Lyobaa. The ancient Zapotec city squats humbly in the haze of the Mexican desert. Once the religious ‘place of rest’ for the Zapotecs’ 500,000-strong collective of farmers, labourers, and engineers, its tombs now serve as a solemn reminder that no civilisation is too big to fail.
A western tour guide leads our group through the tombs. Dressed in flip-flops, Ray-Bans, and a sun-bleached Formula 1 T-shirt, his attire clumsily mutes the dignity of the ancient city. Walking us through the airless corridors, he talks about the advanced nature of the Zapotec civilisation: about their sophisticated construction techniques, their writing systems, and their obsession with ta’zak – a commitment to productivity, scheduling, and organisation.
The tour group nods, clearly approving of any society that keeps its blood-lettings running on time. Our host ends his talk and moves on to the next of the catacombs. I wait silently, with his concluding words bothering my mind.
‘Ta’zak – a commitment to productivity, scheduling, and organisation.’
What a bizarrely ‘modern’ concept in a society born 2000 years before the first wristwatch! How could a people so remote from us have suffered from the same preoccupation with productivity and time? What is it that has tainted our species with such a long-standing obsessive affliction?
I leave Lyobaa and catch up with a friend in Oaxaca. He tells me that my tour guide is misinformed, and that while ta’zak has been interpreted by the West to mean ‘productivity’ and ‘order’, its literal translation is something far more abstract. It simply means ‘the framing of a now-moment’ – making the very most of the instant in which we exist.
What a beautiful nuance, and one that sheds light upon a most revealing misinterpretation – taking a concept that is so fluid and neatly repackaging it into something that conforms to our Western view of what is important. When faced with a culture that we do not understand, our first instinct is not to learn but to interpret; to sand away at the parts that do not conform to our own perception of how things work. And such nuances have always been lost in translation.
In the 1950s, the Toyota Motor Company introduced the concept of kaizen to the Western world. Known as ‘the Japanese art of efficiency’, kaizen has become a management philosophy used to maximise the output of the modern, technology-driven workforce. Digging deeper, however, we once again find that we have misunderstood: kaizen does not mean efficiency, but instead directly translates as ‘good change’. I wonder if our Western striving for maximum efficiency, productivity, and endless growth really represents such a good change?
Where have we gone wrong? To me, our problem has always been one of listening. In the West, we tend to look towards other cultures to expand our world view, and yet we always seem to return to the same conclusions. We squash alternative experiences into our own rigid boxes, allowing notions of efficiency and progress to cloud the nuances that could offer something genuinely new. As technologists we must be aware of this process.
In recent years, the tech community has come face to face with a monster of its own creation. From filter bubbles to algorithmic decision-making, technologists are increasingly aware of a dire need to recruit from outside of their own, white, western spheres. But as tech companies scramble to incorporate a more diverse pool of views, I can’t help but wonder what the point of such variation is if we continue to interpret those views through our own predetermined, pre-focused lenses.
Incorporating alternative experiences will never be enough unless we’re willing to stop interpreting and start listening. I wonder how our technologies would evolve if we learned to recognise those moments when we are sanding away at alternative ideas, altering them to conform to our own? How much could be gained if we came to terms with the factors that distort our ability to learn and recognise those subtle assumptions that we so often use, to frame the moment of now?