Connecting the World

By: Sarah Inskeep

A visual depiction of ‘The Cloud’. The server farms that make it up are far from cloud-like, but the countless connections created by it among people around the world are a rather cloud-like network.

I’m always interested to see how different people in our field think about the role of technology in the world – both in the world today, and in the world that is coming to be. I’ve heard a variety of perspectives. For some, development of new technology is thought to be the answer to most of our present dilemmas. For others, technology is thought to be a part of the problem. Our visitor today, Madhawa, shared a different perspective.

“Technology is neither positive nor negative,” he said. “It’s a tool. It’s how you use it that matters.”

This is the view I’ve come to hold as well, both in regard to technology and in regard to my research in physics and ecology. Over the past few days, I’ve been very excited by the possibilities of positive uses for technology. Ushahidi, for example, is a program that allows crowdsourcing and mapping of information. It has been used for tracking information about violent crimes, for monitoring elections, and for coordinating emergency responses to natural disasters. Frontline SMS, a similar crowdsourcing platform, has been used to collect information for research projects, medical surveys, and community projects.

Another emerging example of the use of mathematics and technology in our field is in conflict early warning systems. They allow us to understand cycles of violence, to learn how to spot indicators so that we can better understand how and when to intervene to prevent mass violence.

As was pointed out in class, no matter how accurately we can predict these things, the human side of conflict remains. We may see signals that indicate a certain country is headed toward genocide, but must then decide how the international community will act. We’ve seen the complexity of this stage numerous times in the past decade alone – in the occupation of Tibet, in the ongoing conflict in Syria, in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It’s frustrating that, even though we know, there is sometimes so little we can do. I make no claims to have any better solutions, but there must be more that can be done. If governments cannot, or will not, act, what other options do we have?

Perhaps technology could play a role to play here, too? I’m hesitant to support the use of social media to spread news of the tragedies taking place because it’s too easy to become jaded to the reality of the traumas people are facing. Nevertheless, as Madhawa shared with us, social media has the potential to allow people from even the most remote areas to connect and share their cause with others around the world. Can we find a way to share their stories as a means of empowerment, to demand change from wherever we are in the world? To organize action that forces governments to step up?

In my sociology class last semester, we studied the abolition of the British slave trade. That, too, once seemed intractable, something beyond the reach of any person or government to destabilize, let alone end. Yet, with time and the persistent work of determined people, things changed. Similarly, boycotts in the United States of South African goods played a major role in the end of Apartheid.

People, I think, have more power now to use their knowledge and their access to the world than they ever have before. Why, then, do we wait for our governments to change their minds? Why, especially in the United States, do we not use the power we have as we could, as we have in the past? What would it take for us to again take a stand?

In the so-called ‘Cloud’, among the pictures of friends and school projects – among the numerous cat videos – there is a treasury of stories about the world. Stories from refugees and minorities, from villagers and marginalized peoples. They have been silenced, but their words transcend walls and borders. Their words are here, in the palms of our hands, waiting to be given a voice.  

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