Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie. The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…
I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data, etc. – and disaster preparedness planning. One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.” I’ve no complaint with that!
He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools. Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy. Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar? Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys? I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.
The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture. In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.
I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part. It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved. The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation. The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling. How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things. I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.
Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers: from where and when they place a call. These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said. Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it. At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating. That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom. Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…
One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones. We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well. They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily. Surprised? Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars. Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city? Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!
I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite. Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.
Now, this leaves open only one question: How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!! How much would you pay for the privilege?