History shapes culture
One of my frustrations on arriving in the UK three years ago was how little people seemed to use online communication. It was weird and unexpected, because coming from Nigeria where it was part of everyday life, I had imagined that it would be even more so in a place where technology infrastructure was even more developed. Instead I found to my surprise that people would always prefer to meet up for coffee than chat over WhatsApp—except their calendar wouldn’t be free for and that coffee catchup would have to wait a month or two. It was frustrating: I mean, we had all this technology that made it possible for us to connect right now, but we have to wait a month?
Until coronavirus made the jump from medical textbooks to everyday language—and suddenly everything changed.
It’s interesting how, after years of having technology to help us connect better with one another, we’re actually using it for just that. The explosion of Zoom is a great example of this: the service has been available for years, but was mainly known in enterprise and online course circles. Yeah, people have always FaceTimed and Skyped, but it was sort of the exception, not the rule.
The funny thing is we could have done this all this time. Skype has been around since 2003, FaceTime since 2010, and Zoom since 2013. But as we find again and again with human nature, choice triggers change far less than challenges do. Creativity requires constraint. To think outside the box, we need a box—in this case, our own homes.
And all this gets me thinking about how history shapes culture—and how tomorrow will be shaped by the history we’re living in right now.
Time and tech wait for no one
The industrial revolution changed humanity’s relationship with time. It started with trains and how their efficient running required precision to the minute, and for the first time people moved from talking about time in general terms (“at about the sixth hour”) to being precise about it (“6:13 pm”). And that slowly trickled down into everything else, because of course if you had to catch a train that was leaving at precisely 5:03 pm, and it was going to be a 45 minute ride to the station (if you had any desire to arrive with a few minutes to spare), then your 3 pm meeting had not only better end by 4 pm, it had better start right on time so you could resolve everything necessary. It’s why you will find that countries who experienced the industrial revolution generally prize time, while countries who didn’t retain the older more loose relationship with it, and continue to see time as a guideline, not a rule: 4 pm still means anytime up to 5 pm. History shapes culture.
And so, I wonder, just as the industrial revolution changed our relationship with time, what if in our relationship to tech is also being changed by social distancing—or perhaps more precisely, physical distancing?
Because, as many have pointed out, we seem to be socially connecting a whole lot more than ever.
And that’s interesting, because for decades we have fantasised about this. Right from its earliest days, we’ve been excited about the potential of communication technology for better human connection. (Think how Mark Zuckerberg has tried for decades to convince us that Facebook was about bringing people together.) Yet, again and again, while we have indeed used tech for connection, we’ve arguably used it much more for distraction—distracting us from one another, from focused work and even from our own thoughts. So often the ability to connect across the world became a way to avoid connecting with those right in front of us. And as communications tech has risen, so have the concerns about ensuring we don’t get sucked up in it, that we don’t end up losing our ability to focus, and our connections to one another.
Suddenly, stuck at home, unable to connect with one another, we’re getting incredibly creative with the tools we had all this time. Churches figuring out new ways to connect online. Families playing games together across countries. I started this essay as part of a weekly online meet up with fellow writers. But we could have done this 10, 15 years ago—yes the video quality we can transmit is far higher, but the point is it was possible. The ability is not exactly new. What’s new, as I see it, is something else: our sudden global awareness of the importance of access to others.
Access ≠ connection
Access, mind you, not connection. Connection implies something that’s there. Access implies what’s possible. The loss we’ve faced in the last couple months seems to me less about what losing what we had, and more about losing what we could have. We could drive down to see our friends, our parents, if we wished. We could hang out for coffee if we wanted. We could stroll down to the shops any old time we felt like. We could do any of these things, but we didn’t necessarily do them as much as we could have. Partly because we could always do them tomorrow, right? Until February 2020, when we collectively woke up to the hard reality that we could suddenly no longer do these things even if we wanted. And we suddenly lost the ability to be confident about tomorrow.
After the warnings all these years about how connection was being threatened by tech, it turns out that losing access is what really gets us to act. It would appear we’ve somehow equated the possibility of connecting with actually connecting—as long as it was possible to connect it didn’t bother us that we were actually connecting a lot less than we could—or should.
Faced with the loss of access, however, we’ve stepped our tech game up to keep the lines open. We’re getting really creative about how we use our technology. People who couldn’t be bothered to “figure out all this complex techie stuff” quickly adapted to the new reality. Industries like medicine and education that have historically been late adopters (“it just wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t in person,” they would say) have been thrown into right into the deep end of the tech pool. Everyone is innovating on the fly, as finding your way around video calling software has abruptly become a basic skill. And yes, none of it is the same as in-person meetings, but, like all with all change, what they lose in some areas, they gain in others. And let’s be honest—were we really meeting in person all that much?
The pandemic will end, and many are already wondering what the new normal will look like. A lot of the predictions have been along the lines of the lessons we are learning that some hope will make us better. I have my reservations about that—if there’s anything to be learned from history, it doesn’t inevitably make us better. But history does shape culture: the bubonic plague, the two world wars and Great Depression, they all shaped those who lived through it. Nearer home in Nigeria, our civil war shaped us in ways we haven’t yet quite got over.
What happens to us changes not just how we act, but how we see things. But rather than just be changed, it can also be an opportunity to choose change—to learn to see differently. So, yes, I really do think how we see tech is going to change. And I fear that how we see each other may be affected negatively—there’s a part of me that worries that people may never be able to confidently touch one another again. I hope I’m wrong. But besides how we are made to see differently at this time, can we learn to see differently the value of letting go—of schedules and deadlines and need for control?
And not just to chill and do nothing, but specifically to make space for others. We can “drop in” on each other now, with a lot less planning and scheduling than we used to think was necessary—because life has thrown all that apart. But we can choose, going forward, to make giving people access a deliberate part of our lives. After all if life can disrupt us, the least we can do is let those we love disrupt us from time to time. The last two months have been a reminder that our own lives aren’t as much in our control as we like to believe. But maybe they can also be a nudge to embrace letting those we care have a bit more of that control as well, and a reminder to not equate access with connection.
There’s no question that pandemic will change us, even if we don’t know how yet. But we can choose to change as well. What will you see differently?
There’s a world of difference between changing and being changed
My thanks to Nibras Ibnomer and Adjoa Armah for early feedback, and to Dan Burton (on Unsplash) for the photo.