Unleashing ingenuity for better and worse….maybe

On this, the last day of the NetHope Summit, I wanted to share this vid about one project where NetHope member NGOs are doing great work. The person I spoke with about the project (I promised not to attribute agencies or organizations as part of my agreement to be authorized to blog while attending the conference) characterized this work in Panama as a classic example where technology enables people to rise from poverty. I agree. By the way, the project’s Internet connectivity comes courtesy of Intel’s Rural Connectivity Platform, which is beaming the signal from a local hotel to the jungle-ensconced computer lab. RCP is cool technology.

Indeed the whole project is really cool. Two of my Intel colleagues, Meghan Desai and Jeff Galinovsky traveled there to install the project’s RCP component and they reminisce about the good times they had. But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. It touches on the collaboration between the NetHope member NGO, Intel and the Peace Corps. It talks about educating kids and women. Fair enough. But what it doesn’t show is how smart the indigenous peoples’ are and how quickly they’ve figured out how to use the technology to their advantage beyond education, Internet access and women empowerment (not that I’m diminishing the importance of these, especially women empowerment).

Eco tourism is big there at least for the Indians. Indian guides host eco tours for visitors staying at the hotel. Thanks to this project the guides now use the technology to manage their growing eco tourism business. The guides also collect visitor email addresses which are used to follow-up with tourists after they go home. The follow-up emails are used to market locally-produced arts and crafts – little wild animal figurines carved from local wood, perhaps as a kind of memento of their jungle visit. I’m told these figurines are real works of art. My point is, one could cynically watch this vid and conclude that these agencies swooped in and helped these poor, stupid, backwards native people get out of poverty but the reality is that in addition to educating young and old and connecting people to the Internet, this project, by virtue of the local peoples’ own creativity, also is helping stimulate increased livelihoods for their villages. That’s really cool.

Now, before you walk away from this post with a warm and fuzzy feeling, there is one other part of this story that should be told in the interest of fair and balanced blogging….

Human nature is ever present, even in the hearts of seemingly beautiful., peaceful, gentle Panamanian jungle inhabitants. And it’s human nature that’s adding its own twist to the otherwise rosy picture here. According to the guy I spoke with, the project actually impacts two tribes. These tribes have been in a long-standing state of aggression. How has the project impacted the contention between the tribes?

I wish I could say it has eliminated it entirely, but the truth is it has simultaneously served as a kind of olive branch and a source of increased acrimony. Children of both tribes are using the small computer center for education, which bodes well for future generations as the kids make friends and get to know one another across tribal divides. But current leaders of one tribe are using the technology as a kind of power play in the social dynamic between the tribes. And this, according to my source, is increasing tensions as a somewhat uneven prosperity begins to emerge among the two tribes. One wonders what will happen as this project generates more and more economic success. As pockets fill, what role will greed and envy play in thwarting what by all measures so far appears to be a positive community benefit? In the interest of doing good, have we introduced more fodder for future conflict? Will the technology feed greedy, envious natures, or will it connect the hearts of these people, allowing them to create a prosperous, peaceful, mutually productive future? I’d like to think the latter will prevail, but in truth, only time will truly tell.

2 Responses to Unleashing ingenuity for better and worse….maybe

  1. Brian says:

    First, let me say that I am a big fan of science and tech. For example, I own at least a dozen functioning x86 computers for personal use.
    I wanted to comment on the point of human nature using technology for negative as well as positive ends. My own understanding of history is that is never been otherwise! In WW II, it was the Nazi’s who had the best tech, at least until 1944. Look at global warming largely made from our cars which allow us to live where we want… Even computers and the internet helps child predators do their evil acts.
    My considered opinion is that human nature is the stronger force, it will outlive even our love of technology.

  2. Perry Gruber says:

    I agree with you that tech has always been a double-edged sword. Nonetheless it was sad to be reminded that human nature is human nature, no matter where you go. I am optimistic, as you appear to be too Brian, that human nature (in its good aspect) will triumph. I only hope I live long enough to see it!