In the latest of our Wh@t on Earth interview series about the unseen impacts of digital technology, Gertrude Psawarayi-Jabson discusses the connections between the rapid uptake of digital tech, nature dis-connection, cultural loss and inequality in her native Zimbabwe, and how to revive ‘Ubuntu’.
Tell us about yourself and your work in Zimbabwe?
In 2008 I founded an organisation called the Creative Centre for Communication and Development, which uses information and communication technologies as sources for change. But I wanted something more in life. I started working for the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, dealing with technology in women’s rights and issues. There, I learnt how technology can be used to bridge the gap and help bring people together with their natural environment.
I went back home, where an opportunity with PELUM (Participatory Ecological Land use Management) as a coordinator opened. This brought me to the field of agro-ecology, opening my eyes to so many issues from GMO’s to green revolution and conservation. I then attempted to apply for a PhD but instead the Earth Jurisprudence opportunity opened up and helped me answer the deep questions I had been asking regarding our connection with Earth and nature.
Has your own engagement with digital tech in work and life given you any sense of the pros and cons?
At a personal level, I used to be online and use the Internet a lot. I was more confident, articulate and forceful online compared to offline. Online I had carried out international campaigns on gay rights yet offline I had problems with social interaction and felt more comfortable alone.
When I was using technology I felt I was in control because you get connected, make friends, receive likes and comments. This hype of activities brought upon me a sense of achievement. Constantly I wanted to check how many people had liked my post or messaged me.
Observing my previous unsociable behaviours, I find that I see people who are connected digitally using their smartphone without rest.
With PELUM I travel to see the farmers and the farmer would have a cell phone in his hand and would be tweeting away during the conversation.
It is a trend to own a smartphone and if you do not own one you lose out. So in a way you are forced to join the hype to prevent being left behind.
I feel that in Zimbabwe, [Internet addiction] is starting to happen. The problem is not just in western countries, it is happening everywhere and because the challenge is not being articulated people normalise it.
Digital tech is often proposed as a solution to inequality. Is that what you’ve observed in Zimbabwe?
There is a clear push to join this technological world order. [It is] a virus that is quickly spreading throughout Zimbabwe and Africa, with the notion that if you are connected you are in the game.
Even though the Internet is becoming increasingly available it is still very expensive. Despite this, people will sacrifice important needs to stay connected. One would rather spend a large amount of money on Internet connection and mobile data than spend it on basic commodities because they value digital connectedness more.
The inequality would then arise from the access to services and its high cost. Issues of affordability, accessibility and availability are key to the discussion on the global divide.
And right now Zimbabwe is facing a cash crisis meaning all transactions have to be by a mobile phone, so in a way you are forced to buy a smart phone by the banks in order for business to be carried out.
If the internet were free and widely available as it is in the Global North, do you think we’d see those inequalities disappear?
I live in a patriarchal society, so technology is largely owned and controlled by men. This means that the issues that are being talked about from the use of technology become male dominated. In most cases, particularly for women who are disadvantaged or secluded, they would have to borrow a mobile from their husband to make a phone call or connect to the Internet.
Moreover as many women take care of the family rather than working, meaning their access to the Internet is not a priority for them.
Women that are connected then receive a lot of sexual abuse, unsolicited sexual relationships and conversations. Many of the societal issues that women are exposed to are transferred to the virtual space because the ownership of the media and the Internet consists mostly of men.
Has technology impacted Zimbabwean traditional culture?
The impact of technology on our way of living is so profound that it has changed the way we relate to each other as people. In Africa we have a concept called ‘Ubuntu’. The Ubuntu concept brings people together, and when the Africans were brought together it also brought the animals, the soil and everything together.
The emergence of the smartphone or the Internet is like bringing an intruder into a space who then defiles the space with a culture that is completely different from the Ubuntu culture, diluting what makes us as a people and what connects us to our surroundings.
Traditionally we are very much connected to the animal kingdom; we call ourselves monkeys, lions, zebras and so on because we see the relationship with the broader world around us. This is what technology has taken away from my people, this value of Ubuntu; being deeply rooted, grounded and proud of ones culture and being African.
Digital technologies, in one form or another, are here to stay. Do you see a way of using these technologies in a positive way, for the good of all?
With technology comes a lot of responsibility. The Internet is neither good, bad nor neutral. It is knowing when and how to use them to heal the world, connect with other beings and to pursue a more sustainable life path that is the challenge.
We have become so selfish that we tend to only think of ourselves and forget the other beings that share the Earth with us.
To deal with such big challenges as climate change, food shortages and poverty is just too much for some people, which justifies the reason why they then become lost in this invisible, virtual space. The virtual world hides people from the pain.
Understanding how technology is affecting us allows us to step back and really assess whether we need it.
Writing a letter in ink and sending it to a friend used to be a big thing and took time. That is what we are missing; taking time and really preparing our work with care.
This reconnection cannot happen if people are buried behind their laptops or smartphones. It requires people to take time off, be in nature, listen to the silent voice inside of you and observe the other beings around you.