‘Storian hemi laef blong yumi’ – Telecom Vanuatu’s new slogan could not be more true.
In times of crisis, communication and coordination enable us to survive and to recover quickly.
When an earthquake occured between Samoa and Tonga early in the morning of September 29th, it created a tsunami that struck the inhabitants on the eastern and southeastern parts of the island within minutes. Sirens sounded and church bells rang all over side of the island, sending people fleeing to higher ground.
The latest reports from Samoa indicate that in addition to at least 149 dead, 640 families comprising roughly 3200 people have lost their homes and possessions. Most have yet to to return to their villages, and are without proper access to power, water and other basic amenities.
Food, water, clothing and shelter are all critical elements of the relief effort.
Equally important is the ability to communicate.
In a press conference about Iran last week, a reporter asked US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the US couldn’t do an end run around Iranian censorship and use its satellites to ‘beam down’ broadband data connections to the Iranian people.
The question as asked comes across as remarkably naive to us geeks. We make it our business to know the difference between the logical (soft) network and the physical (hard) network.
A tension exists between the inherently democratic design of the myriad end-to-end connections that compose the Internet and the centralised conformation of the physical networks themselves. Briefly, the ‘soft’ elements of the network (the software we run on our computers and the protocols they follow) are completely agnostic about how the data they share actually get from one point to another.
On the other hand, the ‘hard’ elements (international satellite links, long-distance cables and the connection between your home and your ISP) are all about how the data moves. Controlling the data flow is their very essence.
From a ‘hard’ network point of view, this idea of ‘beaming down broadband to an entire population’ is little more than a pipe dream. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to receive a signal from a satellite. Sending an answer back is another matter entirely. That requires some pretty sophisticated equipment.
This led a number of geeks to discard the question entirely and to laugh more than a little at the naiveté of the reporter who posed it.
I’m not so sure we should cast it aside it so quickly.
[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, published a seminal book of essays, titled Being Digital. At the core of his work was his division of all things into atoms or bits. Just as an atom is the basic particle of matter in modern physics, bits are the basic particle of data in modern computing. All the material things in the world are composed of atoms. Increasingly, all of our ideas, learning, communications and stories are expressed in digital format.
As all technological fortune-tellers do, Negroponte gets some things very right and others very wrong. I’m not writing a book review, though, so I’m not going to enumerate each little quirk and quibble. He did get one big lesson right, and we need to learn it.
Developing nations everywhere share a common set of problems. The most obvious and common of them is a simple lack of capacity to begin taking advantage of the things that people in developed nations take for granted: instantaneous communications and the ability to access, gather and store vast amounts of information about every single aspect of humanity, no matter how trivial.
Whether we want to peek at Brad and Angelina’s twins or carbon date Eva de Naharon, we can do so via digital technology. Negroponte puts it quite simply: Everything that can be stored as bits will be stored as bits. Lack of resources, planning and understanding mean that in many parts of the developing world, most local knowledge can’t or won’t survive the transition.