Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Computers in New Guinea or Cyberclunk as Cultural Mash-Up

Central to the theme of Cyberclunk is the recontextualization and repurposing of technology. It's people using technology to suit their needs, and  shaping that technology through the lens of their own culture. When Apple designs an Ipod, it may have an intended use, but as soon as that technology enters the stream of world culture, that intended use instantly becomes reshaped. The identity of the technology is very much tied in with the identity of the user.

In the beginning of Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond describes a conversation that is the premise for the entire book. A politician from New Guinea asks Diamond, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" by "cargo" he meant what his culture called imported manufactured goods. The point Diamond makes in the book, is that industrial manufacturing can only occur when the culture has access to the resources needed for manufacturing, a condition that is very much determined by geography. But now that "cargo" is available to the indigenous population of New Guinea, how does this shape the culture? What impact would widespread internet access have on the culture of New Guinea, and how would the ideas presented by the technology be incorporated into the culture? 

Not too long ago, just such an experiment was made through the  One Laptop Per Child project. in 2007 inexpensive laptops were introduced to a number of small indigenous communities, beginning with Uruguay. The computers required little power, and could be charged manually with a hand crank. Eventually, Papua New Guinea, too, became a part of the program. 

New Guinea children Participating in the "One Laptop Per Child" program

One unintended use of these computers was minor, by notable: the families of children who lived in homes that did not have electricity could use the laptop screens as a light source. But more importantly: these kids had access to world culture in a way that they never did before, and now it's their culture, but theirs in a way that is uniquely theirs. They will always interpret the "cargo" they consume through the eyes of their unique culture, and will use Western technology in ways we can't imagine or anticipate. To some degree their native culture will inevitably be usurped. Technology changes us as much as we change it. It's compelling stuff, and some of what currently makes New Guineans, New Guineans will inevitably and sadly be lost. At the same time, technology empowers us. And what happens when you empower a country that the rest of the world considers powerless? When they take the tools we give them, reshape them, and make something new and remarkable out of them? This is one of the questions that Cyberclunk asks. 

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