By Wimarshana Wijesuriya
To explain away the characteristic deprivations of our third world reality, from rampant corruption and wretched poverty to retarded economic development and even the reek of pollution, there is a common explanation that has taken root in our collective thoughtscape. It is quite simply that we are rapidly abandoning (and indeed that some of us have already abandoned) our immaculate culture and all its noble values. This school of thought would have us believe that crass westernisation defined by vile indulgence and despicable irreverence is a cancer that has afflicted our society.
But what if the perfect opposite were true? What if it is the continued practice of our cultural values and beliefs amidst a modern social system which requires a wholly-different set of values for its optimal functioning that is the root cause of our ‘third worldism’? In short, what if our culture isn’t the answer to our problem, what if culture is our problem?
As a first step in proving this argument, we can start by agreeing that culture, whether ours or anyone else’s, orients our thoughts and directs us to behave in a predefined manner in specified social situations. If culture is our software, then the social system we find ourselves in is our computer, it is our hardware. It is here that this computing analogy becomes particularly relevant in understating the third-world status quo. It stands to reason that all software is written to the capabilities and limitations of the prevailing hardware technology, so for instance there is no point designing a colour user-interface before a colour monitor has been invented. Now let us say, a designer working in the early 1980s writes a programme for a new computer that has just come into the market. When this software is released it will be cutting-edge, state-of-the-art – and assuming it is well written it will be able to take advantage of all the capabilities of the new computer while minimising its limitations. However let us say that in a few years, this designer copies this exact programme onto a new computer he buys for his son and his son in turn copies an exact version onto his son’s new computer. Come 2012, the original software would be hopelessly inadequate in taking advantage of the hardware capabilities of current state-of-the-art hardware. Imagine playing the original Pac-Man on an iPad! This is precisely the predicament of the third-world soul, he is using a software programme (a culture) that is designed for hardware (a social system) that is long since obsolete, therefore he cannot hope to optimally realise its potential.
You needn’t look far for examples of this mismatch between our culture and the prevailing social system. An annoying everyday such example is the blaring misuse of the horn by the typical Sri-Lankan driver. The traffic system is a subsystem of the modern social system, designed to increase the efficiency and comfort of commuting and transporting goods (though admittedly the all too common traffic jam can at times severely limit its efficiency). The horn is a device which within this system is supposed to serve a particular purpose – it is meant to warn other motorists of something they are doing that they are both unaware of and that can cause danger to yourself and/or other road users.
For instance when a fellow motorist is unknowingly veering onto your lane or when a motorist in front of you has taken his leg off the brake and is rolling back to hit you. Since these two conditions of unawareness and potential danger occur together quite infrequently, the intent (this can be referred to as the systemic intent) is that the horn will be used equally as infrequently, thus when it is used every motorist’s attention will immediately be raised to check if he or she is unknowingly doing something dangerous. However, due the absence of this cultural app (the software) that leads to the behaviour intended by the system, the Sri-Lankan motorist like motorists across the blighted third-world blare their horns for everything from impatience to let people know they are around just in case they can’t be seen (even when they obviously can). Since no one has this app, soon everyone blares his/her horn. This results in the horns actually honked due to safety reasons being drowned out and/or motorists being conditioned to not take the sound of the horn as a cue for danger, not to mention the horrible din that is generated. Both of these outcomes of course are sub-optimal, the effectiveness of the system is reduced since safety is compromised and comfort suffers on account of the noise pollution generated.
At the outset, it is not possible to answer the multitude of logical questions that the ‘culture is the problem’ argument naturally raises or provide reasonable proof as to precisely why and how culture is the problem. Both of these will be dealt with in the ensuing instalments of this column. For now however, this article would have done its job if it gently prods you to start reconceiving culture as merely another invented social instrument, a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself and the typical third-world denizen as essentially a displaced villager thrust into the maze of modernity and misguided by a sacred map of a romanticised past.