The small noises in the interconnectedness of things

GUEST COLUMN LAWRENCE KAMWI

NORWEGIAN historian Christian Lous Lange viewed technology as a useful servant.

However, he was concerned that it simultaneously possessed a worrying and powerful capacity to easily turn into a dangerous master. It is worth noting that nearly a century after his death, his prophetic and futuristic words retain an undiminished relevance as technological advances — present and future — hold humankind in awe.

With greater interdependence, everything and everyone is literally connected with everyone else, and communication — as Jack Bauer says on the TV series 24 — is in real time.

But I have a concern here: In the fast-developing, quick-breaking news cycle — the fake and the real, citizen journalism bravely challenging the official — who or what does one listen to? Author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Kevin Kelly, warns that “when there are millions of books…applications, millions of everything requesting our attention … and most of it free — being found is valuable”.

Leadership consultant Barbara T Armstrong develops the theme of “being found” a little further. She shares her own worries about “the din of business selling in a hypercompetitive 24/7 marketplace. Today, via websites, blogs, social media, direct mail, trade shows and countless more channels, companies are selling their products
and services non-stop and noisily”.

How then does communication continue to achieve its aims — of building relationships, mending broken ones,
encouraging people to discard harmful habits, overcome challenging situations, and restore the values of decency
and sensitivity? The interconnectedness of things obviously has positives and negatives. I prefer the
interconnectivity that still builds respect in people’s lives. Ubuntu (people are not just individuals; they
live in communities)!

Two sad developments in South Africa caught my eye this week. I am not about to pass judgment; just a rehash of
what has been publicly reported. The first is the gruesome murder of university student Uyinene Mrwetyana. It
reminded society — if any prompt was needed — that gender-based violence continues its bestial and heartless
prowl. I hope to interrogate this further: Is the fight against gender-based violence really outwitting and out-
manoeuvring all interventions?

For a start, I fully agree with Lisa Kemmerer who notes that “we can curb this tendency only if all forms of
violence are exposed and challenged — rape and slaughter, rodeos and brothels. We cannot put out a fire by
removing one coal”.

The second and more widely reported item focused on the apparently targeted attacks on foreign-truck drivers. In
the end, the incidents of violence got out of control. Senselessness reigned. And the world denounced the
clearly xenophobic actions. Accomplished writer and commentator Sisonke Msimang has an informative essay
entitled Belonging — Why South Africans Refuse to Let Africa In. In the essay, she takes fellow South Africans
to task for creating “an Africa that begins beyond South Africa’s borders”.

“South Africans may not always like each other across racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on
their connection to the apartheid project.” I find this a searing commentary on the life (and live) force of the
violence that is still alive in South Africa.

In the Daily Maverick, Genevieve Lanka observed that “headline after headline roared a bitter truth, one that
patriotic hearts must reckon with. From sprawling townships to suburbia … it was clear — we are at war!”

So much noise accompanied both stories that it was difficult to know which voice to listen to at the end. The
chief executive of the Public Media Alliance, Sally-Ann Wilson, has decried the fact that hopes for an
“egalitarian media space; a space for the voiceless to be heard at last” are truncated by an obsession with
technology which “sometimes blinds us to the value of content”.

Indeed, one of today’s frequently used phrases is that “technology is a double-edged sword”. It is praised for
enabling us to do things that were previously impossible. Technology has, without doubt, improved ways of
conducting business in virtually all spheres of life. Yet at the risk of being labelled a technophobe, I must
confess that I still spend time pondering on technology’s flaws and handicaps.

As the world welcomes the growing paperless society and revels in the existence of computerised records, one
still comes across sober, reasoned, and thoughtful moments. One such is from medical doctor John Sanford
Limouze: “We’ve decided that it’s better to have fully-trained doctors in the hospital all day … But there are
downsides. The people I see in the hospital don’t know me, and I don’t know them. And when a person leaves the
hospital, his or her doctor may not know what I have done and why.”

He finds support from Jerome Groopman who says “seeing what other doctors have written about a patient can trap
us into thinking about their illness in the same way, and blind us to alternative diagnoses”. The two
observations bemoan the loss of genuine and sincere investment in relationships. (I miss talking to my doctor!).

While documented records are inevitable, genuine, empathetic bonds between doctor and patient are still the way
to go. A leading voice on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, amplifies this imperative by noting that “if
you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going
far”.

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