CyberPoverty: technology and the divide paradox

“With technology, we’ve never been closer together”

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that sentence in my life. I’m sure you, whoever is reading this, will agree. And to an extent, sure, it’s truthful.  Besides the obvious opposition to it of, ‘oh but our phones also make us disconnected and push us apart’, I challenge you to think critically of this statement. Importantly, who do you visualise when you read ‘we’? We as in you and your friends? Family? People on the other side of the world? How about people in countries where electricity is non-existent, let alone Snapchat dog filters?

Sure, technology may allow us to learn about all corners of the world, to see things and places that would remain invisible if not for technology. It may allow us to hear about the inequalities happening around the world and the people who are struggling. It has incredible strengths and achievements that I am very grateful for, and technology is obviously paramount to my day-to-day existence (communications and media student, guilty). But I cannot pretend to believe that that first sentence encompasses every human being within the two-letter ‘we’. I have not bridged the meaningful, close connections technology supports with people from all around the world, because there is a HUGE chunk of those people who simply do not have access to the technologies that I take advantage of everyday. If anything, I would argue that rather than bringing everyone closer together, technology creates a deep, widening abyss that swallows up the people who fall behind as most of the world leaps, hurdles and front flips towards technological innovation.

An estimated 79% of the people in the ‘Third World’ (I hate these labelling, excluding, clouded terms of first, third, developed, developing etc. but for clarity’s sake… ) – the 50 poorest nations of our world – have no access to electricity. The total number of individuals without power is listed at about 1.5 billion – A QUARTER OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION. Mostly in Africa and southern Asia (Gronewold).

“The amount of electricity consumed in one day in all sub-Saharan Africa, minus South Africa, is about equal to that consumed in New York City, an indicator of the huge gap in electricity usage in the world.”

When we in the richer countries are creating mind-blowing, unimaginable technologies every day, this just pushes the poorer countries further and further down into a never-ending cycle of struggle as they can’t keep up with the innovation.

For my digital artefact, I intend to dive into the abyss between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, swim around, and try to find examples of technology being used in poorer countries – the purpose being to a) make me feel slightly less guilty for being so privileged and b) to create a space where examples can be easily seen, compared, and maybe even inspire more change.

With so much innovation constantly surrounding our lives, it will be incredibly interesting to find out how technological advancements are being used for social justice and the potential that they may have to help those who need it more than we need another f**king iPhone model.

Elon Musk, my personal hero, first gave me the inspiration for this project in his appearance in ‘Before the Flood’. He said, “The advantage of solar and batteries is that you can avoid building electricity plants at all. So you could be a remote village and have solar panels that charge your battery pack that supplies power to the whole village without ever having to run thousands of miles of high voltage cable all over the place. It’s like what happened with land line phones versus cellular phones: in a lot of developed countries they didn’t do the landline phones, they just went straight to cellular.”

So, even though a lot of our world’s countries are years and years behind on innovation, perhaps they don’t have to catch up. Perhaps they can skip years of innovation and instead be supported by technologies that are purposely developed to bring them forward and upwards.
And so my project idea began: CyberPoverty – to collect and showcase examples of technology being used around the world for social justice purposes.
Being in early stages, I am still playing around with ideas of how to display the information. Ideally, I would like to create a webpage that features an interactive world map where viewers could hover over countries to see a preview of the tech used, before clicking in and reading more in-depth information. Creating the project in this form would also allow me to create a page which outlines the project and its purpose and give an overview of the technology gap our world is being split by. Other options I am considering are a Storify or Prezi project, you (and I :/) will just have to wait and see.

To get the pinwheel spinning but, here is an example I have found of technology being used for good rather than evil:

MAPPING THE SLUMS

mathare-zonal-plan-context-map_low_custom-42bab758bdf10300e263cbbabcbdb8d372fd1796-s800-c85.jpeg.jpg
aerial map of Mathare Valley (image source)

The Mathare Valley is one of the largest and oldest slums in Nairobi, Kenya: home to nearly 200,000 people. However, according to Google maps, it is nothing more than grey spaces between unmarked roads. Whilst, maps may not seem that important, think deeper about the agenda that each map holds: in terms of Google, the algorithm for your own search is based on economic means, allowing businesses to buy prominence on your map. Now, delete your own suburb from Google maps and imagine the lack of representation, sense of invisibility and the struggle to know how to navigate a place full of 200,000 people. Maps are critical to our society, and so replacing the grey space with a map of the slum is an important, albeit small, step towards alleviating some of the struggles the residents face.
And that is what has been done; a group of activists, the Spatial Collective, with the help of the locals, used hand-held GPS devices to walk around the slum and create a map. A map that contains things like “informal schools, storefront churches and day care centres, but also dark corners with no streetlights, illegal dumping grounds and broken manholes.” (Warner) The map is pinpointing places of issue and bringing these issues to the knowledge of authorities so they may be improved upon. “A map can be entered as evidence in court to stop evictions. It can be reprinted by international advocacy groups to raise awareness. It can be presented to city planners, as a puzzle to be solved.”

The technology is placed into the hands of the impoverished and allows them to exert autonomy over their own home, speak up and show that they are in fact visible, and powerful.

“And the more time he spends looking at his home through the lens of the GPS, the more he can’t shake the sense that the outside world is finally looking back.” … “With the GPS if you mark a point, you know that there’s someone out there who will get the information that there’s a something happening here”. (Warner)

I’m interested to collect this data throughout the project and try to make my own cognitive decision about the paradox of technology: it widens the divide between the richer and poorer countries but one day it may also close, or at least lessen, the same divide.

 

References:

Gronewold, N 2009, ‘One-Quarter of World’s Population Lacks Electricity’, Scientific American, 24 November, viewed 3 April 2017, <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electricity-gap-developing-countries-energy-wood-charcoal/>.

Warner, G 2013, ‘In Kenya, Using Tech To Put An ‘Invisible’ Slum On The Map’, Parallels, viewed 28 March 2017, <http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/07/17/202656235/in-kenya-using-tech-to-put-an-invisible-slum-on-the-map>.

 

One thought on “CyberPoverty: technology and the divide paradox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s