Unintended Consequences Of Technology On Distance And Global Communications

from the good-and-bad dept

We tend to be in the camp that believes technology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — but, rather, is a tool that can be used for both good and bad purposes. However, we are certainly big believers in the law of unintended consequences. No matter how much you think through how technology will impact something, you can almost never predict many of the resulting consequences (again, for both good and bad purposes). Jeremy Wagstaff has a fantastic post pointing to two articles that highlight these unintended consequences (both good and bad) when it comes to distance and communication. The first article is about how African refugees seeking to get to Europe now find it much easier thanks to GPS. Thanks to GPS, many are now setting sail for the Canary Islands, 60 miles of the coast of Africa. Without GPS, it was quite difficult to find the small islands — but no longer. No matter what the legality of the situation is, as Wagstaff notes, GPS technology has just made distance much shorter for many Africans seeking to get out. It’s unlikely anyone ever thought of that when they were designing GPS systems.

The second article suggests that all the modern communication equipment soldiers get to lug around these days could explain why US soldiers are having so much trouble relating to locals in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article focuses on 11 US airmen who were stranded in Borneo during World War II, without contact to the outside world. They quickly learned to adapt to their surroundings, learning the local language and communicating and respecting the local natives who then were an effective force in fighting off the Japanese on the island. The article suggests that thanks to advanced electronic communication tools, our soldiers today are always tethered back to other Americans, and never need to really get to know the people in the regions where they’re fighting, meaning they’re less able to relate to them or get along with them, in part as an unintended consequence of having all that communications technology available. It’s not too hard to see how this could be true. It is always easier to fall back to communicating with people you know or who speak the same language you do and observe the same customs. While this certainly isn’t to condemn the use of communications technology, it is worth noting the unintended consequence of it, especially in thinking about how we continue to relate to other cultures around the globe.

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Comments on “Unintended Consequences Of Technology On Distance And Global Communications”

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Jeremy says:

Isolation amongst the locals.

The second point about communication technology leading to trouble relating to the locals is not a valid one. I ‘ll concede that it can contribute to the problem but in and of itself it’s not the issue. I was stationed in Germany in the mid-90’s and even though we have much more in common with the Germans than the Iraqis a divide was evident there as well. I knew people who had never seen any of Germany besides what you could see from the autobahn between American military installations. The point being that most American military personnel would rather NOT relate to the locals. Why bother forging relationships on the personal level when you’ll be gone in six months?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Isolation amongst the locals.

No one said it was the only reason. Nor did they say it really leads to trouble (just that it leads to less relating to the locals). Also by admitting that it contributes to it, you’re already admitting the guy had a point. He didn’t say it was the only reason. Also, your reasoning is still carries the same logic. You’d rather interact with Americans as opposed to the locals. It’s still the same thing.

And on a different note, there are plenty of reasons to forge relationships, even if you do leave in 6 months. Nothing wrong with experiencing a different culture either.

fat Tony says:

Another Consequence

There is one more consequence of technology…
The elimination of cultures. See Daniel Dennet – http://www.ted.com
The speed at which we expand technologically is similar to the way Europeans expanded into the new world back in the day. Similarities include the spread of small pox and less dangerous things…such as porn. Some cultures see these as equally devastating. Your next youtube submission could bring about the loss of someones beliefs.
America is an amalgum of cultures…not every country/faith is so willing to adapt to anything. See Iran – wehatehumanity.IR.fu just kidding on that last URL

fat Tony

Danny says:

Re: Another Consequence

It is true that the mixing and adapting to other cultures can result in the loss of one’s own culture and individuality. There’s an article over atSlashdot about how languages are becoming extinct. I just hope someone is putting all this technology to good use by finding a way to archive all this culture before it is lost to the ages.

sean says:

wrong conclusions?

11 airmen 50 years ago make friends with non-hostile locals, and the guy reckons we all need to go low-tech? That’s apples and oranges.
Seems to me that what the guy is actually saying is that 160k GIs don’t seem to make as much difference as a smaller number of special forces engaged in hearts&minds.
The average soldier (young, under-educated and from a poor background) is hardly equipped to leap across cultural divides, high-tech or low-tech.

Hulser says:

Artificially stranding our solders?

It’s interesting to hypothesize about the effects of artificially reducing the amount of interaction a modern solder has with “the outside world”, but ultimately the point is moot.

Perhaps if the US military had locked down access to the Internet and global telecom at the beginning, it might have been possible to avoid too many problems. But can you imagine the results if they tried to put those limits in place now? (Even the eleven stranded WW2 airmen weren’t isolated on purpose by the military.) The negative reaction would be incredible.

Jon (user link) says:

True for Peace Corps

In the Peace Corps, where the point is integration, this was definitely true. Compared to the stories of earlier volunteers (going months between hand written letters) and volunteers today (email, skype, video chat) some volunteers can spend so much time interacting with home that they don’t integrate.

Can’t speak for the military, but I’d imagine that shorter terms (vs. 2+ years in a Peace Corps post, living with the community) would have integration problems just from the short time frame (not to mention if the community doesn’t want the military there). But is integration really feasible/desired in military situations?

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