Archive | 1:48 pm

Another Eyewitness Account of Deteriorating Conditions in Cameroon

8 Oct

“The crisis has been converted into a huge money making machine for the men in uniform. They organize random arrests and each arrested person seeking his or liberty pays between 25000 and 500000 francs including in some cases sexual favors. It’s sad and urgent.

The national and international community must stop talking and take action now.
Tomorrow may be too late.

Each arrest and killing is not weakening voices or determination but is fast radicalizing thousands and recruiting more into the struggle.

Today a large number of youths on their way to church from Mike 16 in Buea were intercepted, some ask to sit in the mud and others taken to where we do not know.

These are confirmed eye witness accounts.”

Bucking Inevitability:  Putting Technology in its Place, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Oct

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. Gertrude Stein

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road. Stewart Brand

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. Albert Einstein

I have spent a good bit of this past week in the community of Georgia Tech, a university whose rise in quality and prominence is mirrored by the city of Atlanta of which it is a prominent part.

I come here in part at the urging of Professor Robert Thomas and in part because I get to speak to – and with – some very talented students (including former interns) who ply their wares in fields far removed from my own but in no way irrelevant to what we and others try to accomplish in New York.

It is not irrelevant because, of course, the skills they now cultivate are essential to fulfilling our sustainable development promises.   These are people who can design sustainable cities, not just talk about the need for them.  These are people who can help create funding strategies that might actually support healthier oceans and gender-balanced schools.  These are the people who can engineer transportation systems that can reduce both emissions and rider frustrations.

It all sounds quite positive.  What could possibly run this train off the tracks?

To answer this fairly, we should take a step back.  Earlier this week at the UN, Kazakhstan sponsored an event that focused on technological advances and their impacts on weapons systems and disarmament prospects.  Among the presentations was one focused on the increasing speed with which (hypersonic) missiles will be able to find their targets and the knowledge and response deficits that this speed helps create.  The scenario was painted of leaders having to take action without definitive knowledge about the payload or intent of the incoming threat, and the sometimes grave mistakes that can proceed from such “decision-making on the fly.”

As is the case in some of the more intimate UN “side event” discussions, the train of thought moved in even more productive directions, inspired in part by a comment that much of what technology demands, in domains far beyond military defense, is rapid response.   In the personal realm, for instance, we tend to react immediately and at times thoughtlessly to the messages on our smart phone; we respond to email messages at a rapid fire rate in an attempt – usually futile – to keep those messages from dropping on our screens past the point that they are visible enough to prompt action. We feel the urgency to “get back to people,” those hostile or not, before we have thought through the longer-term implications of our shorter-term communications blasts.

And it’s not just our smart phones that are motivating responses that lack a concern for the longer-view. Indeed, the demand for short-term gain, for instant investor gratification has become something of a hallmark of our modern economic system.   Despite the obvious threats that our economic choices can unleash, we continue to make “business decisions” without considering the impacts on prospects for our children – the stable, secure and healthy environment that we all could do more to ensure and in which they might find productive and socially-useful pathways for talents that have often come at the considerable cost of time, effort and even tuition.

At the UN where we sit each and every day, such a stable environment is at best a patchwork of possibility. Success in Colombia and Liberia is offset by new patterns of misery in places like Syria, Myanmar and now Cameroon.   Determination on sustainable development is contextualized by armed violence that destroys community infrastructure and saps hope.  Progress on global migration governance is stifled by governments erecting walls of all sorts and even inciting otherwise generous souls to turn their backs on forcibly displaced.

And there is another alarming back story to our current technological preoccupations, a second, discouraging dimension of “dual-use.”   The dual use of our common policy discourse is unsettling enough – technology that appears to serve civilian uses but is actually a platform for more military-friendly applications.  Here we are thinking of space-based, communications technology that covers for military intelligence gathering, or drones that can deliver consumer packages and annoy neighbors but are equally well-designed to deliver remote-controlled explosives.

But “dual use” has another dimension, one that the engineering and science majors working on grant-related research often come to understand well.   In the US as with many other parts of the world, the major “investor” in research and development are Departments of Defense.   As a result, initial applications following successful research are often military in significance.   Consumer applications come later, often in the form of new products that can generate significant revenue and are frequently presented (and accepted) as some form of inevitable imposition, akin to death and taxes, and invoking a similar sense of resignation.  Are we really clamoring for driver-less cars?   For robots that make products we no longer have the revenue to purchase? For yet another generation of phones that rob us of self-directed skills, stoke our narcissism and anxiety, and fill our heads with other peoples’ nonsense? For computer applications that reveal all sorts of juicy tidbits about other people that we really have no business knowing?

This is dual use with an unsettling twist.  The military establishment gains the benefit of the skills of many of our brightest minds and the rest of us get the shiny dregs in the form of too many products and “services” of convenience for which “desire” and “need” have been relentlessly stoked; that can violate most of what remains of our privacy; and that can increase the complexity and anxiety (and ecological footprint) of our lives more than bring us closer to a sustainable future.

Needless to say, not all of the students I am with this week choose to take on the implications of this dissonance.  Some prefer to stay in their labs, their DNA fully intertwined with their technology, letting the world take care of itself.  But if you probe a bit, there are cracks even in this narrative, cracks occasioned in part by the unlikelihood that any of the real-world implications of technology carefully developed will stay, at least to some degree, in the hands of its developers.  Indeed, few of the academicians who teach engineering or technology and who make chunks of their living from grant-related research in these areas have any illusions regarding their ability to control the consequences of their research beyond the confines of their labs.

Fortunately, there are many other young people who are questioning this inevitability-producing system, who demand more control of the implications of their labors, who seek ways to use their considerable skills to make a safer, saner, more predictable world for all, having an impact greater than simply developing technologies to service military objectives and line the pockets of their consumer counterparts.

Technology has proven itself to be what Einstein and others have long predicted – a great blessing on the one hand, a potentially toxic and dis-empowering addiction on the other. We have showered our technologists with well-deserved admiration but also with excessive deference.  We too often treat technology like some approaching tsunami, something we feel compelled to watch from an unsafe distance and for which we are largely unprepared as the water reaches threatening levels.

We must find ways to do more than manage the technology that is positioned to “flatten” us, more than merely “give way” to its seductive allures.  Later this week at the UN, we will attend an event entitled The Future of Everything – Sustainable Development in the Age of Rapid Technological Change. But we know this already: that any such “future” must be characterized by a deeper commitment to get better control of technology’s “pace,” to ensure that any future innovation has more than a “puncher’s chance” of being placed in the service of a safer, healthier and more equitable world.

There was a story this week that the person who created the “Like” button for Facebook decided to delete Facebook altogether from his “smart” phone. Whether or not this is some “declaration of independence,” I have no way of knowing.  The issue is not whether technology is good or bad.  The issue is who controls its development and application, to what ends, at what pace, to whose benefit.   These are questions fundamental to sustainable development, to the inclusive well-being of global citizens, questions that we have barely begun to pose.

If we don’t get the answers we need, we must rethink the inevitability of this current technological wave.  My hope and sense is that there is a new batch of clever young people open to doing precisely that.