People & Money

Technology, change, and a culture of respect

It is obvious that these video communication apps need an “idobale” emoji to help with the local propensity to kiss arse.

Despite appearances to the contrary, going digital has not meant a change in “culture”. In person meetings used to be a study in power relationships…. Without any doubt, moving work (and other social interactions) out of the office and into the ether, has, as with all things that have migrated online, lent a new character to these relationships. And it is not beautiful. Nor useful.

Open any serious newspaper (online or old fashioned paper), and you run a very high risk of running into arcane screeds on how the marriage between technology and communications continues to force change on the world we live in. Often, the focus is on work. Not just the way it has become more productive. But also in the degree to which new tools and ways of working might make large swathes of our current labour force redundant. This new effect of the technology revolution shows up beyond work, too. Household utensils are smarter, especially the genre-straddling mobile phone. We learn that the consumption of leisure values is more and more about “experience”, where once the onus was on “ownership”.

While last year’s pandemic has had very obvious health effects, its longer lasting impacts will be felt in those areas in which it has accelerated the uptake of technology. Video conferencing over in-person meetings. Working from home instead of the commute-intensive work from the office. And then there are the tremendous possibilities opened up for telemedicine by the swarm of wearable devices now able to measure their wearers’ vital signs and process these online and in real time.

For obvious reasons, this commentary focuses on the positives. How working from home, for instance, has made being a mother less laborious a challenge than before the pandemic. In the instances when the negative consequences of technology’s imprint on modern man and the interaction of both these and the pandemic come up for mention, they are often posed as problems to be solved. Take fake news for one, and how responses to it may imperil social cohesion. Do not worry that governments have mounted this stead who mean to also undermine civil liberties, as part of a design that perpetuates their stay in office.

Thus, it would appear that whether or not technology is useful to any people depends almost entirely on the context within which it will be used. This is more so when that technology is not a product of the culture that consumes it.

What the tension between these trends seems to suggest is that like most human inventions, technology is not always a force for good. At best, it is an instrument available to man ― which he may use according to his ken. At worst, the upheavals that rapid technological progress is responsible for change human societies in less than welcome ways. As an instrument, it is as morally ambivalent as is the humble hoe ― available to build a ridge to sow seeds in, or help decapitate an assailant. Or like the internal combustion engine, responsible simultaneously for the swift expansion of human communities, and the incineration of the earth.

Also Read: The Next Nigerian President: The Desirable but Unviable

Thus, it would appear that whether or not technology is useful to any people depends almost entirely on the context within which it will be used. This is more so when that technology is not a product of the culture that consumes it. Nothing reminds me more powerfully of this than the video conferencing meetings that I have had to attend since this became a staple of work last year.

…if interactions were this way in my kindergarten days, the responses in our Zoom and Team meetings cannot be described as “new”…I was on a Zoom meeting last week. And it was obvious that these video communication apps need an “idobale” emoji to help with the local propensity to kiss arse.

Despite appearances to the contrary, going digital has not meant a change in “culture”. In person meetings used to be a study in power relationships. Who sat were? Who arrived before whom? Who gets to carry what? And for whom? Any which way you tell it, obsequiousness was writ unctuous in those interactions. Without any doubt, moving work (and other social interactions) out of the office and into the ether, has, as with all things that have migrated online, lent a new character to these relationships. And it is not beautiful. Nor useful. Affliction with an atavistic variant now means that meetings start as classes once did in the kindergarten. The “Big boss man” walks in, virtually starts the meeting, and the chorus of “Good morning Big Boss” is as sickening as it is an auditory challenge.

Alas, the “mute” button works very well for microphones; but not for speakers. Still, if interactions were this way in my kindergarten days, the responses in our Zoom and Team meetings cannot be described as “new”. My friend insists that it is not necessarily wrong, either. In his reading, “We are a culturally VERY respectful people. How else would we expect to be shown respect if we show no respect to our superiors?” Maybe. Maybe not. However, I was on a Zoom meeting last week. And it was obvious that these video communication apps need an “idobale” emoji to help with the local propensity to kiss arse.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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