WAITING FOR REDEMPTION
As with every plot twist, a story usually has elements of foreshadowing that precedes the change and it also unfolds in seemingly unexpected ways. It also carries the characters through on a new path.
I wanted to capture the state of the world from an African perspective. A song by Johnny Clegg and Savuka came to mind: Dela. I recall in a radio interview once, Clegg explained the inspiration for the song as having come from the joy in seeing something beautiful when everything seemed so bleak — such as a yellow flower growing through a crack in the concrete pavement.
LIVING IN A DELA WORLD
Once we know where we are, we can determine where we want to be and figure out a way of getting there. In other words, we need to tell our own story.
In isiZulu, “dela” has paradoxical definitions which seem fitting for a narrative of our times: “to be satisfied” or “to have had enough” on the one hand, and to “abandon”, “give up”, or “sacrifice” on the other. In applying this perspective, we can answer the following questions:
• What are we satisfied with? (What do we have enough of?)
• What are we willing to sacrifice? (What do we need to let go of?)
I think I know why the dog howls at the moon
In ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues who’ve been employed by companies throughout lockdown, a shocking common thread emerges: they are like caged birds, confronted by their conditions of ‘captivity’, and longing for their freedom. Just as the caged bird sings in order to cope, many employees are performing beyond expectation — whether it’s to prove their worth to their employer, or to feel safe within the confines of certainty as the world around them unravels.
By applying the DELA framework, we can make sense of this observation. In short, businesses are trying to gain or maintain control over their people and profit in an increasingly unstable, unpredictable, and uncertain world. This trend is amplified by lockdown as more are working from home rather than in an office, making them less visible, accessible, and controllable. Several employers are applying outdated metrics of trust, and so employees are less motivated to produce meaningful work but are expected to be highly productive. This isn’t to say that ways of working need to be scrapped and entirely replaced, or that one approach is better and suitable for all. Some people perform better when given the freedom to self-govern, while others lack the self-discipline needed and so benefit from boundaries.
In letting go of the need to control our circumstances, to make visible people’s actions, to measure progress through profit, and to place limitations on what is possible or acceptable — we can find comfort in our rituals and routines, create open channels for communication, build mutual trust, and respect people’s freedom of choice.
Originally published on Marklives
In Hindu mythology, it is believed that the Earth is balanced on the backs of elephants, which are themselves supported by a World Turtle. Below that turtle? Another turtle. It is turtles all the way down. In complexity and systems thinking, it could be argued that a proposition requires justification, and the justification itself needs to be supported. No idea exists in isolation, no truth in a vacuum, no experience untethered from others. It is turtles all the way down.
By identifying layers of analysis, Causal Layered Analysis is a sense-making tool that explores the narratives used to make sense of the world. The very first layer, the litany, is the observed or obvious problem and resulting official future, second is the systemic causes or driving forces that create the conditions in which the problem or future exist, third the discourses and ideological assumptions that legitimise and support a worldview, and fourth is the layer of myth and metaphor that is linked to long-term history and emotive dimensions. In addition to developing an understanding of the world, it is used to “shape the future more effectively” and to “[create]coherent futures” (Inayatullah, 2017, p1). The intention is to map the present, unpack an issue critically, and create a preferred future reconstructed from alternative worldviews and from multiple perspectives. This leads to transformed futures that integrate difference. It is a combination of the pull of the future, push of the present, and weight of history (Inayatullah, 2017, p6).
Just as in the past, we currently find ourselves in a pandemic. How do we begin to make sense of the world we are in? “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up a mirror to human beings as to who we really are”; It reflects the relationship between people and their environment, raising questions about our ways of life (Chotiner, 2020). Metaphors are a way in which we can make concrete our imaginings, memories, and realities; they are devices with which we can play with concepts of time, blurring past, present, and future (Capo). Metaphors are meaning-making tools used in cognition and culture, shaping the way we act individually and collectively (Nerlich, 2020). In this essay I explore several dominant and emerging metaphors relating to the current pandemic, in the realms of society, technology, economics, environment, and politics. Each metaphor creates different realities, challenges, and opportunities.
COVID-19 has been labelled a plague. Both in religious terms – the uncontrollable mass spread of an unhealable disease – and in biological terms – a zoonotic transmission of disease from rodent to person. What results from this narrative is mass hysteria from those who fear the worst, an aura of shame around those infected, and the rise of body politics to control the contaminated and to contain the contagion. People become zombies trying to survive an apocalypse; it is the end of days. Like previous plagues, this pandemic is explained as either being a punishment for those who have wronged – morally, if from a religious perspective, or ethically, if from a biological perspective. Either society has transgressed to the point of no return (from a religious perspective), or particular populations are blamed and reprimanded and old prejudices are perpetuated (such as judging China for consuming particular animal products). The symbolism of the plague is used “to convey the suffering of the suffocation and atmosphere of terror and exile” (Zaretsky, 2020).
If we were, instead, to view the pandemic as an opportunity for revolution or renaissance – to revive or renew our world – we could see the virus as triggering a turning point in history. This narrative establishes an element of empowerment, freedom, and consent. People become agents of change, contributing to the speed and depth of the transformation. The crisis becomes a catalyst for change, enabling us to dismantle old systems of superiors and subordinates. We are in this together. In viewing ourselves as global citizens in a shared process of being and becoming – with access to communal knowledge, collective consciousness, and an evolving social commons – we are presented with an invitation to transform wicked problems into wicked opportunities (Eggers & Muoio, 2015).
An example of this is the call for an African Health Organisation that embraces – rather than undermines – traditional medicine from the continent (SABC News, 2020). It is not to say that WHO should be replaced or dominated by THO (Traditional Healers’ Organisation), but rather that a collaborative relationship be formed to develop new approaches to crises. It is about leveraging Africa’s strengths, not straining its weak points in favour of a homogenised, westernised method (Senbanjo, 2020).
If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare proclaimed, then we must be on The Truman Show. It is as if someone has hit the pause button; everything has slowed down. “Collectively we are witnessing a global phenomenon that has people everywhere staying home, slowing down, and witnessing a global pause during this pandemic” (Devaney, 2020). While we seek to digitalise everything – the way we work, socialise, learn – prospects of compromised privacy and enhanced monitoring of our online lives becomes a growing concern: “the rise and spread of digital surveillance enabled by artificial intelligence” (Wright, 2020). This brings into question the agency of the individual and the authority of the state. We have long observed the growing power of media in swaying or formulating opinion, as well as gathering data and information for commercial or political benefit (Confessore, 2018). Viewing the virus as a glitch or technical error seems to justify ‘rebooting’ the system. In this narrative, AI will save us, even if it is at a cost.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next one” (Roy, 2020). This suspended moment, from this angle, becomes a time of transition; a liminal space between reality and a dream-state. It becomes an opportunity to take a breath, put future scenarios on hold, experiment with possibilities, consider the legacy we want to leave behind, and take in the present moment, before we are transported into the new world. Doing so requires decentralised and autonomous control, as well as open source products and collaborative platforms as we co-create futures.
An example of this is the vast number of online conferences and symposiums – often made freely available to all with internet access – that have erupted from all parts of the globe. While we may have put our personal lives on pause, we are far more globally connected than we ever were before. Just look at the global foresight summit hosted by FFWD titled ‘The Great Pause’. There were attendees from over 100 countries and speakers each with a one-hour timeslot over a 72-hour period.
When a severe storm approaches, with little time to think or react, an instinctual response it to act quickly; to take shelter from the rain, and consider the cost of destruction after you have secured your safety. Every moment counts. Similarly, in a ship rescue, there are often those who want to contribute, but are unable to and can create confusion. Pandemic shock brings about collective trauma, crisis capitalism, and imagination paralysis (Klein, 2007). It is easy to decline into a bleak state of despair and dysfunction when in a disaster. Some are more vulnerable than others – we are not all in the same boat or equipped with the same tools to navigate Lightning bolts of disruption and tidal waves of change. Some make it to shore while others are rendered invisible amidst the throws of vicious and virtuous cycles that deepen inequality.
In a state of emergency, a utilitarian approach is often taken to ensure the immediate survival of many, even if extreme measures need to be taken. However, “once the Hammer is in place and the outbreak is controlled, the second phase begins: the Dance” (Pueyo, 2020). If we view the pandemic as a dance and the future as our dance partner, it becomes a give and take relationship of synchronisation, harmony, and collaboration. People are no longer captives to the captains of their fate, but rather dance to their own tune and choreograph their own routine.
An example of this is South Africa’s declaring of the pandemic as a national disaster and focusing on providing food parcels for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and relief funds for the financially-strained businesses. However, in its efforts to contain the spread of fear, to perform damage control, and to ‘flatten the curve’, its extended lockdown has come across as Draconian, or unnecessarily harsh. Many citizens argue that instead of moving to the dance phase of its strategy, leadership is repeatedly hammering the same nail. Or so it seems. While the spread of the virus is relentless – particularly across the nation’s informal settlements and informal economy – leadership has put out fires elsewhere. In banning the purchase of alcohol during lockdown, the country has seen a significant decline in alcohol-related casualties (including car accidents and domestic violence). The pandemic does not operate in isolation, nor is it linear in its movements. It requires a hammer and dance approach to respond, adapt, and anticipate shadow crises, chain reactions, and satellite events.
Countries declaring the pandemic a national disaster are putting into place regulations and measures of control – such as providing tax relief, setting up temporary housing, responding to distress signals, and offering financial aid – to minimise damage. The virus in this narrative is perceived to be a disruption caused by natural processes beyond human control, but owing to destructive human influence. Thousands of years ago, communities the world over acknowledged the interconnected relationship between nature and culture. If there was turmoil or conflict in society, it would appear in nature – drought, fire, disease. Nature was seen to be this self-reproducing entity, not to be disturbed or exploited. It is only more recently that the western world made this ‘discovery’ – the Anthropocene. The disaster metaphor paints a picture of humanity as victims or survivors, volunteers or philanthropists.
While disaster management is a necessary temporary measure in extreme circumstances, there needs to be a journey of healing following the experience of loss, pain, and grief. It requires consideration for both movements on the surface and the undercurrents below; how deep do these problems run? Life in pandemic – like a river – has moments of slow calm and quick turbulence, clear shallows and murky deepness, free-flowing paths and diverging streams. Developing a dynamic map with which we can navigate uncertain terrain, anticipate obstacles, and plot strategic directions would make us explorers – not survivors – of a new world, connecting with others along the way.
An example of this is how “New Zealand has offered a model response of empathy, clarity and trust in science” (BBC News, 2020). Instead of identifying an enemy and establishing a plan of attack, New Zealand encouraged unity and working together. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s message stayed consistent and clear: “Be Strong. Be Kind”, and so the country was a given a map with which it could navigate the course of the river it found itself on.
Many the world over seem to be at war. They are united against a common enemy, fighting for a common goal: eliminate the threat to human life and national security, even if it is by violent or aggressive means. In this narrative, citizens become soldiers. It is their duty to fight for their country, protect its borders, and obey orders from power-wielding leaders. Often these power dynamics go unchecked, restrictions are enforced unquestioned, and harm in inflicted unnoticed. As many nations go into what has been termed ‘lockdown’, one cannot help but feel criminalised. Curfews, restrictions, bans – it starts to feel a lot like imprisonment.
If we were to rather invoke the idea of a game of chess, we start to see the virus as a challenge, rather than a cage. In applying logic and strategy to develop a game plan, people enhance their mental mastery and are better prepared for future scenarios that may emerge. As players, people alternate between seemingly unassuming moves, taking risks, and making strategic decisions for the end-game – before taking on the next challenge.
An example of the war metaphor is US President Trump’s naming the ‘China virus’ a public enemy which must be defeated. Increased border protection, rising nationalism, and enforced hero-narratives make it difficult for people to fight back and remain autonomous. When it comes to thinking things through in the form of a game of chess, we can apply Inayatullah and Black’s (2020) definition of foresight as “the capacity to anticipate tomorrow’s problems and [to]act today”. They argue that COVID-19 is neither a black swan nor a zombie apocalypse; it was neither unpredictable nor a total surprise. Instead of focusing on what was missed or unseen, we should, they urge, prepare for the next pandemic.
“The main point is that narrative, how we describe the world structures our possibilities, what options we can see, what is possible for us to create” (Inayatullah, 2020). Many of the dominant pandemic metaphors encourage destructive discourses and promote ideas of separation or superiority. The emerging metaphors in this essay are proposed as transformational alternatives that promote interconnectedness and a process of change. There are different ways of seeing, framing, and being in the world. The language we use and the metaphors we apply, shape the way we experience reality, imagine possibility, and take on responsibility.
Originally published on JFS
For those born in the ‘90s, many would have first been introduced to the concept of a food chain through Disney’s The Lion King. The opening track – The Circle of Life – illustrates the cyclical nature of energy; what is taken from the earth is returned, and what dies gives life to another. Such is the food chain: a network of links between producers, consumers, and decomposers. Similarly, food-supply systems trace the connections between production, distribution, and consumption. It is this system that supports the continuation of humanity.
A weak link in the chain could have disastrous effects. Look at what happens when the military uses food as a weapon of war; cutting off enemy supplies and deliberately destroying their livelihoods. Look at the impact of war-time food-shortage on pregnant women. How their children developed eating disorders or became obese as a biological reaction to previous starvation and mental preparation for potential future scarcity.
Some might say that our problematic relationship with food emerged with the introduction of industrialisation. Several decades since the invention of the steam engine, a theory was introduced that proposed an imminent catastrophe. The idea was that exponential population growth combined with a linear food supply would result in famine or war. As technology advances, resources would increase and the standard of living would improve. This would then trigger, enable and support population growth. If the number of people outnumber the available resources: chaos. This, however, has not happened. Will innovations in food technology match the rate of population growth? Could this minimise the risk of such a crisis? Or will the perpetual presence of poverty and pollution be our downfall?
The first industrial revolution saw a shift from an agrarian way of life to a mechanised system of manufacturing, the second brought about mass production and a dependence on electricity, the third was characterised by automation and globalised production networks, and the fourth industrial revolution is digitising value chains. The industrialisation of agriculture meant that farming was no longer done for small-scale, localised sustenance, but became a global, profit-driven industry. Genetic modifications have led to mutations, pesticides have contributed to the evolution of super-viruses, and urbanisation has reduced arable land and escalated climate instability. The industrialisation of food has resulted in an over-reliance on a limited range of crops and has reduced a natural diversity that would usually protect us from plagues and pandemics. What’s next?
Several nations are currently in a comfort zone where food is an expected constant and individuals are entitled to a range of choices. This exploitative relationship with food is not sustainable. We saw how, when the health crisis of 2020 was made public, many flocked to the shops to stock up on supplies. We panic and extract, rather than consider the long-term implications of our actions or how it would affect those around us who depend on the very same resources.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are camping in a remote, isolated area for the next month, and you suddenly realise that you have forgotten to bring any food; a foundational, physiological need for survival. It is too far for you to safely travel to the nearest town, and it is too long before someone comes back for you. What do you do? Like most nomadic communities who live off the land. You would likely focus your time and energy on securing a stable food supply. It would not make sense to deplete the resources nearest you within the first week if you are intending to survive beyond that. You would need to consider hunting, gathering, growing, and rearing. Your decisions would need to be calculated and consider a time and space beyond the here and now.
The question we should be asking ourselves today is: what happens if there is a significant breakdown in the food chain? This wildcard event may have a low likelihood of occurring in our lifetime, but would have a high impact if it were to play out. It is entirely plausible for something like this to happen. Whether humanity causes its own demise through over-consumption, or if it is through natural disaster that food sources are destroyed, we need to relook our relationship with food and the processes that underpin the supply and demand thereof.
How do contemporary social issues intersect with the symbolic importance of food? What impact does technological innovation have on food production? How do the dynamics of poverty and inequality shape consumption patterns? What is the relationship between food diversity and sustainability? How could regulation and control lead to food instability? These are some of the things we need to consider in our food policies and practices going forward. How do we even begin to combat an emerging food crisis? Well, for starters, “you should never take more than you give”, as the song goes. We need to address supply and demand imbalances at their source, before they get completely out of hand. We have a decision to make: do we eradicate particular practices or do we contain the accessibility of resources? Do we prevent further destruction or do we restore what once was?
What is the source of the problem, anyway? No wild card event occurs in isolation. It is a confluence of issues. Everything is connected. It is for this reason that complex systems can be quite fragile; vulnerable to even the smallest disturbance that plays out in often unexpected or exaggerated ways. A disruption in the food chain can lead to a chain reaction of events. The possibility of a food crisis has been a long time coming. The impact of such could take years or even decades to be fully realised. We do not have the luxury of time on our side – if anything, we have been given early warning signals of the coming change and should act now to prevent possible collapse.
First published on APF
Stand your ground
With the world largely being homebound since March of this year, many have been using this as an opportunity to change their space. It is, of course, the privileged who are safe at home (not stuck at home or scared at home) and equipped to develop their homes to meet their evolving needs.
Ikea, regarded as the “go-to store for the masses with empty rooms to fill and life-stages to adapt to”, was expected to profit from this trend but, instead, suffered as it temporarily closed stores and failed to adapt to ecommerce practices. However, it’s said to be taking a ‘post-pandemic gamble’ and will be opening 50 new stores in cities (particularly in the UK).
What makes this surprising is that: 1) online shopping — not in-store visits — is booming, and 2) people have migrated away from cities to the suburbs, the country, and to the coast. In addition to this, Ikea stores across the UK will be hosting an initiative in which customers can sell their used furniture back to Ikea for up to 50% of the original price. The intention is to “help customers take a stand against excessive consumption”.
Who’d have thought, at the start of this new year and decade, that there’d be a resurgence of past political movements, socially fuelled structural violence, a health pandemic of crippling proportions and economic collapse?
I had a little bird
Who could have known, when we shouted “Happy New Year!” as 2019 transitioned into 2020, what would be in store for us?
Experts claimed we’d had a prosperous decade, far more fair and fruitful than 30 years ago (listen to Steven Pinker here), and populations the world over anticipated a return to 1920s fashion, music, and art. The Roaring Twenties were considered a ‘Golden Age’ because of the economic boom that followed the end of World War I and the Spanish flu. These factors, among others, contributed to a global socio-political paradigm shift. Were we crazy to anticipate a positive trajectory for the 2020s? Were we foolish to think we could get the gains without the pain?
In 1921, German-born American artist, JC Leyendecker, created an illustration for the Saturday Evening Post’s New Year’s Eve edition (for 1922). It was one of a series that spanned 40 years but what makes this one particularly interesting today is its relevance 100 years later. It depicts Baby New Year throwing salt on the dove of peace.
In various contexts, the dove symbolises innocence, renewal of life, the end of war, deliverance, forgiveness, and peace. But why the salt? To prevent the dove of peace from flying away, of course!
Salting a bird's tail
He went to catch a dicky bird,
There’s a nursery rhyme that dates back to at least the 17th century. This, in turn, is believed to be derived from a folktale that states you can catch a bird by putting salt on its tail. The reason for this is: a) the salt startles the bird, b) the salt interferes with the bird’s ability to fly away, c) there are magical properties in salt that cast a spell over the bird, or d) if you’re close enough to pour salt on a bird’s tail, you’re probably close enough to catch it anyway. On a metaphorical level, salting a bird’s tale is an analogy or idiom for immobilising people.
South African audiences would be familiar with the iconic local salt brand, Cerebos, and its illustration of a child chasing a chicken, trying to pour salt on it. While the slogan “see how it runs” would seem to refer to the chicken running away, it in fact refers to the chemist who mixed calcium phosphate with salt, giving it free-flowing properties. It’s the salt that runs.
Epidemiologists and medical anthropologists would be familiar with the term “syndemic”. By definition, it’s the result of multiple epidemics or disease clusters. It’s the interaction of these diseases and the contributing factors (particularly social, environmental, and economic) and conditions (namely poverty, stress, and structural violence) that worsen the burden of disease. A typical biomedical approach would isolate a disease or pandemic, and then study and treat it as a distinct entity — not connected to anything and independent of context. A systemic approach explores a phenomenon in context and in relation to surrounding phenomena.
Under certain conditions boredom can be full of desires, frustrations and possibilities — Henri Lefebvre
Boredom is a cultural phenomenon with philosophical significance. No matter where in the world or when in history, we have all experienced boredom at some point and to some degree. Boredom feels like an elongation of time and contraction of space; as if time slows down and stretches into unobtainable horizons, grounding us firmly where we are, unable to move from the here and now.
It can be quite a lonely experience; one that removes our sense of control or ability to change the situation. However, boredom can be harnessed in a liberating way. Being alone can provide us with the solace needed to inspire creativity. A quiet from the chaos opens up a world of possibility. It is this dynamic between a push (away from existential despair) and pull (towards finding meaning) that makes boredom a fascinating, paradoxical human truth worth exploring further.
A Plague of Modernity
Kierkegaard distinguishes between boredom and idleness. Boredom is an emptiness; an absence of meaning, but not absent of stimulation. It is possible to be both busy and bored simultaneously. Idleness, on the other hand, creates solitude and resourcefulness. Often, we keep busy to distract ourselves from truly living, or prevent ourselves from making genuine progress and change. Being idle can help us re-orient ourselves; to pause and reflect.
Michael Gardiner (2012), in his exploration of Henri Lefebvre’s account of modernity, understands boredom to be a touchstone through which we grasp “wider anxieties”, “socio-cultural changes”, and “subjective crises” in modern times. Orrin Klapp (1986) explains how a condition of contemporary times is this combination of information overload and an absence of stimuli. This reduces the value and meaning of the things we do in fact have access to, and the activities we participate in. As Klapp puts it, resonance and variety are replaced by redundancy and noise. This generates the possibility for crisis, chaos, and concern.
A Catalyst for Change
We can find meaning and significance in seemingly boring things. Boring objects and activities are embedded in larger systems of operation and meaning-making. Without the boring, how would we measure excitement? How would we judge purpose? How would we find meaning? We cannot have one without the other. In fact, if we shift our understanding of boredom, we might even come to view it as a privilege. How fortunate are those who have the luxury of time? Time with which they can let their hands grow idle, their minds still, and their surroundings calm. Surely it is a privilege to situate ourselves firmly in time. However, it is not that simple. There are many faces to boredom: some que privilege, others are problematic.
A Paradox at Work
Gary Fine (1990) states that all work is temporally structured. Our experience of work shapes our use of time, our behavioural and emotional responses, and how we orient ourselves in relation to the work. Similarly, Clark Molstad (1986) explored the reasons behind people choosing to take on boring jobs, rather than more stimulating work. What Molstad found was that ‘boring’ meant ‘safe’. Repetitive tasks are a way of avoiding situations where responsibility exceeds control. Taking this further, Cynthia Fisher (1993) traced the sources of boredom to:
With this in mind, we can identify the role, the source, and the outcome of boredom in our own work environments. Whether we are of the view that the pandemic has disrupted our ways of working, or that it has revealed a broken system that has long-existed, we could agree that the world of work will never again be the same. How can we return to the usual 9–5 after experiencing the flexibility of invisible and anonymous work? How can we return to a distracting and demanding open-plan office when we have immersed ourselves in the freedom of working from home? How can we return to a barely survivable income when the world stopped and our services were deemed essential to humanity’s survival?
In these in-between times, boredom feels safe; familiar and predictable. However, boredom also feels suffocating, limiting, and powerless. More people might choose seemingly boring jobs for the ritual and routine it offers, or they might venture out of their comfort zone and take on exciting challenges so that they may never again have boredom forced upon them.
My hope for individuals and organisations is that, with multiple perspectives on the multifaceted expressions and experiences of boredom, we might come to appreciate the global pause we find ourselves in, or even simply the quieter moments in our everyday lives. For it is in these times and in these moments that curiosity is fostered, creativity is nurtured, and courage is born.
This article was first published on Medium
Imagine a world where humanity and technology merge seamlessly into a single entity. Does this invoke fear or hope? If you imagine a world where technology replaces people in spaces of work or even rises up against humans in an apocalyptic display – you would no doubt, feel a sense of fear. However, if you imagine a world where technology enhances human ability and extends our lifespans, you might feel a sense of hope.
In a critical reflection of transhumanism at the IFR’s 7th colloquium, Morgen Mutsau, from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) at the University of Zimbabwe, shared a decade’s worth of research into a human-based information system. Central to Mutsau’s argument is that a limited knowledge of computing results in a restricted understanding of and preparation for transhumanism. In other words: we don’t know what we don’t know, and we cannot effectively prepare for the unknown.
Another area of focus in Mutsau’s argument is the idea that the human being has the same data processing architecture and behaviour as that of a computer. In drawing parallels between humans and computers, it is important to note that they have shared capability, but are still distinguishable from one another. “On the issue of intelligence, who is really intelligent?” Asked Billy Matsitse, a participant at the colloquium, “The human being that creates the computer? Or the computer that takes what the creator has done and advances it?” On a similar note, Nyambura Mwagiru added: “The autonomous nature of this creation of the mind depends in my view on its ability to perceive, to discern, and to learn. As learning systems, computational creations of the human mind can become learning systems.”
So, in the end, the enhancement of human ability by technology does not mean a replacement of human essence and importance, and the learning or self-generating nature of intelligent technologies might at times surpass human intelligence, but it does not ever fully sever itself from its human creator. Perhaps it comes down to the computer as mediator of knowledge, and the human as generator of knowledge. For now, at least.
On a human level
With technology infiltrating into every aspect of our lives, how do we define what makes us human; distinguishable from our digital selves and mechanical tools? “From computing to competing: from a species competitiveness perspective, the best way for humans to compete with computers (apart from collaboration) is to behave like a human”, offers Dr Morne Mostert, director of the IFR. Both the human being and the machine computer have the capacity to remember; to encode, to store, and to retrieve memory. So, are we all that different? In short, yes.
Since the 1970s, organisations have been understood largely in terms of the machine metaphor; a closed system of hierarchy, control, authority, networks, and commands. Essentially, understanding human beings and human institutions as a type of computer based on efficient algorithms, we would be able to solve problems, make improvements, and create change in the human world, in the same way we would in the digital and mechanical worlds. However, there is risk of oversimplifying in reducing everything to its core algorithm. This thinking is now being applied to humanity in the form of a transhumanist movement. Transhumanism, says Mutsau, is a transcendent process of moving from one state to the next. Post-humanism, he explains, is the society that exists in the aftermath or era after transcendence.
On a cultural level
Macro-computing, according to Mutsau, has the potential for programmability, corruptibility, and correctability. In the human world, this idea of acquiring and adjusting skills, information, and interactions takes the form of ‘culture’; loosely defined as shared values, beliefs, experiences, communications, and behaviours. Corruptibility often takes the form of conflict, or results in such. Arguably, central to all conflict, is power. Computers, like humans, operate on power – in the literal sense of needing a power supply to function, but also in a metaphorical sense where, for example, you find the problematic use of ‘master/slave’ narratives to describe an asymmetric communication or control between devices or processes. As Doris Viljoen, senior futurist at the IFR, noted: “Computers were, and still are, designed to mimic human information”. We should then be more considerate of the information and behaviour on which we model these systems. We should also question and anticipate the cultural implications computing might have on humanity in return. This raises ethical concerns for rights, obligations, accountability, responsibility, risk, prioritisation, choice, and so much more.
On an individual level
Endo-processing micro-computing, Mutsau explains, makes use of an internal, localised processor; for the human being it is their brain, and for the machine computer it is their CPU. Modelling the human being as a computer organism reveals that both entities are capable of executing data input, processing, and output functions. This I-P-O algorithm (input, processing, output) is considered to be universal and translatable into different contexts or scenarios. The problem, however, is that this linear perception of the relationships between cause and effect – reducing a problem to an issue of function – places this discussion firmly in the ‘simplicity’ realm of the cynefin framework. It reduces the complexity of what it means to be human – our personhood, our agency, our individuality, our choice – and further reduces our understanding of or preparedness for technological advancement.
Instead of human-centred design, this colloquium skewed towards a computational focus – mechanising the human, rather than humanising the machine. Computers operate in binary – it is either true (1) or false (0). We cannot limit humanity to binaries. We exist in flux and fall on spectrums. Comparing men and women and their assumed black-and-white computational capacities, “in a non-binary world where we have trans and intersex individuals too, I wonder what the computational capacity is for these persons?” asks Dr Njeri Mwagiru, senior futurist at the IFR. “We now know that human bias is being programmed into the algorithms, and replicating societal ills in the artificial intelligence realms”, says Dr Nyambura Mwagiru, a participant at the colloquium. Whose wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge systems are we drawing on when developing technology
This article was originally published on IFR
Written by Sarah Babb & Marguerite Coetzee
We lose our bearings in times of turbulence and have differing views of the future. Each with its own rewards and pitfalls. It helps to understand your future orientation to see how it impacts your choices and decisions now, sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating.
Where we are now and where we’re going
We are emerging from lockdown in differing ways, with a range of textures and feelings, as we are confronted by stepping into a profoundly new reality. There is a disorientation as to how we navigate, not even sure where our starting point is let alone where our final destination will be. Some leaders have a sense of grief, a nostalgia for what was, and a sense of loss. Others a sense of relief and guilt in returning to familiar places and familial contact. There are also those with personal quests to find a higher purpose, a seeking for the path into The Big Reset. And many leaders have not looked to far afield and are zoomed in on the immediate crises to be solved, controlled and acted on. Some keep their eyes cast down, their focus in, and their pace fast. This range of orientations is well captured by the notion of future orientations.
“In uncertain worlds, (future orientations) provide a sense of thickness or porosity to the threshold between present and future, holding the future at an indeterminate distance ...Orientations can make the future appear malleable ...or set in stone ...; they capture the rollercoaster of desires and fears that inhabit every one of us.” - Bryant & Knight
How we orient ourselves in time and space
Anthropologists Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight explored the ways in which our temporal orientation - our relationship with the future - influences our present decision-making and imagining of what’s to come. In identifying what our future orientation is, we are able to overcome the associated barriers and to seize the resulting opportunities. Re-orienting ourselves in times of change enables us to build a positive and tangible relationship with tomorrow, today. As leaders then we can re-orient our teams.
We all have the capacity to orient ourselves in time, space, and thought. Orientation implies some form of navigation, relation, and inclination. Being disoriented means losing one’s sense of direction, feeling out of place, and being in a state of confusion. It is in grounding ourselves, assessing the situation we are in, and finding our bearings that we can be re-oriented. When we know where we are and where we want to be, we can figure out a way to get there.
Leaders, in particular, require a re-ignited sense of direction, purpose, and understanding in order to lead their teams through crisis and towards curiosity and creativity. Understanding and mapping future orientations assists leaders to craft alternate ways of viewing the future.
Why we stay in a holding pattern
Mindtraps, such as those identified by Jennifer Garvery Berger, cause us to stay in a holding pattern of seeing single stories, being comfortable, being right and being in agreement. Or we cling onto wanting to control the outcome as if we could force it, holding on with all our might to protect our ego and pride. Teams have collective mindtraps too, that could hold them back from seeing a more potentiality and hope.
It is therefore useful for leaders to see where they find themselves currently with their future orientations and mindtraps, and figure a way out. It is about stepping up to lead with greater ease and impact in complex times; to continue with creativity, courage, and curiosity. For yourself and your teams and communities. And to bed down ways of being future fit in all times.
South Africa’s story is one suspended in turbulence and this notion of uncertainty has rung true for decades. It’s not surprising, then, that Springbok Radio back in the day hosted a competition that asked listeners to decode the acronym: EGBOK. Just as the springbok transitioned from a symbol of separation to hope and then to unity, so, too, can we shift our national narrative and know that Everything’s Gonna Be OK.
The 1950s was a post-war era most commonly associated with a time of conformity and ‘traditional’ gender roles. Pop culture and mass media echoed messages of an ‘ideal’ society that largely excluded people of colour and fetishised domesticated women. It was during the Cold War that the term “nuclear family” was introduced to encourage American women to refuse a career and maintain their family instead. The US was introduced to commercial television, with a growing interest in and supply of soap operas. The target audience of these dramas, which were predominantly sponsored and produced by soap manufacturers, was assumed to be the typical housewife cleaning the house while she listened to the radio.
Meanwhile, South Africa launched its first commercial radio station: Springbok Radio. Similar to US TV at the time, its programmes were reminiscent of white suburban life. By the 1970s, it was making impressive strides (both financially and in listener popularity) yet, by 1985, Springbok Radio was operating at a loss and so it closed.
It’s often stated — with undertones of shame — that South Africa was one of the last countries in the world to get a regular TV service (which happened in 1976). Those in leadership positions prior to 1976 opposed its introduction as it was feared it would bypass parental control in the household and encourage behaviour not accepted by the state.
Despite the late shift to TV, the impact of listeners transforming into viewers meant that less time was spent listening to the radio, and more spent on watching TV. This ultimately led to the end of Springbok Radio. Goodbye to The Adventures of Jet Jungle, sponsored by Jungle Oats and Black Cat; to the BP Smurf Show; and the Chappies Chipmunk Club. No More General Motors on Safari or the Castle Lager Key Game. Not one more Guess Who with All Gold or greeting the bride with Nestlé.
For some South African youth, 1985 was the end of their childhood memories; of gathering around the radio to listen to stories, music, sitcoms, news, and chat shows.
For all of SA, 1985 signalled the beginning of a crumbling oppressive system. The nation collectively held its breath and wondered what the outcome would be. Following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the official political dismantling of apartheid, SA was allowed to participate in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — and won. Up until then, rugby and the Springbok team had been perceived as a symbol of division. As SA chased its dream of being a rainbow nation, the Springboks’ win transformed rugby into a symbol of hope.
In 2018, Siya Kolisi became the first black captain of the Springboks — born a year after Mandela was freed from prison but still carrying the weight of apartheid — and a year later he led his team to victory in the 2019 Rugby World Cup and rugby has become a symbol of unity.
The morning of the first day of lockdown, I was woken by a complete absence of sound. It felt like a scene from a budget sci-fi film.
The usual rumbling of a delivery truck outside our window wasn’t there. The call and response of people either side of the street was absent. The incessant hooting of taxis was gone. Even the overly vocal dog next door was silenced. Only the wind, like the hum of a distant ocean, found its way through a gap in the window frame. A dove swooped past and I felt and heard it, rather than catching a glimpse.
Soundscapes & fearscapes — sounds of life
Our acoustic environment is filled with soundmarks that make our immediate soundscape unique, compared to anywhere else in the world. These sonic facets of a community offer insight into the physical qualities of and social actors within a space. Similarly, stories and storytelling help us make sense of our surroundings, as well as how we imagine a future world and the people in it. Storytellers have the power to create a sense of fear or of hope in relation to future possibilities, as well as a notion of optimism or pessimism towards humanity and its ways of being.
On a Saturday in April 2020, a community of futurists and authors gathered virtually for a nine-hour symposium: Science Fiction as Foresight. Writer Karl Schroeder presented on theories of change, identifying six lenses through which we perceive change. Paraphrasing his definitions:
Conducting fieldwork in a pandemic isn’t only possible but necessary. Brands and businesses have the opportunity to be present and listen. Here are some innovative ways that researchers are exploring the world while staying home: