Sunday, June 07, 2020

There is a big difference between the real and virtual worlds


Unsurprisingly the evil Chinese Government would not allow Martin Scorsese to film Kundun in China, as the movie depicted the 1959 escape to India of the Dalai Lama from the murderous Chinese invaders in Tibet. Instead Scorsese used the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco for his location shooting. This was an obvious choice as not only is the landscape of the two regions similar, but both are 'thin places' where the spirit world is close to that of humans*. The closest I have been to Tibet is the border region of Ladakh in remote northern India. But, as regular readers will know, I have been privileged to visit Morocco and the High Atlas on many occasions.

Like every country COVID-19 has hit Morocco hard. Morocco is strategically important in the battle against the virus as it provides the main entry route from hard hit Europe and Spain in particular into Africa. But by prompt and strict lockdown and closing of borders Morocco has done a remarkable job of containing the virus. As I write Morocco, with a population of 36 million, has 8177 reported Coronavirus cases and 208 deaths. This compares with the UK - population 67 million - figures of 286000 cases and 40,542 deaths.

Even allowing for some under-reporting this reflects very well on the Moroccan Government and people. But the result to date has not been achieved without considerable hardship. Much of Morocco's population lives in remote rural areas where online grocery deliveries are unheard of, and the strict lockdown has created many difficulties, not least for young people. A remarkable account of life under lockdown has appeared in Morocco World News written by a female UK volunteer working for an NGO that runs boarding houses for girls from remote villages in the High Atlas; these boarding houses give the girls the chance to continue their secondary education in a town remote from their homes. The whole article is essential reading; but a quote from one of the young girls stood out for me.

With the virus, school life has changed a lot. Sometimes when we are in front of the teacher, we don’t understand the lessons. Now we are in front of a phone, it’s hard to communicate the ideas we want because, frankly, there is a big difference between the real world and and the virtual world.
Remember that is a young Moroccan speaking, not a 70 year old Luddite living comfortably in Europe. We should never forget this big difference between the real and virtual worlds, particularly at the present time. All of us have been forced to spend too much time in the virtual world during lockdown. This enforced screen time is a gift from heaven - or perhaps from hell - for Google, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Netflix and the other technology giants.

Two years ago we were all running scared from Big Bad Data after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now today we are being urged by governments to upload personal data to tracking apps, and the technology giants have become hegemonic gatekeepers of entertainment and cultural content. Economic recovery is the main priority post-COVID; but preventing self-interested technology corporations from permanently blurring the distinction between the real and virtual world must also be a priority.

* For me ambient electronica does a far better job of depicting numinous mountain landscapes than Richard Strauss' overblown Alpine Symphony. The CD featured above brings together Tibetan Plateau & Sounds of the Mothership, two early recordings from New Zealand ambient musician David Parsons, with Tibetan High Plateau depicting in sound the spiritual power of these high and thin places. Other essential listening is, of course, Philip Glass' overlooked score for Kundun.

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