Category Archives: Current Affairs

Brain Belches and Sentience

Somewhere this past year, I effectively traded blogging for brain belches.  Blog posts gave way to tweets, FB status updates and foursquare check-ins. "@"replies and retweets replaced blog comments as my virtual crack.

I'm not proud of it, and I will  rectify that this year (resolution #3, just after #2's "ripped abs")

In Katie Hafner's NYT piece "Driven to Distraction, Some Unfriend Facebook" (a piece dealing with kids attempts to self-regulate their Facebook addictions) she quotes Michael Diamonti, head of school at SF University High School:

"[I support] these kids recognizing that they need to exercise some control over their use of Facebook, that not only is it tremendously time-consuming but perhaps not all that fulfilling."

Hafner goes on to quote Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, who writes of an 18 year old male who quit FB while working on his college application:

"Facebook wasn't merely a distraction, but it was really confusing him about who he was."

Jonathan Harris, in his recent piece on World Building, writes

"Our online tools do a great job at breadth (hundreds of friends,
thousands of tweets), but a bad job at depth. We live increasingly
superficial lives, reducing our relationships to caricatures and our
personalities to billboards, as we speed along at 1,000 miles an hour.

We trade self-reflection for busyness, gorging ourselves on it and
drowning in it, without recognizing the violence of that busyness,
which we perpetrate against ourselves and at our peril."

There is something beautiful, terrifying and powerful about the rise of ambient intimacy, and our willing adoption of the latest and greatest tools to feed it.  We feed it with our hearts and souls like a confessional booth after a Las Vegas bender, but occasionally forget that every wry observation and catty tweet is now searchable, indexable and forever. 

But seeing is not knowing.  Telling alone does not create understanding. And the fact I can't actually deal with the immediacy of a restaurant until I've "checked in" in pursuit of my "Crunked' badge is…well, a little sad.

Sad, but I believe it will evolve into something beautiful.  This stuff would not survive, we would not be obsessed by it, if it did not meet a fundamental human need.  Our job is to understand that need and work to meet it with technology that enhances our humanity, and deepens our connections, rather than reduces our rich world of experience to 140 character bleats.

But it does make you think – children learn interaction by observing our emotional states.  How much of our hearts and souls can we pour into the technosphere before it develops its own api to tap our raw data, and begin to react?

It feels inevitable that a status update will someday generate a reaction – "feeling blue" may generate a skype call from an unknown (but somehow familiar soothing) voice, suggesting you "look on the bright side – you've got that Mexico trip coming up!  You'll be tan and happy, and you'll probably hook up!" – and when the line goes dead, you'll feel great, and maybe slightly, momentarily unsettled.  But you shouldn't be – you put the trip into dopplr, booked it through Expedia, and you've got a profile that matches someone else who did the same (and is single)…weather.com predicts sun for the 10-day forecast, and the tweets you posted from Tulum the last time were, algorithmically speaking, the happiest of your 8,956 posts. 

You can't miss!

Mobile Weapon?

Connectivity: harbinger of a Tech-enabled Utopia?  Pain in the ass?

A connected world, the thinking goes, is an empowered, informed and an enlightened one. 

Of course, we've had a few World Wars since the telegraph and telephones were invented, so jury's out.

But fine, if connectivity is good, well then, mobile connectivity, is, well…it's like Utopia plus. 

Because while connectivity gives us show times on Fandango, mobile connectivity will both save the world and level it.

"The World is Flat"-ter Thomas Friedman's OpEd piece "The Land of No Service"
in the 16 August 09 NYT describes a trip to the Okavango Delta in Africa, where there is little wireless
connectivity.  He writes: 

"like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings
and curses of “connectivity.” “No Service” is something travelers from
the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its
ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a
curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape
poverty."

And he may be right.

Because if you want to get out of poverty, you need to be able to save money.  And on a continent (!) where less than 20% of the aggregate population even has access to a bank account, that's a challenge.

According to the World Bank, 90% of Kenyans, 85% of Liberians and 95% of Tanzanians operate without access to banking services.  Enter services like M-PESA and Wizzit, providing the ability to "bank" and micro-transact remotely.

Each market is unique – M-PESA started in Kenya, Wizzit is operating in South Africa – and M-PESA Kenya has seen substantially higher adoption than Tanzania's M-PESA (read here for a CGAP paper on just this topic). 

But despite scale, replicability and market variations including "country demographics and cultures, market structures, business models,
and strategic implementations", these experiments are being carefully monitored.  Mary Kimani, in "A Bank in Every African Pocket" writes about Wizzit’s South African mobile banking pilot operation, and quotes Mohsen Khalil, the World Bank’s director of global ICT:

"If this model works in South
Africa…the World Bank will help the company expand coverage
within and beyond the country. We may be looking here at . . . the
most effective way to provide social and economic services to the
poor.”

Hopalong Selebalo – an intern for ISS in the Organized Crime and Money Laundering Programme – quotes Brian Richardson,  Wizzit's CEO and MD, on the advantages of mobile banking in an ISS paper entitled 7 May 2009: Mobile Phone Banking in the South African Economy.  The key positives:

  • the safety of not having to carry cash around
  • the absence of risk of account closure for inactivity, which enables
    people that do not have a regular income to do banking
  • lower costs, partly because there are no transaction-by-transaction fees
  • saving of time by avoiding long distance travel for banking
  • flexibility,
    in that users can change markets by making small business-to-business
    transactions immediately and reliably, and
  • facilitating popular participation in the economy, which ultimately is positive for the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Selebalo, despite the risk of abuse and money laundering via mobile, posits that "mobile banking could increase national rates of saving, increase
incomes and boost the resilience of the economy. At a broader level, it
could improve taxation, and encourage reinvestment of money that is
currently not in effective circulation."

OK.  OK.

But can it help us win the "information war" going on in Afghanistan right now?

Maybe. Thom Shanker, in his 08.16.09 NYT piece "U.S. Plans a Mission against Taliban Propaganda", begins with a note that the Obama adminsitration acknowledges that they are "engaging more fully than ever in a war of words and ideas" in rural Afghanistan. 

And the proposed solution involves both (a) FM stations to combat pirate stations the Taliban has been operating – in some cases off the back of roving donkey carts – and importantly, (b) providing cellphone
service.

How can cell coverage turn the tide?

“The ability to communicate empowers a
population,”  said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, NATO’s
director of communication in Kabul. “That is a very important principle of
counterinsurgency and counterpropaganda.”

Giving folks cellphone coverage gives them access to independent (read: non-Taliban) information sources.

"In southern Afghanistan, insurgents threaten commercial cellphone providers with attack if they do not switch off service early each night.

That
prevents villagers from calling security forces if they see militants
on the move or planting roadside bombs; the lack of cellphone service
at night also hobbles the police and nongovernmental development
agencies.

And the kicker?  Despite the fact that mobile-enabled transaction will inevitably help finance terrorism (and probably already have), according to Shanker:

"Expanding and securing cellphone service
has the additional benefit of assisting economic development, officials
said, as it could provide wireless access to banking systems for those
who now must travel long distances for financial services."

But back to Utopia.  Or at least Wikipedia's definition of Utopia:

"a compound of the
syllable ou-, meaning "no", and topos, meaning place. But the
homonymous prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with
the
implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place." 

Hmmm.  Given how effectively mobility has enabled us to "be" anyplace and
noplace, connected to the big world and disconnected from the immediate, maybe
Utopia IS the right analogy.

Weapon and Savior?

A "good place" that's "no place"? 

Mobility is transforming both society and culture.

And…oh wait – hold on.  I need to talk this call.