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When the cell-phone had us unconnected

By Yusuf Serunkuma

Owning a phone can be more oppressive than not having one; let’s spare our high school children

The argument for high school students to own mobile phones at school pitches two views: The calmest speaks the language of communication, that is, to friends and family.  The other view, often rendered with a sense of urgency (and arrogance), speaks the language of modernity – “lets move on;” “we are living in the dotcom era.”

However, both seem to posit that the mobile phone is a liberating gadget.  It liberates us from supposed insecurity or even loneliness, and also wires us to or presents us as part of the “modern” world.  And so why shouldn’t it do the same for our high school children?

On September 9, Daily Monitor reported that Dr Yusuf Nsubuga, the director Basic and Secondary Education argued, in pure enlightened fashion that, “phones are a necessity of life,” and that teachers ought to “appreciate that the world has changed and some rigid school rules of the 1980s and 90s are no longer applicable in this dotcom era.”

One Member of Parliament, the progressive Semujju Ibrahim Nganda was also noted to have remarked, following the expulsion of his son from school over possession of a mobile phone that, “schools were not prisons,” and that owning phones was a way “to enable them talk to their parents and friends.”

There have been other equally influential voices for this directive. Umar Kasasa, the headmaster of Taibah Junior School – one of Kampala’s “modern” schools cloning the traditional and the exotic curricula – in sheer anguish called the debate “crazy.” “Because a phone is a phone and we need it for the same reasons, adults and children. We need to move on Uganda,” he said.

It is difficult to argue against phones nowadays, especially when most debates, which end into policy, happen in Kampala – a city which, like many urbanising places in Africa, has been steadily conscripted onto the workings of capitalism.  I use capitalism in this context to mean, where people subsist on working for a salary – and a laborer’s surplus value/energy is the profit of the employer.

Let me note, first, that in all earnest, this should be a directive for Kampalans and the neighboring towns, and places where capitalism is already in full force.  Many Ugandans, especially those in the countryside, by far the majority, subsist in different circumstances – not through salaried employment and most of them need only about five hours to earn their meal and live comfortably for the next day.

As has been noted about capitalism, providing labour is always made to look not only attractive, that is, modern, but as the only way one can survive.  And then all labourers become consumers, for this is why they work.  And this has sucked in (as is said in almost all sad situations) women and children.  Majority of parents in Kampala (and the neighbouring towns) are all labouring; both father and mother.

Although all agree that there are tangible realities that exist outside money, the quest for money has denied Kampalans the pleasure that comes with home.  Home meant company, home meant conversation – in its sublime sense only captured by poets.

But because capitalism has sucked this sublimity out of homes, it has created alternatives for connection, in the end creating more windows for consumption, and of course, expenditure on the part of the labourer (and his entire family).

Every time I hear people wax lyrical about the so-called “dotcom era,” I recall one of the books I read at graduate school, Dialectics of Enlightenment written in 1944 by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

Entering into the debate on the freedom of the individual, being liberated especially from the oppression of the tightly dictated morality based on religion, on say what constituted good and bad, these two German philosophers argued that what appeared like freedom, the Enlightenment – as was called, was just another form of oppression. From the oppression of religion to the oppression of the market and the workplace!

Of course, the oppression of the market and workplace are hidden, what Marx called fetishised – they appear as if they are liberating. Perhaps no Ugandan thinks owning a phone could be even more oppressive than not having one – and we should save our kids of this oppression till they meet our much troubled world. It needs a little bit of stretching our imagination, and not being stuck in the spectacular.

As both parents have deserted their homes to labor, conversation in homes has been left for mobile communication.  The picture of modernity in homes nowadays borders on the grotesque: After our labouring parents return home, which is often late, they have to catch up with the latest politics, business and entertainment in town – to the extent husbands and wife sit in their living rooms, silent like satiated poodles, glued on another dotcom gadget – the TV.

Each of their children would be fixed on different screens in their separate bedrooms – for they would quarrel over which channels to watch and they had to buy each of them their set.  Put simply, technology has colonised homely communion – and its being celebrated in the language of “modernity,” “dotcom,” etc.

Serbian philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently weighed in on how our lives have been de-liberated by much cherished dotcom era. In a column in The Guardian, September 3, reflecting on whistleblowers Snowden, Manning and Assange, Zizek noted: “The more the small item (smartphone) I hold in my hand is personalised, easy to use, “transparent” in its functioning, the more the entire setup has to rely on the work being done elsewhere, in a vast circuit of machines that co-ordinate the user’s experience.

The more our experience is non-alienated, spontaneous, transparent, the more it is regulated by the invisible network controlled by state agencies and large private companies that follow their secret agendas.” Why don’t we spare our kids of this before they get out school?

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