Technology that Actually Helps

We get so caught up in the latest and greatest tech gadgets that it’s a good idea to revisit some of the applications of technology that actually help.

In earlier times, I was one of those hippies that pined for a time free of all the problems that technology bring. I played hippy music, listened to hippy music, and I danced like a hippy.

It was sometimes hard, though, to think like a hippy. Most hippies I knew at the time were luddites, cursing the evils of technology (never mind the fact that the music that we all listened to was encoded on compact discs and played through high fidelity speakers). I knew my grandfather, and he was around because of technology. Well, that and a will to live that surpassed his eight decades of smoking… But I digress.

Growing up in the 80’s, I was indoctrinated pretty heavily with techno-fetishization, craving the newest gaming system, the newest ways to listen to music, and a little later, with resolution on video displays. I wanted more more more, and I think a lot of us did. It was the American Dream to own a shitload of electronics.

Now it’s the new phone, the new tablet, the new television, the new interface, the new, the new, the new. We subtly turn into hipsters, craving that idealized and romanticized version of the OLD THING without really thinking about what that THING actually is.

Right now, the same technology causing others to rant is also being used for good. Research in developing countries is looking at how to help people live better lives, and that’s a very good thing. In the July/September issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing, the editors covered a wealth of research in other areas of the world not usually known for high technology. The results of some of the research is pretty inspiring.

Researchers from the University of Washington used sensors and mobile phones to track the habits of water collection in rural Ethiopia. Since so many people in rural areas like this have to travel rather large distances to gather water, the team tracked time and distance, looking for feasible ways of conducting more research that gathered increasingly accurate data, aiming to find ways to ease some of the incredibly long time spent getting water. Without going into too much of a meta-research argument (which is pointless to explain anyway), it’s incredibly encouraging to see this kind of work going on.

Research in Finland (referenced in the same issue) is hoping to use increasingly cheap mobile technology to assess the amount of social inclusion in primary and secondary schools. By using the data collected (keeping track of proximity between students, and possibly speech patterns as well), other researchers can start to fix problems of social exclusion, enhancing the ability of students in developing or isolated communities to focus on education.

Yes, these things can be viewed in a negative light (what are some of the unforeseen consequences of freeing up water-collection times, one of the truly social and ingrained cultural activities in those societies?), but I think that we can fairly easily fall into the trap of wondering too much about the negative and not enough about the positive. I’m not here to say that all technology is good all the time; I’m just here to say that maybe there’s a flip-side to the coin, and maybe, just maybe, that knowing both the positive and negative consequences of technology can help us know what to do with it.

A computer is a rock is a spear is a car is a pair of scissors.

It’s not that the thing is The Devil; it’s that devils and angels use the thing.

And until AI completely replaces us as a species, we still get to choose how and where  to apply technology’s power.

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2 thoughts on “Technology that Actually Helps

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