COVID-19 and zoom…meetings expose confused technology policies

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

THE motto for Zimbabwe’s National Development Strategy One (NDS1) is: “Leaving no one and no place behind.”  

This is a most challenging motto to apply to the realm of information communication technologies (ICTS) and media platforms based on them.

Contrary to the ideal implied in the NDS1 motto, the COVID-19 pandemic and the tendency by elites to resort to the use of zoom meetings for almost every subject have exposed rampant confusion about African ICT policies and practices and how they are covered in the media.

Let me start by inviting the reader to consider two recent stories in The Sunday Mail for April 18 2021 and The Herald for April 16 2021, for instance.

The Sunday Mail story was titled ‘Virtual meeting gone wrong.’ 

It read, in parts, as follows:

“A traditional leader was recently dressed down by South Africa Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Portfolio Chairperson, Faith Muthambi, after a naked woman emerged on screen during virtual proceedings.

The traditional leader, Xolile Ndevu of the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL), had been presenting (a report) on a variety of issues… when the naked woman entered the bedroom much to the dismay of Muthambi.”

Now, this story has been circulated widely in SA and all over the region.  

Yet, for all its drama and hype, the incident in question does not represent what can really go wrong with zoom meetings.  

As I shall explain later, there are more serious hazards of a policy nature, especially for public entities, public organisations and education systems.  

Perhaps that is why The Sunday Mail had to place the story in its ‘Weird World’ section.

The Herald story was called ‘Government commits to full use of technology’. And it opened as follows:

“Government is committed to working with all stakeholders in the ICT sector to ensure full use of technology and a level playing field,” Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services Minister Dr Jenfan Muswere said yesterday.

Among other things, concerning the first edition of the Zimbabwean Domain Name Systems Forum, the Minister was reported as saying: 

“Our mandate as a Government is to connect the unconnected and ensure that everyone and everywhere has access to the Internet.” 

The contradiction, which the reporter could have pursued further, emerged toward the end of the story, which ended with the following:

“Last week, Bindura University of Science Education Vice-Chancellor Professor Eddie Mwenje said technology was the way to go and any organisation that does not adapt runs the risk of failure.

He said since the world was changing those [found to be] redundant will be flushed out either by technology or lack of digital skills.”

To show that the technology story is an important one, The Daily News carried two related items three days apart: ‘Suicide teen highlights need for social media policy for schools’, April 20 2021; and ‘Government keen to digitise rural schools’, April 17 2021.

Now, there are many challenges which are being glossed over in these stories, the most obvious one being the fact that usually the purpose of effective communication is lost and either the technology itself or some accident or glitch becomes the story.  

I list the challenges in no particular order of importance.

  • First, and specifically for Zimbabwe, the gadgets, air time and bundles are always over-priced relative to income levels of the overwhelming majority.  This is partly because of the impact of economic sanctions on the entire economy and partly due to the effects of sanctions upon business practices over the last 20 years.
  • Second, there is a glaring failure among those advocating the adoption of ICTS to distinguish among three perspectives: that of the inventors of the gadgets, that of the marketers and that of the consumers. Much of the time one does not know which view is being touted.

What is clear is that most public officials’ views are not strategically considered.  For example, when we hear politicians urging poor people to embrace technology we should quietly remind them that in the world of capitalism, and specially under conditions of the illegal sanctions regime imposed through the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, no technology has ever been made and sold for the purpose of embracing it. Our ancestors, foremothers and forefathers have always advised that we harness technology after strategic consideration.

Zoom meetings and the simulation of democracy, accountability and access

In 1995, Mark Slouka published a book called The War of Worlds: Cyber Space and the High-Tech Assault on Reality.

In the introduction, Slouka wrote this:

“We’ve  come a long way, very quickly.  What surprises us now, increasingly, is the shock of the real: the nakedness of face-to-face communication, the rough force of the natural world. We can watch hours of nature programming, but place us in a forest or a meadow and we don’t know quite what to do with ourselves.  We look forward to hanging out at the Brick with (fictitious) Chris on Northern Exposure [a show] but dread running into our neighbour while putting out trash.  There has come to be something almost embarrassing about the unmediated event. We’re more comfortable   with its [media]representation…”

Now, 1995 was long before COVID-19 and the new political economy of social distancing which is already being dubbed ‘the new normal’.  

But in many ways, it is neither new nor normal.  

Digital technology was preparing us for it for more than 20 years, even without COVID-19.

In the current context of Zimbabwe, the celebration of zoom meetings and other forms of digital mediation for public institutions represents a brutal, secular application of the Book of Matthew Chapter 21 Verse 14.  “For many are called but few are chosen,” or simply: “Many are called few are chosen.”

This means, first, that availability of something on the market is confused with its accessibility; or broadcasting a message or sending out a message to the masses is mistaken for its on-the-ground resonance.

Second, it means that the media representation of an experience is treated as superior to the experience of those being symbolically represented.  

More graphically, feeding a few selected hungry people in the glare of digital tv cameras is superior to feeding hungry masses where one might risk a deadly stampede or riot.  

So, we resort to symbolic and selective media feedings.  The exclusionary digital term for those not chosen is PONA, people of no account!

Third, zoom meetings and other digital communications use a brutal application of Linear Perspective Vision which, for lack of space, can be characterised in general as based on exclusion.  

That is why the naked woman appearing in the South African zoom meeting made news.  

She was, and is, part of the real world of the traditional leader’s homelife.  Her presence may even suggest that the leader participating in the ‘fake’ meeting was pre-occupied with many things which had little to do with the subject of the supposed meeting.

Zoom meetings do not only imply distancing; they are a virtual version of ‘the transportation theory of communication’.  But as author Tony Schwartz has pointed out in his Resonance Principles: “We seek to strike a responsive chord in people, not to get (or transport) a message across.”  

According to Schwartz: “Man has never before experienced a world of visual sensation patterned in an auditory mode.  

In communication at electronic speed, we no longer direct information into an audience, but try to evoke stored information out of them, in a patterned way.”

In this sense, most zoom meetings for public organisations are a waste of time and effort because the exchange often is just among like-minded officials digitally hooked up and completely by-passing the povo in two ways: Because the povo are not online or because the officials are evoking only the information and experience which is privy to themselves and is not part of the povo’s prevailing mindset and current experience.  

COVID-19 has merely widened this gap and that is why there are public riots in so many countries. 

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