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Making good in a modern world

April 3, 2018
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Local knowledge exchange in Zemalak, Cairo (2016)…

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….re-visited in 2018

You’ve heard the statistic about the ‘world producing as much information every day as we have in all of humanity’. You maybe read it on Twitter. Or your friend sent you a link to it via WhatsApp. It was probably something like that.

Then there’s the one about our brains only using a small percentage of their capability, and yet we now struggle to absorb more than just bite-sized amounts of news, or information, at any one time.

Sensationalist media headlines fight for our attention in an ever cluttered communications arena. Pictures of Syrian children splattered in blood are up against celebrity scoops, and Trip Advisor adverts mapping our movements and intruding onto our screens and into our lives. The extent to which we depend on, and benefit from, technology is growing exponentially, at the same time as it is eerily replacing so many aspects of our identity, and how and what we fill our waking hours doing.

Do we embrace or reject these advancements? A goose-bump inflection, back to school days of reading Orwell and Huxley, leaves me choosing the latter, and wondering into what flying spaceship fantasy futures my daughters will be subject.     Sadly, however, I am only able to sustain such musings about the future for a few seconds (I, too, it would seem, can’t manage more than that) before concluding that my parents would have had similar pauses for thought thirty years ago, the day they started hauling mobile phones around in their cars, complete with batteries as big as toy boxes.

In which case, all of this change, this speed, this reflection, anxiety, inspiration, all of this debate, conflict, connectivity, this now, could be merely a part of our grand design, a piece of the circularity and predictability of humankind, a clichéd fleck of paint on the canvas of what we have come to know as life and being.

Could it be that how we navigate this (how we prevent ourselves from getting lost in a modern day world that both inspires and smothers) is what might define us in the 21st century? If not that, then perhaps navigation can at least inspire our collective drive.

Or something like that.

**********

Here in Saigon, modernization is in full swing. And much of it is agonizing to watch.

Vertical concrete monoliths, ever taller, periodically re-shape the skyline and bring with them new offices, malls and franchises. Three years ago, the 40th anniversary of the end of the war was sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts and Domino’s pizza. Imagine that ironic, yet perfectly un-newsworthy, reality? Instead, childhood obesity is now an actual damning reality for the emerging middle classes here.

Independence from foreign rulers should be an ultimate ‘pivot’ for a country and its citizens. Those moments in history are often documented as celebrated times and a pre-cursor to positive change, and it is no exception in Vietnam: accelerated economic growth over the last twenty years; lifting people out of poverty; providing social safety nets; keeping the peace.

And yet. As more central Saigon avenues are stripped of their endearing colonnades of trees, whose canopies of inter-twinned branches have overseen the last 300 years of street-life in this charming and enterprising city; as bright orange cranes hang ominously over another art-deco corner building, where French inspired balconies guard their own windows back to an era when all knowledge and information was curated either on the pavements below, or in the wet markets between tradesmen and women, or exchanged over iced-tea beakers under shaded terraces; as these inevitable, yet tumultuous daily aesthetic transitions unfold, you cannot help but wonder how this saps at the cultural heart of all things embodied by those very trees, buildings and markets, and in those exchanges.

All inside of a region of the world that is simultaneously burgeoning with as much opportunity and prosperity as it is spectacularly harbouring inequality, pollution, and worrying scales of forced migration.

Like nowhere else on the planet, Asia epitomizes another fact of today, which is that we are now an urban species. And we must adapt.

**********

This morning, I walked past the familiar sight of workers in conical hats and blue all-in-one uniforms, bent double over pristine lawns, hand weeding, with empty paint tins and kitchen knives their only tools.

Around the next corner, street vendors, already four hours into their working days before dawn, meticulously arranging banh mi sandwiches and com tam rice portions, the exact recipes and techniques for which are not to be found online, but passed down by those generations before them.

Whether what it is we choose to call our ‘learning’ was crafted from inside a classroom, from time sat with our family eating dinner, from personal experiments, from an app designed by a savvy technician, or from working alongside an auntie preparing street-food in Saigon, a paradigm shift in how we learn and share knowledge has begun.

More so, it has not simply begun, it will continue to reframe the parameters for our learning as frequently as we check our own Facebook feeds, or robotically click our ‘liking’ of someone else’s reposted quotation, whose origin is in fact likely to be from centuries ago – Churchill or Shakespeare, perhaps – the former we now know to be a documented racist and user of chemical weapons, the identity of the latter recently in question, possibly playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe. Or possibly not. But something like that.

In this way, connectivity is already bringing about exponential change to our lives in a way that will tilt the axis of our way of being. For better or for worse.

As block chain technology is demonstrating, what we knew before to be our pre-ordained way to transact is now irreversibly going to shift, so, too, will other norms (social, economic, political) craft themselves around our constantly redefining versions of communities. To the extent that there will be a time when nation states, caste systems, gender prejudices, ethnic minorities, ethnic majorities – take your pick – are able to morph into redundant constructs. The potential of connectivity is powerful because it defies the need for borders, or barriers, or divisions. It can enable us to be “open source” in the truest of forms.

What, today, we might recognize as a kind of subterranean structure, that billions of us have a stake in, tomorrow will still be there, with millions more connected, contributing, and shaping.

And it is in the nexus of where we connect in this way that innovation and creation can thrive best. Whether currently in the form of social platforms, networks, hub structures, or the like, the magic of today’s moment is in harnessing how these interact, taking on their own forms and binding past and present ideologies and curiosities to bring about new practices of coalescence.

**********

Last month, whilst in Cairo for work, I snapped a photograph of a butcher’s shop that my friend and colleague, Christine, and I had walked past two years previous.

Both photos are above (and on Instagram, obviously) and afterwards we realized that each inadvertently captured the white-jacketed shop-keeper in the bustle of his day. In his presence, the many mega-bites of data exchanged over the counter and disseminated wider as part of that shop’s enterprise, would no doubt reveal a myriad of ideas, knowledge, gossip, debate, and advice. The usage and outcomes of which manifest in different forms, and ultimately leave in indelible impression all across Egypt.

I took my butcher’s shop photo stood underneath a flyover, itself a noisy conduit and reminder of the city’s fast-paced modernizing. Standing there, you feel a pulse to the unfiltered, spluttering façade of Cairo which, even as you guard your eyes and your mouth from its toxic haze, is exhilarating. Exhaust fumes mix and settle with never-ending acres of sand dust, blown in and recycled from bygone ancestries, caking the tourist paraphernalia sold in marketplaces (and, no doubt, online) only to then be swept off the pavements into the city sewers and back out into the sea.

That pulse is here in Saigon, also, and in other places I’ve visited, and makes me yearn for the best of connectivity and modern living to enrich urban and rural habitats, the world over.

My anxiety about change, particularly where it affects culture, may well be the reason that, subconsciously, I surround myself with antique souvenirs from the places to which I’ve travelled – mantelpiece reminders re-affirming an old, whilst I endeavor to affirm and embrace a new.

How to ‘make good’ in a modern world, for me, is then perhaps not about worrying that one is lost, nor whether one has the right tools to navigate.

It is more about acceptance and about compassion – accepting changes that you don’t always understand, and then finding outlets for compassion along the way. And, in a better connected eco-system, with ever complex technologies, this can only get easier.

Like that.

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The River Nile, through the haze.

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