How Technology Shrinks and Amplifies Distance

Two pieces in the NYT/IHT that weren’t about technology, but kind of are, illustrate how technology can shrink distance but also grow it.

First off a piece by Geoff D. Porteran analyst in the Middle East and Africa division of the Eurasia Group, explores how African would-be immigrants to Europe are now making their way to Europe via the Canary Islands, some 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Until technology came along, this was a very risky business: The Atlantic is big, and the Canaries are small, making it hard for sailors in small fishing boats to find them.

Still, chasing fish stocks is different from finding a small cluster of islands in the middle of the ocean. At least it was until battery-powered, handheld GPS units became widely available.

Over the past several years, GPS technology has become smaller, more user-friendly and – most importantly – cheaper. A simple unit costs little more than $100. And because GPS uses satellites, they work as well on Fifth Avenue as they do 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania.

With the new oceangoing canoes outfitted with handheld GPS units, the Canaries were no longer so far away nor so hard to find for the Africans.

Cheap GPS has shrunk the distance between Africa and Europe, perhaps not for the better if boats are still getting lost, and the illegal immigrants are simply caught and turned back. Perhaps it merely creates more business for snakeheads. But there’s no denying that GPS has become a tool of the masses, even in the developing world, and that that carries with it huge implications for the size of the world and the shrinking of distance.

But sometimes technology has the opposite effect. Another IHT piece, by author and diplomat Judith M. Heimann, explores how U.S. airmen shot down over Borneo in 1945 quickly learned the local Dayak language and helped turn the local people into a formidable guerrilla force. Ms. Heimann’s point is that those individual airmen who were isolated from their comrades learned Dayak faster, and stands in contrast to the soldier of today in Iraq or Afghanistan:

And now, as I read the newspapers, I cannot help noticing how in today’s unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers’ and leaders’ current lack of success in co-opting the local people contrasts with what was achieved by a small number of American airmen 60-odd years ago.

How come this difference? And what can we learn from it?

The difference may well be directly related to the number of soldiers involved. The airman who was the quickest to learn the local language and to become a competent survivor, was the one who was alone in a Dayak village for months before meeting up with any of the other Americans.

The slowest to become capable of helping themselves and being part of an effective anti-Japanese unit were those in the biggest group – four American flyers.

Think about it. When do you learn a new language most easily? When you have no choice.

Compare this with the gizmos every soldier today carries — communications devices, sustenance, translation gadgets, night vision goggles — and you realize that while such devices may sometimes save him, they also isolate him from the sort of contact with local people and culture that turned a disastrous flight over Borneo into a successful grassroots campaign against the Japanese. Here technology merely creates a gulf, a sort of shield where the soldier remains dependent on his devices and reduces the chances of building the kind of bonds those stranded airmen did with the headhunters of Borneo.

‘Guests’ can succeed where occupiers fail – International Herald Tribune

11. November 2007 by jeremy
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