Saturday, March 22, 2014

Technology as Magic

Written by Ty

If you have traveled much in Africa, you will have witnessed and wondered at: vehicles absurdly overloaded and driven with reckless abandon, churches with PA systems turned up way too loud, lights, TVs, and radios that seem to be on for no reason, as well as other strange uses of and attitudes toward technology.

In my last post, I tried to unpack the fascinating and convoluted issues surrounding technology in Africa.  A mentor of mine describes one of the major problems in Africa as “technology without science.”  By science he means the foundational philosophy that gives birth to technology, a way of finding out truths about the natural world—as opposed to the “scientism” or “empiricism” of the West, which at its root is a religious belief that science can explain everything—that the only kind of knowledge that can be trusted is knowledge that can be empirically proven—as if this were the ONLY legitimate kind of knowing.

The African villager, who generally has animistic pagan worldview assumptions whether he calls himself a Christian or not, typically views technology in much the same way as he views witchcraft. To him, both technology and sorcery are useful tools for exercising power over the natural world—your environment, circumstances, and other people.  At its end, technology is an exercise in power.  It can allow you to do magical things that any practical person would find useful, such as: have light at night, scare away intruders, carry your voice over large distances, travel two days walk in one hour, and even talk to people in distant villages.  And it is assumed if you have any of these kinds of power, you should use it.  A side note: Interestingly and more than a little frighteningly, Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project, believed much the same thing.  “Why build the bomb?” he was asked.  He replied, “Because we can.”

My last post explored an example of “technology without science.”  Let me trot out a few more examples:

Electronics.  These are the most commonly witnessed example of technology as magic.  You almost never see a television that is turned off.   I even sometimes see them intentionally left on, with the volume turned way up, all night long.  If you see a TV that is turned off during waking hours, it is safe to assume that the power is out.  I recently had a fairly important meeting with a high up government official—one of the top 200 men in the country.  We met in his office.  The TV was on when we entered the room (though he was ignoring it).  It remained on during the entire meeting.  I was not nearly so able to ignore it as he was—it was showing some sleazy South American soap opera.  It remained on when we left.  It seemed so bizarre to me that this good, reputable, and powerful man would tolerate this appliance being intrusive all the time, but he did.  Remember, the thinking is: if you have the power, use it.

About a year ago, I was kept up almost all night by a very loud recording of some kind that our neighbor played all night long.  It was massively distorted and SUPER loud—way louder than a TV could ever be on it’s own.  Believe me, the cops would show up if you did this in America.  Though it was in Swahili, after several hours of it I eventually figured out that this too was another seedy soap opera.  This one, I think, was Nigerian in origin, overdubbed in Swahili.  By 3 AM, I had had all I could take.  I got dressed and into the blackness of the village.  I was going to insist that somebody turn that commotion off.  I was mad.  As I stormed through the front gate of the City of Hope, one of the security guards, surprised to see me at 3AM, asked if there was a medical emergency.

“What is that NOISE?  Why are they doing that?” I bemoaned, pointing to the neighbor’s house a few hundred yards off.

“Oh that,” he said.  “That’s just the youth.”

“The youth?”

“Yes... Having a rally.”

I just stood there dumbfounded, not even knowing what to ask.  “Why are they making that noise so loud?” I asked after a while.  (Yes, my Swahili sounds like a three year old.)

“Don’t worry.  It’s nothing bad,” he assured me.  “People like it.  The neighbors like it.  It’s not a problem.”

I wanted to ask, “What do you mean they like it?  They LIKE people blaring that trash to the whole neighborhood all night long?”  But I didn’t ask.  It was already clear that the answer was yes.  Now I know that people think, “If you have the power, use it.”

I gave up and tried to go back to sleep.  Mercifully, the car battery they were using for power ran out of juice about half an hour later.

P. A. systems are used in the much the same way.  Africans can sing beautifully in wonderful and multilayered harmonies.  And dance.  They just seem to be born with it.  There is great potential for aesthetically beautiful church services.  Fifty years ago, it must have been that way.  Enter, technology.  Now, any church that can possibly afford them has a PA system, a keyboard, and a microphone.  I’m talking about churches with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatch roofs that seat fifty people on rickety benches.  They have these things, more often than not.  Usually they don’t have anyone who can actually play the keyboard.  So the entire service, every one of the twenty or so songs, is sung to some variation of the keyboard’s “demo” mode,--the composition of some nameless Casio employee.  The demo mode is certainly the most important option to have on your church keyboard out in the bush.  And again, the room is no bigger than a large living room in America.  You don’t need a PA system.  But not only is there almost always one present, it is ALWAYS turned all the way up, so is therefore insanely distorted.  It’s hard enough to follow a sermon in a second language when it’s not distorted.  Furthermore, I have been approached many times and asked to donate some money to such and such church—they are having a fundraiser.  Guess what for?  Every single time, it has been for a keyboard and PA system.  I grieve over this.  I like our little church here with 200 children and no technology.  Two weeks ago one of our sixteen year olds preached.  I was so proud of him.

Phones.  I find mobile phones irritating enough in America, but it’s even worse here.   I used to find it strange that here, in a very very relational culture, if your phone rings, you interrupt whatever conversation you are having, and you answer it, pretty much no matter who you are talking to in person.  No apologies are made or expected.  A while ago I explained to a teacher that in America this behavior would be considered quite rude.  His disbelieving response was, “But it’s the phone!” At the time, I couldn’t make much sense out of his rejoinder.  Since then I have realized that even my fairly educated friend (for the village) thinks of his phone more as a talisman of magical power than as a tool.  Last week I sat in a “restaurant” having tea while our truck was being loaded with sheet metal.  A lone young man across from me was making a very public display of his power and success.  He had four cell phones arrayed on the table in front of him in a little arc, and for at least half an hour made a show of fiddling with each contraption in turn.  He didn’t even make any calls. He just toyed with them.  For show.  I kinda wanted to chuck them into the open sewer nearby.

As a segue to my bit on vehicles, I’ll tell you something fantastic that I just saw two days ago.  I kid you not, I saw a young guy riding a motorcycle on a very rough dirt road and texting at the same time!  He was not a passenger.  He was driving.  I hope he is still alive.

Vehicles.  Now this example, though it really is seriously dangerous, I still usually find kind of funny. The same day I saw the motorcycle texter, I saw the second most ridiculous load on a motorcycle I have ever seen: a coffin.  I don’t know whether it was occupied or not, though I suspect that it was, because there was only one other person on the bike—the driver.  If the coffin had been empty, there would have been at least one more passenger along for the ride—why waste the power?  (The most ridiculous thing I have ever seen tied to the back of a motorcycle was a 55-gallon drum—full of gasoline! That’s basically a bomb on wheels.  He should make an arrangement with the guy with the coffin.)  These examples are to show that the general philosophy of motor vehicle traffic here is: drive as fast as you possibly can at all times, while carrying the largest possible load that you can—to the point of absurdity.  This behavior is now beginning to make more sense to me.  It’s not just about trying to get the best economy out of our vehicle as you can, because overloading your vehicle will certainly break it and cost more money in the long run.  The philosophy is, “Get absolutely as much power out of your magic carpet (vehicle) as you possibly can at all times. Take advantage of this power now, while it is available to you, because the magic in the carpet may no longer work later.” This also explains much about the condition of both the roads and the vehicles.  If you believe that science is the foundation for the working of your car, then you maintain it.  If you believe that magic makes your car go and that evil spirits make it stop, then you don’t maintain it.  I once heard a Canadian in Africa proclaim in jest, “Everyone knows oil is just an American hang up!”  Also noteworthy: I am told that in the capital city, if two identical cars are for sale, and one was owned by a mzungu while the other was owned by a Tanzanian, the foreigner’s car will bring twice as much money.

A small confession.  Sometimes I don't blame people for thinking of cars a magic.  I once stayed in Kenyan mountain village for a few months, which could only be accessed by an unbelievably bad "road."  Many times it was all one could do to get a very capable Land Cruiser up that road.  But one day I walked out of the clinic to find a Toyota Corolla parked in the village.  "How did they ever get that thing up here?" I wondered.  It did seem that that Corolla had super powers!

Education.  This one really irks me.  Most schools have a motto painted on some public space, often a sign on the road.  Usually this motto reads, “Knowledge is power,” or “Education is wealth,” or some variation thereof.  The worst one I ever saw read: "Education is a weapon." Yuck. The focus on power is clear.  I might ask, “Power to do what?” or, “Wealth which will accomplish what?”  Unmitigated power is not necessarily a good thing.  As I have said before, if you increase an evil man’s power by educating him, you are just going to make him more effective at doing evil.  While I agree that knowledge and education tend to lead to power and wealth, this ought not be the prime motivation for seeking knowledge.  Compare this power grab understanding of education with the words of St. Augustine, “Credo ut intelligam.”  Loosely translated, “I believe in order to understand.”  I am all for African kids getting educated.  In fact I am spending a significant part of my life and resources to exactly that end.  But education should be the pursuit of truth.  Not the pursuit of power.

Medicine.  This should be the area where I have the most insight.  But I don’t.  I’m still working through it.  I can think of a few simple examples.

We had an earthquake about two weeks ago.  It was at about 9PM.  I was asleep.  I woke up thinking, "Why does it sound like there is a bus on the roof?"  But it wasn't a big earthquake.  Nothing was broken.  For the last two weeks, we have be assailed by a flu epidemic of some kind.  Nearly everyone has developed fever, headaches, and GI symptoms.  Someone just told me this morning that it is well known that whenever there is an earthquake, many people will become sick.

Patients in the hospital frequently turn up the rate in their own intravenous drips.  Outpatients sometimes go home with ten days of antibiotics and take them all in one day.  If some medicine (magic potion) is good, then more is better, right?  Most patients at our clinic have been to a traditional healer or shaman before they come to the clinic.  Perhaps they come to ascertain whether we have more power than the shaman.  I have noticed a sharp increase in patient volume when there are white people present at the clinic, including me.  This is one of the reasons I actually limit my time at the clinic.  I want neither the Tanzanian staff nor the public to think that the clinic’s performance is dependent on me—or my power.  Some mission hospitals are introducing CAT scanners.  They charge less than ten percent of what the same study would cost in America.  You can fly to Nairobi, get a CAT scan, and fly back to America for about the same price as getting the same CAT scan in America.  But these are still expensive machines that have to be maintained with costly imported parts and foreign personnel.  So in this economy it still costs a princely sum to get a CAT scan—more than most people make in a month. Just think of what incredible magical powers these expensive contraptions from the West are imagined to have--perhaps even more than an earthquake!

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