Never the great leveller

About last month before the schools and offices were reopened in Malaysia, I set up a video call for my mother as one of her weekly rituals to talk to her grandnieces. Only about 10 minutes in the video call, Aufa, 7 years old, decided to throw tantrum and wailed to her mother, who was perched attentively by her side, that she does not want to “do video” anymore. “Too many video,” she lamented, “video with teacher, video with Ustazah (for her Quran class), video with friends, video with Tok Teh (my mother), no more video!” We ended the call abruptly, abiding by the request of the disgruntled child.

There is no back to normal now, a reality that I have slowly accepted as I no longer number the days of the (semi) lockdown on the top of my journal page on a daily basis. Just like the anxiety-inducing needle during the 2016 US election, it’s an imposed feature I decided to do away with and no longer pay attention to, as it would no longer serve me or my mental health.

At the end of The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely […] it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing […] it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers.” It is here to stay, mutating in many ways that we, somehow as resilient social creatures will find ways to navigate as we always do. Like Camus’s plague however, our unconsciousness stays with us — in a sense, somehow we still use a language that serves the ideology to think that the pandemic is a great leveller that renders us homogenously by going through the same kind of struggle, when it fact it does not.

Consider the Zoom video calls, which is a great example of the blurring the line between the distinction of the digital public and private sphere, not only when it comes to the work hours boundaries (which had been relinquished ages ago when we had Whatsapp, emails and Slack on our phones), but also clearly physical boundaries. When we turn on the video on Zoom calls, we are essentially inviting everyone into our personal space. In the very same setting we can probably see “a menagerie of rooms and homes, some generic or simple, others less so. […] The Zoom background immediately crosses the professional-personal boundary and eliminates any illusion of in-office equality. It’s as if everyone had just said their salaries out loud.” This is, after all, just one of the instances, we have not even talked about the digital divide — globally, only just over half of households (55%) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. Even in the developed world, 87% are connected compared with 47% in developing nations, and just 19% in the least developed countries. Not to mention, being cooped up within the same four walls of the Zoom frame does not necessarily level the same amount of space one takes up. Someone is bound to hog the conversation and interrupt people all the time. Mansplaining would just find ways to manifest itself despite all platforms.

This week, about 1.2 million consumers in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were affected by the water disruption caused by the effluent polluting in Selangor River. I saw a tweet going around, “tua muda miskin kaya, masalah air menimpa semua” (young old, rich and poor, the water cuts affect all) and scoffed as the timeline served us posts and pictures of folks booking Airbnbs and hotels out of state for their “MYR200 per night” showers, along with an Instagram post from the wife of the Selangor Chief Minister showing her family swimming in their private swimming pool. In the very same vein, other folks were lining up to fetch water for their homes from the water tankers, carrying pails and buckets of multiple sizes.

Is this a form of disaster capitalism, a term made popular by Naomi Klein to describe how societies, during times of catastrophe, become accustomed to capitalist practices? I don’t know, it could be. And just how capitalistic societies function, for those who cannot compete, fail. What a perverse ethics, that in fact, lacks ethics, in the words of Paulo Freire.

Coronavirus, or any disaster for that matter, is never a leveller. It just exacerbates what you see on a daily basis, if you care to pay enough attention.

Reading in my tabs:

  • 7 intersectional feminist principles for equitable and actionable COVID-19 data.
  • Must read: “When my Beloved died, a doctor told me: The last sense to go is hearing. When someone is dying, they lose sight and smell and taste and touch. They even forget who they are. But in the end, they hear you.” Writer Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Sing Unburied Sing, Men We Reaped, and Salvage the Bones among others, lost her husband to the coronavirus. This is her moving essay on grief, personal and collective.
  • “This work examines how Western tech monopolies, with their desire to dominate, control and influence social, political, and cultural discourse, share common characteristics with traditional colonialism. […] By drawing examples from various parts of the continent, this paper illustrates how the AI invasion of Africa echoes colonial era exploitation.” Abeba Birhane on the algorithmic colonisation of Africa.
  • A group of researchers realised that China’s Baidu blanked out parts of its mapping platform, so they used those locations to find a network of buildings bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how they did it.
  • “[…] scholar Saidiya Hartman bemoans as “the demand that this suffering be materialised and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible,” only for very little to change. […] If wider society recognises data’s limitations, it, too, can move on from overly relying upon it as the only proxy for evidence.” While data that demonstrates racism might be useful in clarifying the things we already know to be true, it has limited power in terms of shifting public opinion. Also related: This essay on the ethics and aesthetics of protest videos.
  • “As a product leader, I ask myself: ‘Will users regret using the product I build? Ten years from now, how will we look back on the human impacts of what we create?’ The Ethical Explorer Pack is the perfect set of conversation starters to think through and futureproof the product development process.”
  • I’m nerding hard on this idea of digital gardens. “These creative reimaginings of blogs have quietly taken nerdier corners of the internet by storm. A growing movement of people are tooling with back-end code to create sites that are more collage-like and artsy, in the vein of Myspace and Tumblr—less predictable and formatted than Facebook and Twitter. Digital gardens explore a wide variety of topics and are frequently adjusted and changed to show growth and learning, particularly among people with niche interests.”
  • “These studies provide a reminder that intellectual humility doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that our relationships can shape how defensive we are about our own knowledge and beliefs. To be more open-minded, it helps to feel loved and respected. Of course, this also works in reverse. If you wish those around you to be more open, consider whether you provide them with the respect and understanding to let down their defences.” How to foster ‘shoshin’, or ‘beginner’s mind’.
  • Oh if I were to have all the time and financial privileges in the world to just learn, I would enroll full-time in this Anthropology + Design course.
  • My new discovery down the Internet rabbit hole: Asknature.org is a free online tool where you can search thousands of nature’s solutions to various challenges.
  • Brace yourselves for the nostalgia: a museum of Winamp skins.
  • Young seeds that have not seen sun, forget and drown easily.”

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