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Pandemic driven technology: A visit to alternative practices

by Sherriff Tahiru

This week was spent self-reflecting on the meaning of the term ‘technology’. When one thinks of technology, the brain is assailed by visuals of self-driving cars, lab-grown chickens, robots speaking to humans, and alien invasions. Some think of it from a point of safety, others from a point of ease. But these images differ from place to place, and from one generation to another. I think of technology from a ‘process’ perspective — a point of trying to understand how, and the way we use tech.

I am not alone in this view — a few schools of thought believe that at the most basic level technology is really just about the tools, knowledge, techniques, and processes that humans have developed over time to solve problems. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that technology is linked to devices developed through the application of scientific thinking.

Whichever side of the debate one falls, it leaves both sides with the question of where we find solutions to social non-scientific problems. One of such problems is migration. I know, because I am a recent migrant from Africa to Europe. The big problems are instantly obvious because everyone talks to you about them; possessing the skills required to earn a living, learning a new language in your middle ages, adjusting to the drudgery of fending for yourself and your loved ones doing any job you can find, accepting as well as adjusting to the cold individualism of the West, and also accepting the plain cold weather of winter.

I watch the news and its focus on the material parts of migration: the growing number of migrants, the economic strain on receiving countries, the dangers that migrants flee from, and the global effects of these mass movements of people from place to place. While recognizing that all of these points were deeply valid, what I didn’t read about, nor account for at the beginning of my journey was the emotional changes happening inside of migrants. Changes, that like other things require some skills, tools, knowledge, and technique to manage — new experiences that require their own technology.

Technology and changing emotions

Few words are said about the dreams that migrants abandon. Fewer still about the social and emotional isolation that comes with new territory, and very little is mentioned about the daily realization that these changes will be on a continuous to permanence basis. In other words, one burns the ship that ushers them into a new world, and each day spent, is a reminder that there will be no going back.

Few words are said about the dreams that migrants abandon. Fewer still about the social and emotional isolation that comes with new territory, and very little is mentioned about the daily realization that these changes will be on a continuous to permanence basis. In other words, one burns the ship that ushers them into a new world, and each day spent, is a reminder that there will be no going back.

It is in the midst of these daily problems that I became drawn to the meanings and use of technology. What tools and techniques can we utilize to confront our emotions in the face of such deep internal shifts. Even though my reference point is migration, I explore these phenomena simultaneously as many people in the world — responding to a mass shifting in behavior as a result of the pandemic. Like me, even though for a different reason, the global pandemic has thrown the world into a shift, and many people are lost out there trying to find meaning in their daily lives.

The question is easy. What types of knowledge, skills, tools, techniques, and processes (technology) provide themselves as available options to manage these deep social changes? The answer is not so practical. Human science is very vast, and a thing may apply to one person and not apply to another. These internal changes trigger an array of emotions that cannot be fully categorized. At a personal level, I was feeling lost — far away from everything and everyone I knew and understood. The feeling was a combination of being out of place, happy about the new experience, disconnected, sad, worried, excited — a plethora of feelings all knocking simultaneously for attention.

Fortunately for me, the list of modern human problems has also become a growing network of catchphrases and buzzwords—anxiety disorder, clinical depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, dementia, OCD, etcetera — all competing for equal position and recognition. So there was a robust list of off-the-shelf answers to these feelings of mine, Pills.

In between months of consuming Omega 3, Magnesium, and Vitamin D pills (for lack of sunlight due to the weather), I thought about other people dealing with inner distresses gulping down anti-depressants and anxiolytics. I pondered on how the sum of all our historical knowledge about internal changes boiled down to pills.

“The direct and easy solution that the West has found to the internal distress of people is pills. How is it that such deep life-changing experiences are being explained away as the absence or deficiency of vital chemicals in the brain that can be supplemented by pills?”

The future is in the past.

It came in one passage of a book, the answer to some of my unanswered questions. I was reading ‘Reconciliation’ by Thich Nhat Hanh and stumbled on passages that introduced me to healing practices. Through this author's works, I was learning about new ways to self-healing. That pills were not the only ways to healing, and that beyond those comfortable mental illness labels were other tools and techniques, and practices to help our emotions.

I learned about meditation, mindfulness, physical exercises, questioning mental frameworks, and the relationships between us and those who were present before us. The challenge that these differing thoughts bring is obvious, how do we organize these alternative experiences into formats and ways that all can utilize? How do we document these practices scientifically? How can humans learn to weave these loosely connected data-sets in their daily emotional decision-making journey?

Again, the answer is not that simple. Because the end products of the thoughts that drive technological advancements are seen in material outputs such as mobile phones, vehicles, and automated machines, technology is perceived as something different from humans. Tech is perceived as a product of pure scientific thinking. What is closer to the truth, however, is that tech is human-driven, and not self-executing.

Humans are capable of leveraging their knowledge to social problems in ways that can address these emotional challenges that have become the disease of the modern world — tech enthusiasts simply need to learn from past practices.

A change of heart towards tech?

I am thinking of tech differently for many reasons. Because blockchain technology is a costly energy-consuming alternative because wireless technology leaves electromagnetic waves scattered around the world waiting for our children, because face recognition software amplifies the power of state control, and because technology like every other man-made solution can and should also be held accountable.

But also because living in a foreign land and inside of a pandemic is teaching me the roles that our own creations play within our lives during changing times. The struggles of our memories to forge new pathways, the differences between our learned and actual instincts, our hidden fears and desires, and the way to devise the technology that can respond to these.

It may have been jubilating to watch Twitter block Donald Trump's handle in the days leading to the handover of power in US elections, but somewhere within that haze is how Twitter may have taken away the freedom of speech of a president of the Free World.

These conversations are not new. Peter Lunenfeld, a professor of design, media arts, and digital humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine,” captures this irony in his quote:

“We will use technology to solve the problems the use of technology creates”

When cab-hailing apps introduce jobs to young people in cities like Abuja, while depriving an older cab-driving population of their means of questions, and when Twitter is able to remove a Presidential candidate's agency to speak his truth, we must begin to look with fresh pair of eyes at the things we create.

Our focus on technology should not just be about Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine learning. It should include conversations about morality and ethics. It has to take into account the silent social contract around the use and the limits of modern inventions. Because like tech, governments across the world all present themselves as tools to help the smooth functioning of society, and when a government isn’t solving its citizen's problems, that government is held accountable. This should be the same for technology.

But beyond that, it can also reach further into the social spaces. Technology seems designed towards efficiency ignoring the many human flaws we carry within us. We can learn more about ourselves if we leverage the power of tech to act on simple daily challenges. There are worlds our bodies and minds are privy to, that even we cannot enter, and maybe tech can help us find a way.


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