Tuesday, December 20, 2011

From Plastic Mammoths to Glass Smartphones

It is amazing to think how advanced our society has become concerning the use of basic consumer products. Twenty years ago, my dad bought his first Mac desktop computer for a few thousand dollars. This breakthrough device allowed him to send emails, albeit very slowly, to essentially anyone, anywhere in the world... assuming the recipient had an email address. Furthermore, this allowed for my dad to make a word processed document on his computer that he could subsequently print up on his Apple printer. At the time, the conveniences and advancements of this massive machine where quite impressive.

Fast forward just ten years, and the Wood family purchased another Mac computer, the eMac. This behemoth of a desktop computer was housed in a single unit, and was outfitted with built in speakers, a 15 inch screen, and the new Mac OS X. Not only did this device allow for word processing and internet use, but we could also play music and movies on our new computer, because this machine had a built in CD/DVD (woah). At around the same time as our new computer was installed at our home, cell phones were becoming an increasingly more common device. More and more we would see people talking into these large plastic devices as a means to talk on-the-go. No longer were you constrained to only talk to people on the phone, but now you could talk virtually anywhere. This worked especially well with our fancy new computer, as naturally it only ran on dialup internet. This meant that rather then picking up the home phone and being met with the unpleasant gargle of a lost internet connection, you could now simply make a phone call off the cell phone network.

Let's briefly review these advancements. Around the time I was born, the Wood home was crimsoned as a 'Mac household,' by the introduction of a desktop computer that could connect to the internet, print documents, pay mine sweep, and send email. Ten years later, our Mac identity was further defined with the eMac, which housed a whole new range of practical programs like iTunes and iMovie, and again, we could connect to the dialup internet at anytime to explore the ever growing "internet."

Now lets take it to the present day. Every member of the Wood family now has an iPhone, a laptop and a few other devices for use. These phones have capabilities that our ten year old eMac never dreamed of possessing. These phones can explore the far reaches of the internet, they can take 5MP (!!!) pictures and video, they can wirelessly download and play music from virtually anywhere, they can send and receive large email files, they can write and print documents, they can instantly translate any number of languages, they can compare prices with the scan of a barcode, they can display realtime news stories, they can stream video, they can send hundreds of text messages at once... and yes, they can make phone calls. In my short lifetime we advanced from a massive, noisy and slow computer, which hogged most of your desk space, to a small, sleek smartphone that fits in your pocket. Not only is this phone a fraction of the size but it is also exponentially more powerful and practical.

In just twenty years, we have invented two incredible and unfathomably powerful products, the cell phone and the desktop computer. We have taken these advancements to such a level of advancement that they have now been reconciled into just one device, the $150 smartphone.

Consider this. Thirty years ago, very few people would have predicted the depth and breadth of our technological advancements. Today, we have a difficulty imagining something that much more advanced than we already have, but history shows that myopic lens to be often wrong. Considering the advancements of the last twenty years, what kind of advancements will the next twenty years bring us?


Friday, December 16, 2011

American Psycho... logy

I recently read an article that looked to understand how people judged a piece of art or their preference in expensive wine. The conclusion was that people's perceptions and opinions of things are complicated, and driven by a number of factors such as, the taste, aesthetic qualities, and monetary value of something. In experiments done on how people preferred expensive wine over cheaper wine and how people preferred a real Rembrandt over a fake Rembrandt, a common reaction was increased blood flow to the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain. The article describes this part of the brain as focusing on monetary gain, pleasure and perceptions of reward.

I found it to be extremely interesting that there was a small piece of our brain which helped us prefer something simply on the basis of its associated value. This sort of brain activity (I assume) extends far outside of wines and paintings, and can be applied to things like clothing labels, foods, cigars and the like.

Now that their is a scientific understanding to how we incorporate financial worth in judging something, I wonder how we can apply that knowledge outside of psychology. More specifically, I am curious of the differences in development in specific part of the brain between cultures, communities, genders, races, occupations, socio-economic classes, ages, nationalities, political understandings etc etc.

It would be interesting to discover that an American has a more defined and larger orbitofrontal cortex than a European might. Or that a middle class woman has a less pronounced orbitofrontal cortex than a upper class man does. The variables and circumstances to this kind of experimentation are endless.



Overcoming Cynicism

As you know, my past semester was spent in Ghana. Ghana is one of the more developed and stable countries in Africa, but it is certainly not without its problems. The country is riddled with poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, and corrupt politics. Amidst all these problems, people remain engaged in their communities and appear quite happy under their current circumstances.

Despite Ghanaians appearing content, us Americans still see a need to improve on the present situation. In doing so, this semester I worked with a water filtration organization that distributed and maintained simple bio-sand water filtration devices in villages around Accra. My opinion of this project as a noble and important one has not wavered, I do question however, it's effectiveness. In practice, it seemed that every week we would install a new filter while we discovered that last week's filter was going unused and breaking. I could not understand why this fantastic and free product would go unused, especially when it was providing a much needed service to these villagers who lacked access to clean water. I could not understand what would prompt someone to forego filtering deadly bacteria out of filthy drinking water. Finally, I could not understand what we as an organization could to fix this major problem.

After working with SafeWater for 4 months, I left the country having only partially answered some of these questions. I realized that the normative and cultural practices of the village proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for us. It wasn't as simple as explaining the biological findings on these water conditions, and expecting people to understand and adopt the practice of diligently filtering their water. If a Ghanaian family were to go through the past thirty years drinking this dirty water and lived to tell of their practices, why would they use the filter? Pouring water into a blue bucket was simply laborious and unnecessary. It wasn't that they didn't appreciate and understand the concept of what the filter was doing, but they just didn't see the need to use it. Having come to this somewhat haphazard understand of the lack of use problems, I moved on to tackle the final issue of how to fix the problem... A question that has proved nearly impossible for me to answer.

SafeWater was plagued by a lack of funding, which certainly contributed to our roadblocks along the way, but the organization was run by passionate and committed people (namely, the fantastic Josephus Hallie). Funding issues notwithstanding, I question whether this model of distributing these devices throughout these villages is effective or needed. I question whether it is our place to come into Africa and make this improvement, moreover whether it was our place to decide whether it indeed was an improvement at all. With this understanding I have come to the conclusion that maybe we don't need to move forward at all. Although the mission and intention of international aid organizations is noble, I question whether it can be completed. Are consistent and positive results from the the push model of development possible? I say no. It is this resounding 'no' which is discouraging to hear myself say, as it is in essence admitting defeat; nonetheless, I don't have answers. I can't see how this model can effectively work and I don't know where to move on from here... It is this jaded cynicism that I am challenged by and am working to overcome. But again, I am tempted to embrace cynicism and accept that although we have good intentions, we may not have all the answers to the world's problems; furthermore, our egregious amounts of funding to these aid projects can only do so much.

Hopefully I will realize that this seemingly pervasive reality of failed aid is not the norm, but the exception; currently however, I am far from convinced of that.


I recently stumbled upon a TED video about this kind of problem and I believe it illustrates the issue quite accurately.