February 05, 2005 | Ronda Jambe

Lessons from the tsunami: a global intelligence test

The waters have receded, and the long term work of rebuilding lives and towns is underway. The willingness of the world to help in a sustained and unselfish way is a test of our common humanity. But the tsunami is also a test of our ability to set common goals and recognize common threats. And while the wave was triggered by seismological rather than environmental shock, there are long term lessons about the fragility of coastal areas that we need to absorb and act on.
Our species seems destined to be defined by extremes: Mozart, Shakespeare and the collective miracle of the Internet, but then child porn, sanctioned torture and death camps. Somewhere in between are the bureaucrats and technocrats that sign the papers to condone the plundering of the planet and the erosion of social capital. All in the name of progress, or perhaps just in obedience to the Minister’s wishes, or so they used to tell me in the public service.
The globally connected masses that witnessed the tsunami from afar, like the masses who lost their lives, loved ones and livilhoods, wish no one ill. But can we see past this burp of kindness to the real lessons we should be learning? Like a smoker with a cough, we get many warnings. Are we smart enough as a species to learn what we need to do to survive?
We have been told, by no less than Jared Diamond, that the world could become like the more ravaged parts of Africa. Over ten years ago, Robert Kaplan (in the Atlantic Monthly) predicted ‘the coming anarchy’, which he presaged would be driven by environmental degradation. There has long been talk of ‘environmental refugees’, and some hapless tourists have now experienced that first hand.
Do we get it yet? Building on every available beach front with reckless disregard for mangroves and sea grasses, coral reefs and peatlands is not likely to provide enhanced protection from surging seas, whatever the cause. It ain’t rocket science, as the cliché goes.
Vandana Shiva has written eloquently (on Zdnet) about the environmental lessons from the tsunami. She points out the ‘disconnect between the health of the market and the health of the planet and her people.’ She warns of the need to be prepared for future catastrophic events, for example should the Tehri dam on the Ganges burst its walls. She notes that animals and indigenous communities had the intelligence to anticipate the Tsunami and protect themselves. Our high tech systems failed because they are not designed for global awareness, just market awareness.
The tsunami tests our intelligence, and the values embedded in the design of our information systems. Are we smart enough to recognize that development has to work with nature, rather than arrogantly obliterating it? Are we capable of achieving balance, so that the profits from coastal based development such as industrial fish farming, tourism or oil extraction are balanced and do not endanger the very peoples they are rhetorically intended to benefit?
The embedded values in our information systems are a logical place to look for signs of global learning. Some nations did not get the tsunami warnings because they weren’t active participants in the agreements – at least one hadn’t responded to requests for a contact person. Clearly, the global information systems work best for commercial issues. Ironically, governments are too short sighted to see that protecting their environments and people are the most important task their information systems can perform. It should be an embarassment for telecommunications officials in the region that animals and indigenous people had better warning systems than those staying in 4 star hotels. What does that say about global information systems and their effectiveness?
Closer to home, our governance of information seems to fail us too. Just scanning a few media items recently illustrates how current provisions for disclosure fail to serve the public good. The Labor Party is breeching the spirit of the law, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The party is flush with funds from secretive donors, a polite form of laundering. At the same time, born-again Beazley has made some classic hedging statements on abortion, paving the way for changes to party policy. The hidden message (at least to me) is that we haven’t been told all of what the Bush administration wants from Australia, but Beazley knows and Howard knows, and moving closer to US policy on abortion is the kind of move that will keep our opposition leader in their good books. Will the real suck holes please stand up? (and go home) But who knows? The forms of legislated transparency necessary to reveal the truth aren’t available. One might also wonder where the funds for Family First came from, to allow them to field so many candidates in last year’s election.
On a more global level, a TV program quoted research on viewers of Foxtel, showing that regular watchers of their news channel were less likely to be correctly informed about basic factual matters. Gee, isn’t there a duty of care somewhere, to at least not make your audience more stupid? But then more research showed up in my email box, indicating that one third of US students think the press ought to get government approval before publishing stories, and had little understanding of their famous Bill of Rights.
Clearly we have a long way to go before the global information commons serves the common person’s interests. But then, it hasn’t been designed to develop democracy. (But online opinion has.) We come back to our extremes: anonymous help and donations online versus cyber terrorism, global spin versus global warming. We pays our money, but do we make an informed choice?

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 2:21 pm | Comments Off on Lessons from the tsunami: a global intelligence test |
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