It’s odd how well a cell phone lights up a space when there is no other light source. It’s a cold, robotic light that casts eerie, inorganic shadows. I thought about this last night after a television news report from Haiti. The video was so graphic; the suffering so extraordinary, it made me wonder how scared they all must be at night. No light, no water, no trappings of civilization … just the occasional glow from an unusable cell phone shedding a little light on a world destroyed.
We’ve seen so many fake post-apocalyptic images, it’s hard to fully comprehend the pain and anguish that the people of Haiti must be experiencing. I’ve been out far and wide with two quick, easy ways for you to help. If you’ve got a cell phone, pick it up now and text Haiti to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross through mGive. mGive has waived all of their transaction and licensing fees as have the carriers.
Now I’d like you to help me think about something. What kinds of tools were most needed in Haiti right after the earthquake? What technology could still function? What services could be provided? Is there a way to earthquake-proof a technocracy?
The cell towers have collapsed, as have many buildings. Electricity is out. No water, no sewage removal, no garbage removal, very little food. With basic social services unavailable, with no ability for a central government to communicate … what would you do? By the time you read this there will be thousands of relief workers and all kinds of gear landing on the island, but what would have been important in the immediate situation.
This is not really a rhetorical exercise. I’m trying to imagine what type of technologies need to be invented and deployed to enable a society (which is dependent upon technology) to function when a catastrophic event disables the normal doing of life: specifically in the critical 24-48 hours before help could arrive.
I took a look at Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project to see if there were insights that might apply. The OLPC project assumes that electricity is scarce, the computers mesh together so that they don’t require a central server. The firmware includes some robust programs that will function without crashing such as, email, file transfers, etc. Would this help people communicate in the aftermath of an earthquake?
I looked at some solar messenger bags that charge during the day and have small LED lamps in them. The inside covers of the bags are made of reflective material so that they can be used as a good source of light. Having lots of these around would certainly help. There are hundreds of items that have been created that might solve some of the most emergent problems faced by a catastrophe. But very little, if any, high tech solutions were available in Haiti. Just getting supplies from the airport to the people is an overwhelming task — could technology have helped and, if so, what kind?
Moving forward, if we think a month into the future … after basic human services and law and order are restored — how do we get the civilization back? Where is the data? Where is the art? Where is the history? Where is the institutional memory? Haiti is an island nation. It is not replicated elsewhere on Earth. How do we get it back?
I hope that you will give what you can to the relief effort. And, if you have a minute, give some thought to what we should invent to help us remain functional in a disaster, quickly recover and, perhaps as importantly, “back up” our world?