Riding the Tide

For almost a month now, the Vanuatu IT Users Society has been conducting demonstrations of the One Laptop Per Child Project’s XO laptop. These demos have led to numerous conversations about computers, the Internet and access to information. What affect is this going to have on the Vanuatu way of life?

Most people assume that as a geek, I see technology as a Good Thing, one of the miracles of the modern age. That’s not always the case.

The professional life of an ICT professional is fraught with dangers. They’re not personal dangers, of course. There are few safer things to do than plunking down in front of a computer for several hours each day. The risks a geek faces are risks of responsibility. Every choice we make has implications, some of which can be quite serious, especially in places where resources are limited.

It’s easy to get lost in the technical details. It’s easy to forget that our work is about communications first, and technology second. We can express it any way we like, but nothing we do has any meaning until we remember that our job is helping people talk to people.

That said, computers are complex – the most complex apparatus ever designed for day-to-day use. They require nearly unimaginable hours of effort to render them usable to the average person, at work or at home. (People are pretty complex, too.)

To put things in perspective: If you put a mechanic into a garage full of all the components required to build a truck, she could build one herself. It might take some time, perhaps even months, but eventually a fully constructed vehicle would emerge. Depending on the mechanic’s skills, that truck could be expected to stay on the road for quite some time.

On the other hand, if you put a computer technician into a room with all the physical components required to build a computer, chances are the technician would never manage to make anything more than a simple adding machine, no matter how long you left them there. This is because computers are not machines – not in the traditional sense, anyway.

Computers are systems. And such systems are only possible when vast numbers of people cooperate, each one contributing his or her knowledge and skill to the collective goal of having a useful information sharing device. Engineers, programmers, technicians, administrators, friends and volunteers all have to give their time. Each one takes up the bits of information contributed by others and does a little bit more with them, tweaking this bit or that until the computer is more useful than it was before.

Truly, a computer is like a sand castle, built by countless people, each tossing a few grains here, moving a few grains there. What is miraculous about it is not that the grains are so tiny, but that the castle that we’ve built with them is so immense that we can live inside it, wandering through it almost endlessly. The complexity of computers and the information they process daily is already well beyond the comprehension of most people.

What happens when we take this immensely complicated machine and inject it into day-to-day life in Vanuatu? It’s tempting to say that the complexity of computers will clash with the simplicity of village life, but that’s not true. Oh, there’s sure to be a clash, but assuming that village life is simple is a dangerous mistake.

Vanuatu culture is a dense and richly woven fabric of dependencies, influences and counterweights. It’s doubtful whether any expat, this author included, correctly gauges its complexity.

The problem that technology poses, therefore, needs to be seen differently. The picture we often have is of an ocean of information washing over the ‘simple’ ni-Vanuatu villages in much the same way the King tides wash over the islands of Tuvalu every year. But that’s neither accurate nor useful. Vanuatu society is not a fixed point, immovable and subject only to erosion, salvageable only by the construction of an immense sea wall. It would be more useful to view it as a deep, slow current rising to touch the turbulence on the surface, each one affecting the other.

Every good mariner knows that a lifetime of study is required to be able to navigate the flow when tides converge. Riding this current requires skilled hands at the helm and an experienced eye on the water.

A captain entering such waters for the first time will make every effort to ensure that the charts are up to date, that the crew is alert and awake, and will even take on a pilot in particularly tricky spots. But there’s still no guarantee that the passage will be a safe one. Ultimately, it’s impossible to fight the ocean. You simply ride along, dodging this way or that when the opportunity presents itself.

ICT professionals are the chart-makers, the pilots and the helmsmen of the information world, but they are not usually the captains of any particular endeavour. Nor should they be, necessarily. They are the ones who sweat the details in order that the captain can negotiate a safe passage through dangerous waters.

Things don’t always go well. It’s often frustrating to see painstakingly detailed charts tossed aside by someone who sees only flat water. But the response to this is not necessarily to put more detail in the chart. Sometimes the right answer is to make sure the right person gets the chart in the first place. A good captain can survive a bad chart, but a bad captain won’t be better with a good one.

A bad captain will blame the chart because it didn’t tell him how the currents were going to behave. A good captain doesn’t try to predict what the water will do; rather he uses the charts to decide what to do when the tides take him.

The tide of global information is already in flood. It’s already mixing inextricably with the deep, dense current that is Vanuatu culture. It’s teasing at the edges, amplifying some parts and drowning others, muddying some parts that were once clear and clarifying others that were long obscured.

ICT professionals in Vanuatu face a real challenge. They’re plotting a course through waters that nobody’s seen before, there are too few of them to fully crew the ship and, as with all things, good captains are few and far between.

It’s not surprising that we’re ill-equipped for such a voyage. The same is true of most countries. Developed nations the world over have experienced immense turmoil as a result of the rise of information technology. But they’ve got one advantage: For better or for worse, they’ve been in turmoil long enough that they’ve come to accept it as the norm.

Few in the developed world question the cost of this rootless, fluid existence. Few here in Vanuatu would accept it, given the choice.

Those of us who work in technology – and that means all of us who work in development – need to lift our eyes from the numbers on the charts and ask ourselves: What is our destination, and what is the course? We can’t master the tide, because it has a life of its own. But we can try to be sure that, as each new surge and eddy catches us, we know which currents will pull us into the rocks and shoals and which will propel us toward our goal.