Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

We are all connected!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?

11 Responses to Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

  1. Man of Roma says:

    This post well adapts itself to your blog title, ‘Journey to perplexity’. I agree such stuff can make one a Luddite [although, this ‘return to nature’ thing always lurking, as if tools machines towns weren’t nature themselves….]

    Computers are a good example. We get benefits from them, but also addiction and hours spent in hi-tech onanism. Marketing too. My daughter being into multinational marketing, she is starting to ask herself questions about the whys of all this complexity – only to be able to make the totally useless appear useful, non moronic, and a benefit to our lives.

    • lichanos says:

      Computers … We get benefits from them, but also addiction and hours spent in hi-tech onanism.
      Ha! Well put!

      Marketing too. My daughter being into multinational marketing, she is starting to ask herself questions about the whys of all this complexity – only to be able to make the totally useless appear useful, non moronic, and a benefit to our lives
      Difficult to be in that business and then start asking “why?”

      Some years ago, I was doing research for my job and came upon an engineering report written in the 1970s, on a typewriter, with few graphics. It was a fine report and contained pretty much all you needed to know to analyze the situation. At that time – 1990s – our office was fully computerized for producing reports, and the subject of the reports, computer modeling of bays and estuaries, had advanced a lot. Our reports on similar topics were now many time heavier, with much more graphic material, and huge appendices. Were they proportionately better? Definitely not. Were they a little better, more legible, more pleasing to read? No, although they could have been had the technology been used better. Sisyphus….

  2. Man of Roma says:

    The twist at the end of your post made me laugh!

  3. Man of Roma says:

    Very interesting example. Oh I loved those typewriter sheets so much!
    Were they a little better, more legible, more pleasing to read? No, although they could have been had the technology been used better. Sisyphus….
    Yes, the symbol of futility, of our futility. Since you’re using this classical image [is it because I am the Man of Roma lol?], why not mentioning, as you suggest, that a solution could be that of the right measure, that of the golden mean in making use of our technology?
    But is intelligent temperance compatible with an economic system such as ours, needing continuous growth?
    Ah, here we get to Luddism again – and to our ‘big questions in a café’ talk ah ah ah.


    It is a pleasure to reason with you man.

    • lichanos says:

      The pleasure is mine too.

      You know, it’s not the need for growth, but the related need to compete, or feel you are competing. Just because all the other firms produce big glossy proposals and reports filled with fluff, everyone feels the need to do it, even if they know full well it’s absurd and pointless. You can’t be seen not to be doing it.

      Once in a while, when the gods are smiling, a client, private or public, will insist on strict formats for proposals or reports. Then, the restrictions feel like freedom!

  4. Man of Roma says:

    Yes, right, competition. You can’t be seen not to be doing what your competitors do.

    [I’m drinking red wine so my reason is fading away.]

    There’s a connection between the fluffy reports, the competition and the need for growth in a firm.

    I have shifted to a more generic continuous growth thing because this is what really *bugs* me most. A firm that doesn’t grow is dying, a country with no growing GDP is in recession. Grow, grow, grow! Thence the need to seduce us with fruitless, addictive, and yes, onanistic stuff – like Onan we are induced to metaphorically spill our seed on the ground.

    Of course with population ever increasing, and growth being somewhat necessary, my argument is lame, but my disgust for continuous growth remains.

  5. lichanos says:

    I don’t think your argument is lame. A lot of the growth isn’t going to support a decent life for most of the new inhabitants of the globe.

    BTW, don’t you think Onan gets a bad rap? I mean, he wasn’t really idly masturbating for pleasure, as if that’s bad in the first place. He was just trying to protect his family line. See my post Chosen Few.

  6. Man of Roma says:

    I read the post. Very interesting and well written. Yes, chosen for what. I don’t think it was convenient for the Jews to be the chosen people.

    As for Onan I agree with you. He did that for not providing seed to his brother’s line, wasn’t doing it for any other reason. So he got a bad rap, as you say. It’s as usual the organized Churches exploiting this and that Bible passage for their own twisted goals – to forbid masturbation, contraception etc.

    You’ll be surprised to know I have a big collection of Bibles at home. The Septuagint in koinè ancient Greek. One in modern Greek. The Vulgata in Latin by Girolamus or Jerom. The Lutheran Bible in German (modernized version unfortunately, not the original Luther’s translation: I got so angry when I realised that). King James, of course, delightful. A really fine Italian protestant translation by Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649). I know no Hebrew so no original version unfortunately. The translations I prefer are King James and the Vulgata. The Vulgata is precious because it is written in a Latin half classical and half vulgar (300 AD roughly). No other example so ancient we have of vulgar Latin, so close to romance languages!

    • lichanos says:

      The Vulgata is precious

      Really fascinating!

      Reading a book in another language when you already know it your own is a good way to learn I guess. You don’t get stumped by meaning so much.

  7. Man of Roma says:

    My language skills are not as big as they seem. Most of my Greek and Latin is gone. German defeated me. Only French and English remained as good friends.

  8. troutsky says:

    Thom Friedman would love the GPS wielding tree tapper, but i submit he is in for a wild ride over which he will have little to no say. Hopefully capital will not find something more “value- able” than sap in that jungle for awhile.

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