Sunday, October 23, 2016

Forced from home

Windswept. Cold one moment and blazing hot the next. Fear of capsizing and being swallowed slowly by the turbulent sea or a consuming, gnawing anxiety that the night will close on you before you’ve reached a place where you and your children might be able to sleep a few hours before you started off again. Leaving with no idea of where you are going except that it is away from everything you’ve known, everything that you have owned. Grabbing a few things, if at all possible, before you set off on this unplanned journey without destination.

Forced from home. That’s the title of a travelling exhibition from Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) that catapults you into the lives of the millions of displaced persons, from Honduras across Mexico, from South Sudan circling inwards desperately in search of refuge from ethnic conflict, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Burundi to camps in Tanzania, and yes, the thousands fleeing Syria through Lebanon and Yemen, or across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach an increasingly unwelcoming Europe. MSF, like so many other humanitarian efforts around the world tackling the somehow unending list of challenges producing tragedy of unimaginable proportions, has a huge task before it. Of generating resources for work through the creation of empathy at different levels. The exhibition is currently traveling through six cities (well, five, with two locations in New York) in an attempt to raise awareness and understanding of forced displacement, which currently is estimated to affect some 60 million people worldwide.

I arrived at the gateway to the exhibit at Long Wharf, at the Boston Harbour, on a cold and wet afternoon in October. The sky and the grey sea seemed a fitting backdrop to the exhibit, which was organized in a cluster of tents along the pier. 

At entry, I was given a blank identity card marked “refugee” that I was told to hang on to as I simulated the journey of someone fleeing from home. I joined a group of fifteen other visitors, to be led through the exhibit by MSF worker Fraz (from Pakistan, who coordinates logistics for the organization) who had until recently been working with relief camps in South Sudan.

After being shown a 360-degree video that served as a whirlwind tour through the landscape of displacement, and the realities of the interim camps where refugees (those who cross borders) or internally displaced persons (those who remain within their countries), we were each asked to pick up five cards representing things we would grab if we had to suddenly leave home on an indeterminate journey.  

The piles of life jackets--more than those who survived

We grab five items to take on the journey
We had less than a minute in which to make our choices. I picked up the following: passport, money, blanket, medicines and mobile phone. We then had to get into a boat (an actual inflatable boat) where Fraz explained the machinations that families have to go through to negotiate the voyage, facing both natural and human challenges, having to exchange one of their precious items for a life jacket (which MSF has discovered is very often fake). MSF has three rescue boats that patrol the Mediterranean and has so far managed to rescue thousands who were stranded at sea—often without food, water, or any GPS devices that could help them navigate. As we left the boat, Fraz asked us to discard one of our possessions. I decided to give up my mobile phone (not wise, I later realized, as connectivity is one of the most important things to keep on a long journey). 
Squeezed into a boat, on a turbulent sea

At the next station, a randomly erected chain-link fence that divided those of us who had cards stamped "refugee" from those who had "IDP" brought us face to face with the power of labels and the ways in which they limit opportunity and create threat. Couples--and families--who had differently stamped cards found themselves on different sides of the fence. Internally displaced persons are not entitled to the same rights as refugees, under international law, and countries may not be liable to offer them the same protections. This has ramifications beyond the political—although, one might argue, each one of these situations that produces homelessness and statelessness is essentially political, so even the most individual of experiences reflects the long arm of dirty international power-mongering.

Fenced off by words

The trail of displacement takes us then inside the fence of a camp; we come face to face with the conditions (of course, sanitized of the smells and sounds and the overpowering air of disease and conflict just around the corner) of displacement—the tents within which whole families are squeezed, the jerry cans of water that they have to make do with, the makeshift shops where favours are traded (you lose more of those precious possessions), until you reach the small glimmer of hope (well, succor if not hope) in the form of MSF—where, thankfully, services are rendered without expectation of exchange. 

But after traversing this far, I am left with only one of my five cards—what I have held on to is my money. I have given up warmth, connectivity, identity and preventive medication. Would this be the order of priority if I am in a situation that causes me to flee home? I’m not sure. But I can only begin to imagine what it might mean.
That's as many jerry cans of water as a single person
in the developed world uses; as opposed to one for a family of four in a camp.
Trading post in camp--note the solar panels and mobiles

Fraz explains then how MSF works within these conflict-ridden zones to bring some measure of medical aid to communities, particularly children and the wounded. He talks about the US and coalition-led  airstrike that leveled the MSF-aided hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, where several humanitarian workers were killed, along with patients and other hospital staff. In Syria, he added, hospitals have been “targeted” in the bombings by the Syrian government, and this has made it extremely difficult for organizations such as MSF to function. “We do not have any operations in Alleppo anymore but we do send in medicines and supplies,” he explained.

While MSF declares itself to be apolitical, it is hard to stay out of taking a political stance in this tragic landscape. MSF has recently decided not to accept any more donations from the European Union, taking a stance against the EU’s hypocrisy in dealing with the refugee crisis. “On the one hand, they are giving Turkey funds to deal with the refugees but on the other, so many of their members are closing their borders to these distressed people,” said Fraz.

At the end of the exhibit, you are left feeling winded. Sixty-five million people are living this reality. And several million more are expected to join this number over the next months. A man from Burundi, now in a camp in Tanzania (soon to be closed) said, “Yes, I have to worry about food, and water, and disease…but I don’t have to worry about bullets.”

Empathy is a strange thing. It doesn’t seem to be a big ask at the individual level. If we immerse ourselves in stories, we can at some level and to some small extent appreciate, even feel, the desperation, fear and pain of those who are experiencing it in the flesh. We are moved enough to donate and sign petitions and lend our voices to rallies and to cry inwardly and feel that sadness in the gut. But what happens to this empathy when it moves upwards into governments and decision-making bodies? Those too are composed of people who have minds and hearts and the ability to empathise. But approvals for drone strikes and closing camps and withdrawal of funds for medical aid or adding more funds to the war machinery…empathy has no place in such spaces.

Clearly, there is value in making us feel. If organizations like MSF are to operate without compromising their ideals to the economically driven pragmatism of governments, such exercises in empathy generation are necessary, so that more support comes from the public rather than governments.

But the question remains: what happens to that empathy when it moves from the individual to the institutional level?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Talking about Talk: a conversation with Sherry Turkle

Credit: CNN Images
The Tang Building sits on the southern edge of the MIT campus, overlooking the river whose grey this autumn afternoon acts as a foil to the gold and auburn of the trees across its wide span. I rush up the stairs to the second floor—I am a minute past the appointed hour—and arrive, just a little out of breath, on the second floor. The corridor is dark and the roomy lobby leading to the room that bears the number I’ve been given is even darker. I check my phone again to make sure I have it right and then venture inside, flipping the light switch and finding a spot on a comfortable sofa.

One never feels quite prepared for an interview. Especially when it involves someone who has already been in the media eye over the years, whose engaging commentaries on life in the digital age have found their way to the TED stage and from there into millions of YouTube and Facebook shares, whose books straddle the academic and popular; someone who could be the Nora Ephron of social science literature (okay, maybe I’ve gone out on a limb there).

Five minutes later she breezes in, pulling her dark blue coat tighter around her as she apologizes for the slight delay. Her small frame and open face don’t quite match the composed, flawlessly made-up presence in the TED talks or the television interviews.

“Sit anywhere you want,” she says, her arm sweeping an arc across the long and busy bookshelf-lined room furnished with three overstuffed sofas and an assortment of small chairs. I sink into a set of deep white cushions. Somehow, it seems the right kind of place for a psychology professor (I see a metal cut-out of Freud peeping out from behind another sofa) who likes to hold her smaller seminars in the office. "I can fit in about 15 students here," she says, putting her bag away and settling down.

“I’ve just had an injection for my migraine,” she explains, as she politely but firmly declines my request to audio-record the interview and warns me that she doesn't want any photos either. “I don’t feel quite myself.” (Sorry, Bol Hyderabad!)

“But go ahead and ask me anything you want. I just don’t want it on tape.”

Prof Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Trained and certified as a counselling psychologist, she is better known for her work on the impact of digital devices on social life and relationships. She has led a program at MIT on researching the use and possible impacts of social robots, particularly among children and the elderly. She has been writing about the Internet and what it does to/for us right from the point at which computers became popular objects—of use and investigation. Her early books on digital culture: The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 1985) and Life on the screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster, 1995) were celebratory tracts on the new technology that was permeating our lives. Using a combination of postmodern theory, philosophy and ideas from social and behavioural psychology, she deconstructed the space of the network and spoke in positive and hopeful terms about its liberating potential. The fluid, open and pervasive medium, she said, would allow us to re-define ourselves and connect to each other in new and emancipatory ways. The computer was the “second self” which lay deep inside us, hiding from view because we were too shy or scared or unaware. and now, the possibility of expression from behind a veil of anonymity would allow that inner self to express itself in creative ways.

Roughly a decade later, another book by Turkle made waves, not the least because she was seen to have made a complete turnaround on her earlier position, moving from techno-utopianism to techno-skepticism. In Alone Together (Basic Books, 2012), she decried the isolating effects of information technology, pointing to the increasing immersion in personal digital tools such as mobile phones and tablets. “It was a book that was 15 years in the making,” she says. “Even as I was finishing the first book, I began to have doubts about what I was saying…but I didn’t want to screw up that book so close to completion.”

She began to work toward articulating this new idea that was forming, collecting data to support her suspicion that the technology, far from connecting us, was disconnecting us on a deeper, emotional level. “The primary idea in this book was ‘I share, therefore I am,’” she explains. (In another interview, with Prof James Nolan in the Hedgehog Review, she describes Alone Together as “an act of repentance” for her earlier celebration of the Internet and digitality.)

And as she was putting away the last notes on that book, another realization began forming: “People were saying, ‘I’d rather text than talk’, and so I wanted to fully explore that.”

This grew into the latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation: the power of talk in a digital age” (Penguin, 2015), where she argues passionately for the re-centering of intimate, relational face-to-face  dialogue in human life, particularly within families and friendship networks.

The loss of conversation to texting and digitally mediated communication has resulted in the replacement of conversation by mere connection, notes Turkle, ultimately creating what she describes as an “empathy gap”.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-technology,” she says. “I’m just pro-conversation.” Replacing face to face with mediated communication, even when using video-conferencing tools like Skype and FaceTime, takes away the possibility of rich, unpredictable, mutually reinforcing and exploratory interaction. “Think about children spending a weekend with grandparents, traveling a distance to be with them, then watching them prepare meals, getting to know their rhythms, their smells, witnessing their growing frailty…those are the things that build empathy,” she says. “And when you replace that with Skype conversations, however frequent, you lose that possibility of building empathy.”

“Our communication through technology tends to be more instrumental, more specific,” she goes on. “You lose all the boring bits.” The “boring bits” in her book, are the ones that often are the most important in terms of adding complexity and depth to relationships.

“I think we should go back to watching television together, in our homes,” she says, in a sudden turn of the conversation. “Television opens up spaces for talk—and talking leads to more talking.” She tells me about her own experience of watching television—the Ed Sullivan Show—with her grandparents in their Brooklyn home. “I learned, from those evenings, about their politics, about their biases and beliefs, when they shared their reactions to things that were going on in the show, and that led to other conversations about how they felt about other things.”

(I’m not completely convinced that television universally prompts conversation—I’ve had too much experience with groups sitting in glazed-eye silence in front of screens, the only movement their hands reaching for peanuts or potato chips, or maybe, the remote! But I’m willing to accept the possibility, for now.)

“[Digital communication] technology is particularly closed ended,” she continues. “What we need is more spaces where we can be completely relaxed, completely attentive to the people around us.”

How much of this springs from our own nostalgia, as a generation, for the “good old times”?

“Yes of course, I am nostalgic, about empathy,” she insists, unapologetically. “I believe that open-ended, unconstrained, face-to-face conversation is the only way we can continue to build empathy, and without empathy, there is little hope for continued meaningful human interaction.”

She paints a bleak picture of a world without empathy. “Think about our lives as teachers—can you imagine a classroom full of young people who have no idea how to put themselves in each other’s—or your—shoes? Because they’ve lost the ability to simply engage with each other without their devices?”

“After all, it’s because we are sitting here, and you are willing to listen to my excuses about my health, and I am willing to accommodate your interest in speaking with me, that makes this conversation possible…in the course of this exchange, we discover interesting things…because we are empathetic.”

I can’t really argue with that.