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Net tech saving the world
January 2, 2003 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Lee Felsenstein, saving the world with wifi and a bike. This old school computer hacker built a human powered wireless internet station named as one of the best inventions of 2002. Now he needs to raise $25,000 to wire five villages of farmers to the web (to obtain weather info, pricing data) and to each other. This is another story that reminds me not all of this technology is for gadget geeks. It really can help improve peoples' lives, as shown by the varied projects coming out of the Tech Museum grant winners and groups like this.
posted by mathowie (42 comments total)

 
Does being connected to the internet mean that a village/people/culture is "saved" I thought maybe food would be pretty helpful. Or how about the ability to avoid being inundated with western capitalist materialism?

On another note, can they not get weather and pricing information from $25 worth of human powered radio equipment?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:18 AM on January 2, 2003


western capitalist materialism?

I always thought materialism was a human problem, not a problem with the economic system of capitalism. We should stop blaming supposed 'influences' for our problems and realize we only have ourselves to blame.
posted by jsonic at 11:29 AM on January 2, 2003


Maybe saved is the wrong word. These are villages without electricity or phone service, so having access to extending weather information and market pricing should go a long way towards improving the farmers' production. Improved production means improved revenue and a way out of poverty. Also, having a way to call anyone locally should be a boon towards everyone's well-being.

This Laos nonprofit group isn't trying to build a McDonalds and give everyone credit cards, they're doing what they can to maybe help these farmers someday afford more food, water, and medical supplies. I'm sure those things would help extend the lifespan of people in the area, not simply introduce them into "western capitalist materialism."
posted by mathowie at 11:34 AM on January 2, 2003


On another note, can they not get weather and pricing information from $25 worth of human powered radio equipment?

Come now, the internet is a massive store of information. The ability to instantly answer a question about fertilization, pest control or irrigation techniques would permanently alter their lives. Ever heard of the Peace Corps?
posted by rotifer at 11:35 AM on January 2, 2003


(Back on topic now)
I think the human powered portion of this is interesting. Bruce Sterling wrote an interesting short story about a bicycle repairman in the future who powered his home and shop using a flywheel and a stationary bicycle.

It would be a nice incentive to use less power if you had to produce it yourself. Healthier too.
posted by jsonic at 11:36 AM on January 2, 2003


I'll have to disagree with what Pollomacho is saying. Giving a bum a sandwich is not going to get him employed tomorrow, but giving him an opportunity to educate himself is uplifting. The price of this entire operation is small, and as I see it, it gives villagers the opportunity to communicate and problem-solve themselves out of disaster.

Aside from that, if I could bicycle my own internet connection, I might opt to do so just because its fun.
posted by Quixoticlife at 11:38 AM on January 2, 2003


maybe he could get intel to donate equipment! like they did in zamora :D
posted by kliuless at 11:50 AM on January 2, 2003


Perhaps I'm simply dense, but I can't seem to find an image of one of these contraptions in action. Any help?
posted by aladfar at 11:51 AM on January 2, 2003


bicycle generators great and small [google link]
posted by m@ at 11:59 AM on January 2, 2003


Come now, the internet is a massive store of information. The ability to instantly answer a question about fertilization, pest control or irrigation techniques would permanently alter their lives. Ever heard of the Peace Corps?

Great so is the human brain, a wireless radio can convey much more meaning in a much more personal way than ANY internet connection, particularly to villagers with very little communication knowledge other than verbal. And it costs a tiny fraction of what this set up does. I seem to have missed what the Peace Corps has to do with the internet, besides anyone who thinks that 23 year old Americans in the Peace Corps are teaching 25,000 year old cultures anything about survival in their own environment, is deluding themselves about the true purpose of the Peace Corps.

This Laos nonprofit group isn't trying to build a McDonalds and give everyone credit cards, they're doing what they can to maybe help these farmers someday afford more food, water, and medical supplies. I'm sure those things would help extend the life span of people in the area, not simply introduce them into "western capitalist materialism."

Great I'm sure none of Mr. Felsenstein's buddies at the very peak of "western capitalist materialism" will have no hand in this project. What are they going to connect with, MSN 8? And once they get the food, the medical supplies, the readymade clothing, the avon lady, the tv set, what happens to their culture once ours has come in? Why not just give them ham radios and with the $24,500 you save, buy them som medical supplies and dig them a new well?

Wireless radios have been connecting people without electricity and telephones for nearly a century. Some models with wet cell batteries don't even have to be human powered! It just seems a hell of a lot easier to teach someone to mash a button and talk than to connect to the internet and type out their request and a whole lot more fail safe since in the middle of one of the most technologically advanced places on earth I can barely keep my desktop from crashing in a climate controlled office much less in a mud soaked hut in a monsoon, but the radio is always there.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:03 PM on January 2, 2003


but the radio is always there

But who are they going to talk to? Unless Einstien lives within a couple miles of them this solution will be much less useful than an internet connection. Especially when the guy on the other end of the radio is in the same situation as the villagers.
posted by jsonic at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2003


What are they going to connect with, MSN 8? ... I can barely keep my desktop from crashing in a climate controlled office much less in a mud soaked hut in a monsoon, but the radio is always there.

If you could can the self-righteous bullshit and read the article, you'd see that it's all linux and free software. It's been "ruggedized" and should survive, crash free, in the harshest environment, which it was designed specifically for.

And once they get the food, the medical supplies, the readymade clothing, the avon lady, the tv set, what happens to their culture once ours has come in?

Yes, you're right, there's nothing between piss-poor and grossly materialistic, people are either one or the other. How dare this opportunist think of such a crazy scheme to get more products sold in the third world. You're right, we would be better off letting people fucking die.

You're such a kind soul Pollomacho.
posted by mathowie at 12:18 PM on January 2, 2003


Wow, touched a nerve here, sorry! No, you're right, of course there is plenty of room between the destitute poverty and gluttonous materialism, but I think you forgot to read that I also said, "Why not just give them ham radios and with the $24,500 you save, buy them some medical supplies and dig them a new well?" But I suppose giving them internet connections will instantly mean that they have medical care, supplies, food and clean water? They won't need any money for those things, because now they have the internet. No, I don't want them to die or suffer either, thanks for the kind accusation, I just think there might be more productive ways to help "save" people than hooking them up to a linux box, all "self-righteous bullshit" aside.

I could really give a shit about the "western capitalist materialism" crap, that was just smoke and mirrors, my real point is that I still don't see how they are so vastly changed by the internet rather than a (cheaper and less troublesome) telephone line or a ham radio or even a telegraph! The internet is only worth what people put in it, its not some omnipotent Alexandrian library, not yet at least.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:36 PM on January 2, 2003


The internet is only worth what people put in it

And a ham radio or a telegraph is only as useful as who is on the other end. And to communicate long distances with a ham radio you are going to need more than a simple $25 radio or an infrastructure of repeaters.
posted by jsonic at 12:45 PM on January 2, 2003


I must agree that this does not sound like the optimal use of $25,000, especially when you notice that the per capita income in Laos is just $330. Why not just give every villager $100 (about 4 months of income)?

Is having 24/7 access to pr0n really worth it?
posted by notme at 12:46 PM on January 2, 2003


Why not just give every villager $100 (about 4 months of income)?

After the money is spent there would be nothing left. A continuously available internet connection would provide information and education to help them improve their situation in life.

If you don't agree with how someone else donates their money, then donate your own however you'd like to.
posted by jsonic at 12:55 PM on January 2, 2003


my real point is that I still don't see how they are so vastly changed by the internet rather than a (cheaper and less troublesome) telephone line or a ham radio or even a telegraph!

point 1: We'll never know until someone tries. I'd love to see a follow up on this, three years from now. Did it help or hurt them? Was it useful or did they just waste time?

point 2: According to technologists working in Africa that I've talked to, getting a phone line or other conventional equipment into a third-world country is next to impossible due to spotty infrastructure. That's why there are no phones there right now. Wireless ethernet is a hot new item because it's long-range, dirt cheap, and isn't very regulated. People I've talked to say it's much easier to toss a few $100 wifi points, rig them with cheap antennas, and rig every home in a village with a phone that works between anyone else's home within the wireless network. It's a telephone company in a box, for much cheaper than conventional equipment.

Why not just give every villager $100

Why not just give a man a fish instead of giving him a fishing pole (of sorts)?
posted by mathowie at 12:59 PM on January 2, 2003


the internet is a mass of store information.
posted by pekar wood at 1:03 PM on January 2, 2003


its not some omnipotent Alexandrian library, not yet at least.

With the internet you could get updated info on old out dated materials quicker, though. Also the access to real time info is a nice solution when in a time of a crisis. Especially for these remote areas in the world.

Imagine some day you may read; Man saves a life peddling his bike to power the internet. Then performs open heart surgery.

I kid on the surgery yet if you can think it may just happen. One day.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:08 PM on January 2, 2003


Matt, and all, I work for an energy consultant that does a lot of work in the developing world.

Matt's completely right about the difficulties of installing wire based networks (whether for power, telephony, or data) in the developing world. Not only is it expensive to lay lines, it is also next to impossible to maintain them, as they often pass through remote regions. Not only do the elements wear down the network but simple human theft does as well. I guy a work with worked on an electricity transmission project in an Indian state. Two months after the network had been built local scavengers rendered it inoperable after having stolen so much of the wire.

I have also seen first hand how the internet vitalizes poor communities. First, the knowledge available there should not be discounted. Remember, a lot of the data available from the internet, such as the generic news on cnn.com or weather.com we consider irrelevant because we can find it so easily elsewhere. These people have no where else to turn. Second, the empowerment, and the ability to conduct entrepreneurship afford by decent access to communication, especially written communications, so that conversations, negotiations, etc can be pursued over time rather than in an instant telephone connection, is priceless. The ability of a local population to conduct regular communication with its diaspora (a point mentioned in the article) is essential to allow the diaspora to truly send back gained knowledge, skills, and money/material goods to the home country...a process that undoubtedly helps the home economy to develop....etc, etc, etc.

Will this cure cancer? No. It won't even directly improve crop yields. But it does give people access to two important commodities: information and communication. History has shown us that these two goods are perhaps the largest ingredient necessary to promote economic development.

Wow, that was kinda poorly written. But you get my point.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:14 PM on January 2, 2003


As for reliability, it isn't your average computer. I also know a fellow in Tanzania that operates an internet cooperative similar in structure to what Matt mentions.

Arusha Node Marie
posted by rotifer at 1:20 PM on January 2, 2003


pollomacho -

Of course, there's nothing wrong with giving people wireless radios as well. Hell, you could probably whip up that $250 yourself. Send it to the Jhai foundation with a specific request that they use it for that - I bet it would be useful for setting up the network anyway. Or if you're worried they'll waste the money on MSN 8, buy the equipment yourself and donate that.

The other thing to note is that - although it's always hard to tell through the mist of third-parties - access to information was a specific request made by the villagers (the Lhai foundation tracked down Lee Felsenstein to fulfil the commission, rather than the other way around).

I spent a few weeks in an African village a while back, and can vouch that this isn't entirely a surprising request. Putting aside the whoe "give a man a fishing rod" line - everyone I spoke to was aware that getting money and new wells wasn't going to fix things for the next generation. What they wanted access to the underlying infrastructure of that lay behind the western system. Now, you can say that's a healthy capital market, or a canny knack for exploiting the less fortunate, or being the chosen people, or just historical luck, but the villagers I spoke to seemed to think a lot of it had to do with education, and access to knowledge.

At the time, we explained the Internet to them (I had to explain what I did for a living). In the end, we settled for describing it as a system whereby you could ask any question, and get ten answers back. You didn't know whether the answers were right - or whether any of them were right. But you'd get answers.

This, they wanted.
posted by ntk at 1:37 PM on January 2, 2003


If you're pedalling for your Internet, I bet you get really, really resentful of pop-ups.
posted by DenOfSizer at 1:44 PM on January 2, 2003


ntk: that last paragraph is a brilliant way to describe the internet. I'm going to use it in casual conversation and people will think I'm smart. Of course, I will mentally footnote you while using the description.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:52 PM on January 2, 2003


here's a bbc article from a while back that i saw on slashdot about the benefits of wiring up a village! (and i guess in this case wirelessing one up :)
posted by kliuless at 2:07 PM on January 2, 2003


Muhammad Yunus , a Bangladesh economist, had this crazy idea: micro-credit, to try and help all those poor motherfuckers get some start-up money for their business
Grameen -- Banking for the Poor

Access to Internet info for the Third World poor does not look like a bad idea, either. (One hopes they won't just pedal for porn, we'll see)

If you don't give a crap about poor farmers, try also to consider that maybe, just maybe, if Third World young men aren't so poor and desperate and uneducated and sick anymore, they'd also think twice before joining some kind of suicidal jihad out of desperation (Muslim extremist groups like Hamas and the Pakistani jihad provide free education for kids and also health care for the poor, and piss-poor people love them for it, remember).
The rich, college-educated Osamas and Attas of the world won't change their mind, but maybe recruitment of those dirt-poor foot-soldier assholes could somehow slow down, who knows
posted by matteo at 2:10 PM on January 2, 2003


yeah, my boss is from n.ireland and he said that the economic resurgence of ireland in the past decade or so had a lot to do with getting people to the table to sign the peace agreement. something about young, unmarried, out-of-work men being the most destructive force the world has ever known. i think being educated has a lot to do with it as well.

micro-credit also works in new york city! (heard it on npr :)
posted by kliuless at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2003


How much of that information on pesticides, the weather and such is in a language that most of these people can understand? for that matter, what is the literacy rate there?
Radio, even good old broadcast radio would be better on that front. As for the "checking the prices of the crops" thing, most likely the one that would benefit from that is the owner of the local truck, who might also be the owner of the local store where the internet will be installed and so on.
It's a waste of resources , in my opinion. they would be better served by a radio station focused on their needs and a bunch of those crank powered radios because computers -no matter how ruggedized- do fail and have to be repaired.
posted by golo at 2:32 PM on January 2, 2003


Here's what I'm afraid will happen, now I know I'm going to get dumped on for saying this, but, here goes. I spent a little time studying in several parts of Mexico and saw the results of a couple places going from the 19th century to the 21st. My first example from my own experience is a tiny Mayan village in the Yucatan the village had nothing, mud huts, communal fincas, a mud path from the next town with a real road, but they had ancient practices that kept them fairly happy (yeah, yeah that's debatable). One day some American archeologists "discovered" (by asking the locals) a vast ancient Mayan city in the nearby jungles. Suddenly the village was the center of a development push, a dirt road was built, a well dug, electricity came, a store, a paved road, tv sets, a bar... within a VERY short period of time the quiet mayan village I had seen with those archeologists was a bustling tourist trap. The very same people were unfriendly, lazy, drunken, crooked, living in squalid, hot concrete boxes. The subsistence plots were turned into parking lots and trinket stands for the droves of tour busses from Cancun, the town kinda sucks in comparison, and I don't think the people are happy there at all, maybe, just maybe they have more access to information, but it didn't help their lives much, but maybe I'm just being self-righteous.

The other example is of the coffee villages I worked and studied in up in the Veracruz highlands, there, development projects, sponsored by Monsanto, taught the villagers how to maximize their production rates and irrigate their fields. They were provided tons of information which told them, of course to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which, of course stripped out their land, eroded it and killed the little remaining wildlife. Agriculture was virtually impossible and vast numbers of villagers headed off to the cities for factory work or fled to the US. Recently they figured out that gringos will pay premium prices for organic coffees, so the villagers got a Starbucks contract for their co-op. Starbucks' demand for Mexican organic coffee jumped and so the co-ops have begun to cheat and go back to the methods big chemical companies have proven to get the production numbers sky high (for a short while).

Now, I'm not against globalization, but I am wary of new technology being dropped into less developed hands, without plenty of instruction that what they have is a loaded gun. It can be extremely successful, or it can be extremely detrimental or anywhere in between, I really hope it works, but it scares me.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:34 PM on January 2, 2003


Mythinformation (n.): The almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems, along with broad access to electronic information, will automatically produce a better world for humanity. Essay by Langdon Winner, originally published* in 1984 (!).
*IEEE Spectrum 21(6),90-96, 1984.
posted by Wet Spot at 2:44 PM on January 2, 2003


Try that link again: Mythinformation.
posted by Wet Spot at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2003


or i guess if you're overeducated (but still young, unmarried and unemployed :) join a marxist guer^HHHHHHHHHHHH the peace^HHHHHgeek corps!
posted by kliuless at 2:52 PM on January 2, 2003


Pollomacho

I completely understand your POV. I'm cagey the same way - which is why I think that access to as wide a source of information as possible is the way forward. The modern world will hit these places at some point, now or in the future, but the timing is everything. I tend to think that if you have the Net in place, and then Monsanto or the tourist buses swarming in next, that's a better position for the villagers to be, because they have alternative sources of info. (Resisting visions here of tribal elders greeting their new multinational overlords with "that's all very well, sir, but it says here in this mefi post that your GM products suxx0r")

The counterargument to this is that information on its own is not harmless. That maybe true: it may be true that all that pr0n, banner ads, and fark.com will mess them over as effectively as turning up with a carload of rifles and refined-sugar products. I don't believe that is the case, but that's another argument I think.
posted by ntk at 3:22 PM on January 2, 2003


most likely the one that would benefit from that is the owner of the local truck, who might also be the owner of the local store...

When the owner of the truck is the only one who interacts with other villages with any frequency, he's already got an overwhelming advantage through superior information. If the shops in town are willing to pay more for your crops, do you want to rely on the guy who owns the truck to tell you? Probably not... Information is a valuable resource, and making it readily available means fewer chances for the villagers to be victimized.

I think there's also a point to made that the world continues to shrink, and exposure to western culture and advertising is inevitable. Isn't it preferable to have that exposure be in the form of information, rather than people with their "parking lots and trinket stands"? At least this gives them some warning of what may happen, maybe - just maybe - time to think and talk about what might happen, time to plan. The internet has no agenda, doesn't want anything from them.
posted by JParker at 5:51 PM on January 2, 2003


if you dig the idea of universal access to simple technology, there's also the simputer
posted by matteo at 6:07 PM on January 2, 2003


I understand how this all works, but in the article I found no reference to how they're going to get these computers on to the *Internet*. Sure, they can all WiFi to each other, but the actual connection to the outside world is not covered. Surely there's a major running cost on that which goes beyond this $25k.

And on the 'is this any good for them' argument.. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will feed himself forever. Knowing the prices of certain things at market could revolutionize their way of life. Even Indian fishermen are using cellphones now to get pricing information so they can sell their fish where it will get the highest price (which is the place where it is most needed!)
posted by wackybrit at 6:46 PM on January 2, 2003


Sure, they can all WiFi to each other, but the actual connection to the outside world is not covered.

All the wifi points talk to a single central point that has a 24/7 modem connection. Not exactly lightning fast, but then I have more hope for the voice-over-IP phone system improving lives. It's in the original post somewhere.
posted by mathowie at 6:54 PM on January 2, 2003


It must be added that these people in Laos want the computer. The government isn't making them take it, use it or look at it. The same goes for the Mexican farmers Pollomacho discussed.

No matter the potential consequences, I'd say we'd have to be on a pretty high horse to tell the Laotians and Mexicans that, while we can deal with this technology, they can't be allowed to have it. After all, South Korea was Laos 50 years ago.

I think there's a sort of sadness in seeing older cultures disappear - witness the calls that "cultural genocide" be considered a crime and Iranians deriding their kids eating at McDonalds. But times change. For the same reason that, no matter how cool it would be, we don't have a Wild West, you can't visit an unexplored tropical island and Japan doesn't have a feudal system, the Laotian cultured influenced by this computer is also going to change. The dhows in Hong Kong were replaced by steamers, and the mud huts in Laos will be replaced by bigger huts.

The world is not going to be in standstill. Memories will exist in pictures. To say peoples should stay with their traditional ways only, a la Cambodia, is, to me, the greatest form of cultural imperialism of all.
posted by Kevs at 6:55 PM on January 2, 2003


"best invention of 2002"? - it's a noble venture, yes. But there are many, equally noble, ventures in developing world which seem at least as innovative (and maybe more) to me. Anyway I, for one, am adapting an ancient technology (gears) for the conversion of electrical energy (from solar panels) into stored energy potential. Can I win a prize too?
posted by troutfishing at 7:35 PM on January 2, 2003


I, for one, am adapting an ancient technology (gears) for the conversion of electrical energy (from solar panels) into stored energy potential.

Solar cell powered motor winding a spring? Probably not very efficient. Or maybe something involving a night-day heat-cool expand-contract cycle that mechanically drives a bidirectional winding mechanism like my old self-winding watch?

Either that or a hamster wheel.

Can I win a prize too?

Quite possibly.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 8:13 PM on January 2, 2003


inpHilltr8r - none of those methods - simpler. But I rather doubt that my idea is original. I've always loved the wind up radio. And the designs of Dr. John Todd (founded the "New Alchemy Institute")
posted by troutfishing at 7:54 AM on January 3, 2003


Also in Laos: Communists in Laos Dust Off the Nation's Royal Past
posted by homunculus at 8:15 PM on January 5, 2003


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