Dreaming Technologically

Power to the people

Power to the people

Okay, okay, so I’m a sucker for gadgets. Not such a nut though that I would subscribe to STUFF magazine or Apple magazine. No. Just your low-level sucker. I love the idea of owning the latest gadget, I so wish I could afford them but I can’t, so I make do with what I can afford. That’s why the impending demise of Research In Motion(RIM), the makers of Blackberry, brings a tinge of sadness to my heart, maybe even the proverbial tear.

See, I think gadgets, cell phones in particular are a good sign of a nation’s progress. Pause. Just kidding. I hope you did pause right there, otherwise I got you.

No, seriously though, I’m a bit of a dreamer and gadgets probably represent some of my most far-fetched dreams coming to life. Did you know that South Africa has a cellphone penetration of over 100%? There are more SIM cards in this country than people.

I have this belief that technology, especially mobile technology, can and will play a major role in the fight against poverty going forward.

Each time I get to a service delivery area such as a rates payments hall or an overcrowded public hospital I always end up day-dreaming about a day when people, specifically poor people, can use the one technological gadget that 80% of our population can afford to navigate the demeaning wait at a public hospital or rates payment hall, the cellular phone.

Imagine it, if instead of getting to a public hospital at 5am a person could SMS their unique identity number or use an app to book a place in line,get a response to get to the hospital between 11h00 and 12h30, that would remove a 6-hour waiting period, during which hunger and other frustrations set in. I’m certain some IT boffin somewhere can make it happen. I mean, we have apps that can do almost anything, book flight tickets, buy insurance, make coffee…ok it’s not here yet but it’s coming.

What? You think it’s just dreams? I remember my first time in a gym many years ago, I just couldn’t understand how a treadmill could measure the calories I burnt during my running, now there’s an app to measure the distance you run, the calories you burn, the speed at which you run, even where and when you stopped! And you think apps to lighten the load of the poor is not possible? Come on!

Of course this would require technological improvements such as Wifi being freely available, or at least very affordable, instead of marching for economic freedom we should march for technological advancement. Free WiFi everywhere!

Imagine several thousand phones beeping to tell residents of a planned water shortage tomorrow between 09:00 and 15:00, in a village somewhere, instead of the indignity of finding out when trying to flush the toilet… It’s probably happening in the developed world, why not for the poor.

Who would have thought, a few years ago, that a person could walk into a little shop somewhere and send money 500km away, it’s happening now. Previously people needed to take up to three taxis and use quite a bit of money to send their loved ones money. Not anymore.

If you thought the love of gadgets should be the preserve of geeks and IT boffins think again. If you don’t want to believe this then tell me why a 10 or 15 year old today doesn’t know what a telegram is? Somebody had a dream and look how you are reading a telegram today, on your phone or computer! Only you call it email, SMS, WeChat or Whatsapp.

I couldn’t help but wonder if technology would not have come to the aid of the people of Cape Town a week ago. See, the weather people saw the adverse weather coming. What if the mobile phones of the people in the shack areas had beeped, sending out a warning a day before the floods? Or even hours before? “Move to safety, terrible storm coming”. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s quite doable.

How about in war-ravaged countries, prior warnings through the mobile device could save thousands. “Sick, bloodthirsty rebels approaching, move to next town”. Ok so I’m dreaming , allow me to.

I hope you too will become a gadget-to-improve-lives sucker.

In my daydreaming days I used to wonder why it is that a virtual soccer stadium could not be created so tickets didn’t have to be sold out. Imagine it, a full stadium with life-size virtual images (holograms) that are beamed live onto the pitch as things would be happening in the original game. I have read one or two reports that suggest that this will not remain a dream forever. After all, TuPac Shakur was brought back to life on stage for the purposes of a performance.

What do you dream technology could do to improve lives?

6 responses

  1. Quoting your lines – I couldn’t help but wonder if technology would not have come to the aid of the people of Cape Town a week ago. See, the weather people saw the adverse weather coming. What if the mobile phones of the people in the shack areas had beeped, sending out a warning a day before the floods? Or even hours before? “Move to safety, terrible storm coming”. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s quite doable.

    True that. We did this in India during the cyclone Phaileen. Of course we couldn’t save the materialistic world from destruction but many lives were saved. Very less casualties were reported. Probably in 1s or 2s.

    Now coming to the topic, it takes sheer genius to think something like this. You are day dreaming nicely and if this is how it works out, God, I too want to day-dream, exactly like this. I am bookmarking this blog forever. This is something that I would like to revisit, again and again and again.

    Keep dreaming!


    1. Thank you Divya. I like that your government had the foresight to use this simple technology to save lives. Technology takes a bit of time to take root but I’m hoping most African governments will catch on.


  2. Oh! How worthwhile! To be able to SMS a need for medical service, or any stressful need, and receive an appointment, even if it’s only a rough estimate. I know what you mean about the hours on uncomfortable chairs, without access to food or water, often crowded, all the while needing to be attentive to jump up when summoned.

    I agree with you on free wifi everywhere. This is an issue I have pondered before, and see as an idea worth supporting. 10 or 15 years ago, coworkers and I discussed the future of cellphones vs. satellite phones. We recognized that satellite phones would always be in demand in remote areas. Perhaps satellite service would be the best signal to make universally available. That is how my household connects with the internet.

    I understand that some cities and small towns provide free wifi now. Similarly, women’s shelters collect old cell phones, and distribute them for free. These can only access 911 since they are not affiliated with any network, but at least they can be a lifeline.

    A neighboring town recently got a government grant to provide free cable internet service to all of its residents. Currently, only 10% have internet service, according to a local newspaper article. They had been waiting for fiber-optic lines that were promised perennially for more than 15 years.

    In the meantime, we recently signed up to receive text messages when we have an electrical power failure, landline telephone outage, or storm warning. I used to get automated phone calls when schools were closed due to inclement weather (my kids are all graduated now). I got a text message from my bank when my account balance got unusually low. I even get text messages soon after packages are delivered.

    I got a text message each of the last 2 summers, just before the local government sprayed over my house to kill mosquitoes. The technology exists. We just need to convince someone to adapt it to more circumstances. Why not use it to warn people of impending threats from people, weather, nuclear accidents…?

    Funding for it could come from the savings that would come from implementing such technology: less loss from crises. I point out, with great heartache, that this is not sufficient for corporate interest. On the other hand, I don’t want corporations to provide such a service, and for anyone to be beholden to such providers. I don’t want to give corporations that power. How else could this idea be implemented?

    Great conversation, Syd!!!! I greatly enjoy your topics and writing style. Thanks for sharing!

    (one consideration: concerns about the physical health effects of wireless communication waves/radiation)


  3. Divya is right, we have also used this technology here in Tasmania to warn people of extreme bushfire conditions and advancing fires. It has now been fine-tuned so that every mobile phone (cell phone) in the area gets the warning message, whether they are locals or visitors, because visitors are often the most vulnerable group. I’m in the emergency services and we all get a message when there is anything happening. Maybe, if your government is a bit apathetic, people should just do stuff themselves, Sydney? Whoever has the best access to whatever info is useful could send a message to local people or community leaders. Of course,every powerful tool ends up being a double-edged sword – wild rumours can spread as much destruction as a fire. http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/01/11/3668187.htm for an interesting look at our situation here, where we are still struggling with how to best use media in an emergency as the next fire season rapidly approaches. Great writing, Sydney, you’re giving our brains a good work out!


    1. Heidi, Grace, thank you for reading. I’m blown away by the number of uses that your communities have found for the simple technology that is a mobile phone. I think our situation here’s different because access to communication is still viewed in very commercial terms. If the cellphone giants do not see a service as having commercial benefits it will not see light of day. Banking services and such things are available, up to first world standards I think. But where we lag behind is in using this technology to change people’s everyday lives, make life easier and safer. Heidi, I so wish we could get communities to start doing things for themselves and come up with solutions. It will happen at some point but it will take time. Grace, isn’t it amazing how difficult life would become if this simple technology were to be unavailable.

      We need to start thinking innovatively about how this simple technology can uplift people.


  4. A lot of Canadian cities have set up alert systems that contact subscribers to tell them about everything from weather to street cleaning. Now a hospital wait list- that is something I’m sure would interest citizens. Our wait times our notoriously long.

    As to your last point, there is indeed a virtual stand-in (for lack of a better term) that has been developed, though obviously not widely available yet or in the forseeable future. You can find reference to it in Moses Znaimer’s “Ideacity” (Part Two I believe). Here is a link to the podcast page: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/podcasts/ You’ll have to scroll through to find parts one through four but there may be some extra podcasts you’d be interested in as well. 🙂


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