Thoughts upon spotting a red dot
We checked into a fancy hotel in Kunming, China, following a hectic tour of Shanghai. After three days of non-stop meetings, sightseeing and overeating, the body gave in. The executive suite failed to impress me as I dragged myself to bed, hoping to get some rest before the next bout of overindulgence. Our generous sponsors ensured that we had the best possible experience of a country that has experienced exponential development in recent decades.
I was leading a group of Dhaka University delegates who met with their Chinese counterparts to discuss prospective avenues for scholarly and intellectual collaboration. Our host, the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, arranged a seminar in which we both presented and heard on key issues related to Bangladesh-China relations. After the seminar, we had the opportunity to experience the heritage of the city curated in its museum and the vision to grow into a futuristic metropolis evident in its transformed area of Pudong. On one end, we viewed the Bronze Age artefacts, and on the other, a 6D presentation of the futuristic and humane city envisioned by urban planners. We had the privilege of observing the supermoon over the Yangtze River from the rotating restaurant atop the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, as well as the changing hues of the skyscrapers that adorned the renowned Shanghai skyline.
Leaving Shanghai for Kunming promised a change in the weather. We anticipated milder weather and a greener environment. The star-studded hotel guaranteed that the feeling of exuberance persisted. As I stood before the bathroom mirror, I noticed a red laser spot. I instinctively turned around to look for a sniper. No one there. I chuckled and inspected the mirror. Earlier, in the cloud-hugging glass towers of Shanghai, I had imagined Tom Cruise performing his Mission Impossible jump. Seriously, what could this red dot mean? Is it a spy cam? Should I use a torch to determine if it is a double mirror? It appeared to be an ordinary reflector.
Tired as I was, I went to bed pondering a possible invasion of privacy. The culture of hypervigilance in a Big Brother world added to my fear. The feeling of being watched triggered a sense of paranoia and anxiety. I thought of its legal and ethical aspects. Then again, in the name of security, we have allowed ourselves to be both willing and unwilling subjects of scrutiny everywhere in the world. I thought of the psychological damage done by this idea of intrusion into private space. While grooming in the morning, a small sticker at the mirror's end caught my eye: "This mirror is a TV." I raced for the remote to test the claim. The screen displayed successive channels in Chinese. I stopped at CNN, the only English-language channel available, and continued my morning rituals.
Tired as I was, I went to bed pondering a possible invasion of privacy. The culture of hypervigilance in a Big Brother world added to my fear. The feeling of being watched triggered a sense of paranoia and anxiety. I thought of its legal and ethical aspects. Then again, in the name of security, we have allowed ourselves to be both willing and unwilling subjects of scrutiny everywhere in the world.
During my academic presentation at the seminar, I mentioned trust deficits as a barrier to people-to-people connectivity. I gave examples of how the overland transport connectivity from Kolkata to Kunming got stalled because the involved parties could not fully trust one another. Trust is the foundation for any meaningful communication, collaboration and cooperation. Without trust, we remain suspicious of one another's motives and intentions, causing friction and tension. We become risk-averse when we overanalyse the potential outcomes. At a national level, this can not only impede growth and progress, but can also escalate conflicts.
I could not believe that the red dot of a TV in sleep mode could generate such profound thoughts. If the red dot symbolised technology, my presence nearby symbolised the physical space I occupied. Am I a Person of Interest (Oops, Netflix again)? Is it the same for my country, too?
On a global map, Bangladesh has always existed as a dot. However, many actors are finding this dot curiously strategic. We are the eighth most populous country in the world. If our people can be trusted with their efficiency and integrity, we can become one of the world's foremost providers of labour. With increased purchasing capacity, we can become one of the world's largest markets. Both the Global North and Global South are aware of this fact. In addition, we are strategically located by the Bay, which is important for maintaining the supply chain of superpowers both for trade during times of peace and ammunition supply during times of conflict. Foreign actors stage issues so they can manipulate public opinion on behalf of a reliable local actor. Our national election has therefore garnered so much traction.
But we must prioritise our national interests and keep investing in our human capital in order to maintain our strategic prominence in the future. We must invest in technology and innovation in order to earn the respect of our international partners. The world is indeed big enough for all of us to grow and prosper together. Once you read the sign on the wall, you know that the red dot is a TV – your window to the world! Open the window, the breeze will blow, and you can breathe in ease.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at Dhaka University.