DHAHRAN: With his dark-rimmed glasses, calm demeanor and rapid hand gestures, Abdullah Al-Rashid is a millennial man with a mission.
As head of Ithra’s programs, he has a decade of experience in the arts and culture sphere and is embarking on a new frontier: the metaverse and beyond.
Between March 29-30, speakers, thinkers and innovative storytellers and problem solvers will come together at Ithra for the inaugural Sync Summit, the new flagship digital well-being program which hopes to promote the balanced use of technology to improve users’ mental and physical condition.
It also propels Ithra into being a global leader in this hybrid space. Al-Rashid, in many ways, is the human trying to unravel digital and physical threads in a very nascent, highly dynamic and ambiguous field. He is the head of the well-being initiative, aptly named Sync.
“The mission that Sync tries to fulfil — that was something that we quickly were able to gather momentum and consensus about, ‘Sync’ being short for ‘synchronizing’ and the mantra of the program, balancing your physical, real life with your digital consumption and bringing your online and offline lives in balance,” Al-Rashid told Arab News.
“It’s always a wonderful platform where we have an established institution and we’re trying to impact millions of lives in the Kingdom and beyond. And I’m privileged to be the person who is leading and steering that effort,” he added.
The summit is split into two full days with multiple, engaging panels looking into human wellbeing in a very evolving digital world.
“We’re all questioning our relationship with technology. We feel an edge about something — whether it’s right or wrong — and we want to understand,” Al-Rashid said.
“It’s about trying to unravel some of the science behind the behaviors and the things that we see and the things that we don’t know. It’s about understanding.”
Al-Rashid described the first day of the summit as a foundation that looks into the different scopes of technology and its relationship to the user, and the second day as a more “exploratory and much more vibrant in terms of what possibilities there are.”
“We’re in talks with large non-profits and governmental organizations that are also trying to understand the space and finding value in the research that we’ve done,” he said.
“The more we’re diving into this, the more doors and windows we want to go through in order to understand whether it’s a behavioral aspect, societal aspects, psychological angle or clinical angle, a lot of the program covers all of that.”
While Sync is here to stay, it is keeping an open eye on the ever-morphing platforms and formats. Al-Rashid hopes to evolve along with the audience, and it remains to be seen how people and communities will convene and discuss these vital topics in the imminent future.
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the need to connect and then later re-evaluate that connection. It was a blessing in disguise in that respect.
“When things went into overdrive, we were able to quickly bridge that gap in the summit, we tried to understand the underlying systems and the underlying foundations.”
Al-Rashid thinks there are important conversations that will happen during Sync which will catapult the discussions into fruitful dialogues.
“Just like when you buy certain labels or products, there are warning labels — should there be warning labels on the internet? I think some provocative ideas are thrown from some experts in order to try and balance our usage,” he said.
Until his late teenage years, Al-Rashid limited his computer usage to doing homework on a desktop PC. Now, he tries to stop glancing at his constantly pinging phone.
“I think we’re in a generation that can remember both a world where that was predominantly analog and a world that was highly technical. That’s a unique perspective. Up until high school, you didn’t even have a phone — if you’re gone, nobody can contact you. And then suddenly, you have mobile phones and your work is on the phone and you have gaming devices,” he said.
Being in Saudi for the past two years, it was impossible to navigate anywhere without the Saudi COVID-19 Tawakkalna app and a large portion of the population has becoming more dependent on or even addicted to their smartphones. While it can be an issue for many adults today, experts are hoping to pinpoint how it might affect the “newbies.”
“The number of organizations that are working in the space that specifically target children, and then Gen Z and Alpha is very high. And this is, I think, a sign about how important it is to realize what really is going to happen with the generation that started off cradle-to-grave being connected. There’s some early science that shows that the brains get wired differently. And if that’s the case, what’s the implication?” he said.
It is also a personal crusade. Being a father of two young children under the age of seven, Al-Rashid said he constantly strives to find the balance between keeping the youngsters online but also offline. He doesn’t want his children to grow up to be technologically illiterate but also wants to ensure that they are not prematurely damaged by all these devices, whether it’s physically or psychologically.
Sync will have sessions by organizations from the UK, Europe and the US that focus on what’s available from the infrastructure itself in the internet, and what needs to be done to create safe havens for children.
“The content we consume online shapes us — our language, our thoughts, our dynamics in a very interesting way. And so if we’re constantly connected to the internet, what we’re subject to and how we interact with each other, whether it’s positive in terms of reinforcement and support self-esteem or negative in terms of cyberbullying, shapes us,” he said.
He is excited about the ability for interested parties to convene in one place and discuss the topic globally — but there is also the Saudi context.
“It is important to highlight that we have an extremely high per capita use of internet, one of the highest levels in the world. In terms of being connected, this brings its positives and negatives. As an institution in Saudi Arabia, I think we have a great cause to take a leading role on the topic,” he said.
Al-Rashid recognizes that the world in which we currently live in is constantly changing. He hopes Sync will help people stay in sync.