June 21, 2021
6 mins

The weird culture shaping our world

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia. (Photo by the author)

A couple of months ago, an Australian friend suggested we go for lunch together. That was the last Friday before Ramadan, and she thought it would be fun to share my last lunch before I start my fasting month. She sent me a calendar invite and we chose to celebrate this moment at a Lebanese falafel restaurant.

The food was delicious, and we were enjoying an entertaining conversation, so time just slipped away. At one point, she checked the time on her phone and reacted nervously: OMG Ibrahim, we need to head back. Basically, that was 5 minutes beyond her lunch break. We rushed back to Fishburners, and I took note.

I thought of this “lunch hour” moment recently while at the United Nations eGovernment Expert Group meeting, a global conversation dedicated to discussing the assessment methodology and criteria for the next UN eGovernment Survey 2022. And just like any other UN agenda, the key challenge was to design an assessment methodology and criteria that reflect the recent digital trends, while still being fair and applicable across more than 190 countries that vary extremely according to several factors, including the political, geographical and socioeconomic ones.

I am also sharing this falafel story with you a few hours ahead of Brave Conversations 2021, a global event I will be co-leading around the intersection of humans, values and technology. The theme of this edition of Brave Conversations is derived from the theme of the Web Science Conference, another global event linked to it: Globalization, Inclusion and the Web in the Context of COVID.

I find my friend’s “OMG I am late” behaviour focal to the conversations in both global events. Her reaction demonstrated the way Westerners value time, friendship, food, work, among other elements converged at that moment around our falafel and pickle plates.

What is wrong with that? What was wrong with my friend’s behaviour? Nothing. She is just WEIRD. Her behaviour is probably the typical behaviour of a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic person.

Why does this matter in the context of global conversation around technology? Because Westerners who represent less than 10% of the world’s population greatly influence how the remaining 90% live. The dominating technological advancement of the West greatly shape the life of billions of people around the world. You can validate this by simply looking around you right now. The omnipresent evidences include the computer on which I’m typing now, the device you are reading on right now, Elon Musk’s reusable rockets, other rockets that kill humans, and the COVID vaccine.

WEIRD culture leans more towards long-term orientation. (Source: Geert Hofstede)

These technologies that are usually used by both WEIRD and non-WEIRD people are most likely designed on the values of the WEIRD people… and that’s the interesting factor here.

Let’s unpack this by considering the example of a simple digital tool that most of us take for granted: the calendar app in your phone.

This app is basically designed to reflect the way WEIRD people perceive and value time and other elements related to it. Your day is divided into a linear sequence of 1 hour (30 min? 15 min?). The app is designed to help you organise (or squeeze?) everything you do into these slots, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go back to bed. If you are WEIRD, likely you are so attached to (or obsessed with) your calendar. Your yoga session, investor pitch, Sunday’s brunch, your mom’s birthday, and of course… your falafel lunch with your friend are all logged in your calendar! And as per the WEIRD wisdom: if it is not in the calendar, it does not exist. This design is driven by the underlying culture of time thrift, hard work, efficiency, productivity and individualism among others.

Again, what is wrong with this? Nothing. It is just WEIRD.

Let’s say I was having that lunch with a friend in Sudan. How would she have reacted after noticing she is beyond her lunch break? She won’t. She won’t have even checked time. Wait, lunch break? There’s no such thing in Sudan. People can have breakfast, which is the main meal in Sudan, whenever they feel like having it. And people will keep enjoying food and conversation until they feel they are done. Work? It can wait, the next meeting? It’s OK to be postponed or even cancelled. Productivity and growth? People are not obsessed with these values. Poor country? Definitely. Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world with USD 441 GDP per capita as compared to Australia’s USD 55,000. But please remember, GDP itself is a WEIRD invention. How do you define and measure growth and wealth? What is the definition of poor? rich? What is the definition of good life? Happiness? Do you know the joke of the fisherman and the consultant? Exactly.

I picked Sudan simply because it is my birth country, but I know for a fact that this is more or less the same situation in many places outside the West.

While we don’t have to limit ourselves to a WERID Vs. no-WEIRD dichotomy here, we can still reflect on this in many ways. Personally, I am interested in three angles, two of which are directly connected to both the UN eGovernment Survey and Brave Conversations:

Firstly, it is essential for both WEIRD and non-WEIRD people in this space to acknowledge that WEIRD values are not universal, yet they are the foundation layer or at least an essential ingredient for most of the technologies that shape our world today. Most of the time, WEIRD people embed these values in the technologies they event without even being conscious about them.

This is particularly critical for the conversation around designing our post-COVID future. A more multi-cultural conscious approach can help us design a more sustainable future. Australia, a WEIRD country geographically located within the vast non-WEIRD Global South, can and should take the lead in facilitating this conversation. It makes sense to launch Brave Conversations later today from Sydney.

Secondly, the rapid growth of China and its increasing global geopolitical weight, and its technological influence in particular, in addition to its role in shaping the emerging Four Internets is changing the dynamics of this WEIRD Vs. Non-WEIRD scene which has been more than a century in the making.

Moreover, around half of the world population (all non-WEIRD) currently disconnected from the internet is expected to go online in the next couple of decades. All these factors can expand the space for unprecedented opportunities.

Finally, and beyond the immediate conversation around technology. We need to remember that “people vote with their feet” - Yuval Noah Harari. That is why I am here in Australia, and that explains why millions of non-WEIRD people migrate to WEIRD places all the time. Many even tragically die while trying. People seek a place in which they can feel safe and have the equal opportunity to flourish and prosper. As a result, we have this amazing mix of cultures in places like Australia, UK and the United States. This multiculturalism is mainly possible thanks to some specific WEIRD values and practices including the rule of law.

Non-WEIRD people choose to live in WEIRD places because they don’t have to suffer from unequal distribution of power as in their home countries. (Source: Geert Hofstede)

In addition, Over the past few years, I have been observing how this state of multiculturalism is perceived by both WEIRD and non-WEIRD in Australia and the West in general. For sure, I can share many aspects I personally admire, but I prefer to use this space, and your time, to bring your attention to one issue I personally find disappointing. That is, when people find comfort in living in their own cultural bubble.

Political correctness might be safe, but I also find it lazy and lacks creativity and authenticity. It is not probably the way to grow and prosper. Instead, the narrative around multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion should encourage people to be humble, confident and brave enough to have robust and civilized conversations with those who are different, and to be open to accepting new, different and even “weird” life stories that can challenge and enrich their own. Open, for example, to learn that a meal with a friend on a weekday can be enjoyed within the limits of the lunch break!