’s name; and finally the name of his mother’s village. Thus the full name of one man runs ‘The spitting cobra whose virulence never abates, son of the bad spirit with the spear, Yangonde’. Other drum names (i.e. the individual’s portion) include such comments as ‘The proud man will never listen to advice’, ‘Owner of the town with the sheathed knife’, ‘The moon looks down at the earth / son of the younger member of the family’, and, from the nearby Mba people, ‘You remain in the village, you are ignorant of affairs’. (citations omitted)
So the drum languages seem to put importance on uniquely identifying individuals, something that our Internet is just starting to figure out. (See ORCID.) Reputation of individuals was important; I wonder if creators of particularly compelling drum poems were identified by custom, as we're starting to learn how to do with Attribution licenses.

It goes without saying that the literary forms transmitted by drumming were not copyrighted and the there was no notion of paying a creator for "copies" of a drummed message. But certainly the practitioners of this early digital literature were valued by their societies.
drumming tends to be a specialized and often hereditary activity, and expert drummers with a mastery of the accepted vocabulary of drum language and literature were often attached to a king’s court. 
Masters of unwritten literatures found many ways of making a living. The "court poet" is a familiar role to us; modern writers often find wealthy patrons. In addition, Finnegan relays another way that creators of oral literature earned their livings:

The singer arrives at a village and finds out the names of the important and wealthy individuals in the area. Then he takes up his stand in public and calls out the name of the individual he has decided to apostrophize. He proceeds to his praise songs, punctuated by frequent and increasingly direct demands for gifts. If they are forthcoming in sufficient quantity he announces the amount and sings his thanks in further praise. If not, his innuendo becomes gradually sharper, his delivery harsher and more staccato. This is practically always effective—all the more so as the experienced singer knows the utility of choosing a time when all the local people are likely to be within hearing, in the evening, the early morning before they have left for the farm, or on the occasion of a market which leaves no escape for the unfortunate object singled out for these ‘praises’. The result of this public scorn is normally the victim’s surrender. He attempts to silence the singer with gifts of money or, if he has no ready cash, with clothes or a saleable object like a new hoe.
So even "astroturfing" is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.

I learned all this reading Ruth Finnegan's Oral Literature in Africa which was the first book made free to the world by, working with Open Book Publishers. Download and enjoy. Open Book Publishers have just launched an ungluing campaign for a second book, called Feeding the City, a translation of a seminal work from the original Italian, about the dabawallahs of Mumbai, a subject Internet entrepreneurs could learn a lot from. Support the campaign to make it free to the world!
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