Can we reboot a culture?

Around fifteen years ago, I got interested in understanding culture as in the social behavior in societies, in a quest to initially connect such an understanding to the internet and how the web changed the status of whole minorities. Yet, five years later, my quest moved to the values different cultures uphold, what made them what they are and why are they different than others to see if there are ways to change such behaviors, introduce new values and remove others.

I confess my thoughts troubled me from the beginning. The naivety of even thinking such change is possible to even the elite almost orientalist notion that someone or a group of people can decide what they are and start a top-down approach to change them. Naturally, my journey to learn started by admitting that I know nothing, that I don’t have the building blocks necessary to form an understanding let alone an opinion. This drove me to read and watch talks by sociologists, anthropologists, economists and contemporary philosophers. Many conversations with friends and acquaintances. The nested effect kept expanding into religion, Darwinism, human and world history and most recently the whole notion of identity.

As the quest continues to take me to new worlds and new ideas and with my own specialty as a technologist, I can’t help myself but play with a metaphor or a combination of them to come to grips with all this information in an effort to make some conclusions and/or ask more questions.


A well known quick technical troubleshooting technique in computing is rebooting whichever device that is not behaving properly. A source of all time mainstream joke, yet we all know that it works!

So does rebooting work on humans? Does it work on relationships? Will it work on a culture?

At a time when western democracy is in crisis, when totalitarian regimes redefine their future strategies for using technology and consumerism to control their masses, when extreme minorities from the far right and the far left are given megaphones to set the agenda, the tactics and keep us all, the majority in-betweens in state of constant shock and different levels of anxiety. — How can an idea of a simple reboot however bizarre, anywhere and everywhere not cross our minds?

The business world thinks it can, if the society we’re talking about is limited within a company, you will find enough books and articles about it to start experimenting -if you are the boss that is or one of the bosses.

Yet, in my attempt to apply this metaphor, I need to go to its basics first and try to draw comparable states to see if it can work on each of the cases above.

Rebooting in computing is a simply a switch off then a switch on, does the needed “refresh” to set the device back to its desired settings. While a hard reboot, called a “reset”, takes a device back to its factory settings.

So rebooting is not an upgrade, it should work with the same device, current resources and optional settings.

How do we reboot ourselves individually?

Common knowledge is that when we rest, sleep, take time out, go for a walk, go vacations or meditate, we give our brains (the device) a break from any stress, dark thoughts, irritations, anger and the sort of negative emotions that pile up during an interval of time. Can we say, the stronger the problem, the longer the break and the longer the break the better the outcome?

How does that apply to human relationships?

I hypothesize the following comparable: When negativity piles up in any type relationship some take actual breaks from each other, some decide to do a confrontation while romantic couples can take mutual timeout together away from their daily routines or seek some form of therapy. How can we apply the reboot metaphor here? Tricky. Do we consider each brain a device or is the device the relationship itself? I would assume the relationship being the troubled device here thus a reboot would entail a consequent reboot of both brains to be able to reestablish the desired state of relationship they want. Desired settings are what both individuals remember as the reasons/goals they sought out of the relationship which they think the reboot ought to take them back into? stop there and evaluate if these settings are ought to stay or have the need come to change them? its not a reboot anymore, getting close to some sort of upgrade…

Let’s continue on to culture!

Culture here is the collective behaviors of a people and how they interact together. The amount of social capital they create in a neighborhood, company, city, country, region and the world.

Complex! But let’s try break it down to basics again and set some hypotheses.

Let’s see if we can describe the troubled state itself. Example here is a country. A troubled state of affairs can be the inadequacies and inefficiencies resulting from low levels of trust in government, institutions and fellow citizens. Now, lets try to understand this troubled state further:

Does the low levels of trust in government affect the trust in democratic or civil institutions?

Do both contribute to the low level of trust in business?

Does the three affect the trust between citizens?

How can we elevate those trust levels?

Where should we start? Can it work bottom up?

What are the devices available to place desired settings into? A new content strategy? Media? Books? Films,TV, Art?

How can we collectively agree on those desired settings in the first place?

Is such a populous agreement even possible?

Who’s the party that is tasked with this reboot? or is it an upgrade now? or a whole new release seems to be needed?

Zooming out, zooming in

Sometimes, to better understand and make sense of your own context, try delving into another one, go far, go deep, go unfamiliar. As my curiosity takes me, I found it easier to make conclusions and come with an understanding once the context differed from mine, maybe empathy is easier when its for someone or some people so distant from you? Maybe its the opposite, the easier it is for you to be critical?

For example, after recently watching Chernobyl where a full system shut down resulted in the catastrophe, inherit and clear were the sociopolitical dynamics in place that transformed this -supposed meticulously designed failsafe -option to prevent a disaster into an instrument that brought the unthinkable to happen.

Though my curiosity is rooted in culture, one can’t separate it from the political discourse that nurtures in the behaviors that bind and make a peoples prosperous or does the apposite, the kind of decisions they collectively make or are made for them by a few, individually or in groups and tribes. The same way you can’t disengage a culture from its geography, religion, traditions nor spoken language, and its most popular historical narrative.

This collective identity, at times seems so clear, being Arab for instance. Yet the more you dive into what makes you Arab or North African or Palestinian or Sudanese, the richer your identity can become and the deeper are the differences you feel from those “other Arabs”. In part you want to stay true to the context you came to be in, yet you don’t want it to formulate all of the conflicting stands you see yourself at times forced to take. This projected loyalty to a context we find ourselves stuck with or actually choose to stay within.

I’m to conclude that within the beauty and opulence of this collective Arab identity or others comes a steep price for progress. Whichever way you want to define this progress to be, for simplicity let it be a good level of contentment. Drawing the same conclusion into the local narrative of each state, efforts made into amplifying unity of identity under whichever national context brings about the same pains as amplifying the sub-context of a narrower identity. Furthermore, celebrating diversity within a society through a superficial narrative focused solely on the beauty of the other doesn’t adequately deliver on the promise of peaceful acceptance, most times it feels so out of context and everyday challenges.

I believe the job for those who want to instigate progress as a catalyst for a happier existence for a peoples becomes a job of generating a continuous narrative of divergence and convergence to tease out both the awareness and empathy most necessary for one to understand their place in the world all the way to their local being back into the world again and the all in between. The narrative can’t continue to take a format of the usual left or center, nor can it keep being based on attacks, elitist mindset nor righteous values. I believe it has to patiently connect more deeply and try to answer on the why in each situation, empathize then deliver a story that resonates.

Razan Khatib

Razan Khatib

Playing at the intersection of culture, technology, and values. Trying to structure my thoughts and share experiences, learnings, and insights. Co-founder of @spring_apps
Amman, Jordan