this project is sponsored by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation
.the countries.
.get updates.
every month or so, i'll send out an email with news and updates. if you want these, type in your email (i won't sell it).

syndicate (XML)
senorjosh.comJuly 2003: → Thu. 07/24
more posts in this category: watson
07.07.03:    |    July 2003    |    07.25.03:
«the final days at wesleyan watson proposal »
watson personal statement
July 24, 2003
submitted to the Watson Foundation as part of the fellowship application
integrating technology into unexposed communities
China, South Africa, Cape Verde, Argentina, Costa Rica
After my sophomore year in college, I took a year of non-academic leave and spent five months exploring Brazil, covering ten thousand kilometers by bus and by boat. I exulted in the pulsating energy of the Bahian Carnival and stood mesmerized by Iguaçu's thunderous waterfalls. For a month I lived in the heart of the Amazon basin and became close friends with Antonio Gomez, a Coboclo Indian guide three years older than me. Twice Antonio let me accompany him on week-long canoe excursions into the jungle. I would quietly listen as he described the wildlife and scenery to the two or three paying customers, and the two of us would sit up late at night playing dominoes and telling stories. He guided me through the surreal beauty of the rainforest and in return I took photographs which he later used to promote his business. Antonio is a sincere, knowledgeable guide, fluent in English and completely in tune with the subtleties of the forest. Unfortunately, his livelihood depends upon the Lonely Planet guidebook. Lonely Planet Brazil includes four pages on Amazon tours, and in the 1998 edition only five of the forty to fifty guides' names were included. Antonio, who had only been working as a guide for a few years, was not listed. The five lucky guides prosper and eventually contract out to the unlisted guides, who eat rice and try to convince tourists to recommend them to Lonely Planet. If Antonio's name doesn't appear in the next edition he says he'll leave the jungle because he's "sick of indentured servitude."

I was disturbed by Antonio's situation and suggested what I thought was the natural solution: to build a web page. Though Antonio had never touched a keyboard, I could write the code while he wrote enticing stories and selected the best pictures to upload. With a little luck we could publicize his name and thus generate additional business. I thought it was a great idea, but Antonio was stubbornly opposed to it. Not comprehending Antonio's reluctance, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince him that the website would work to his benefit. Antonio, however, wouldn't budge. When he began to get frustrated with me I quietly acquiesced.

I still don't fully understand why Antonio refused to let me help him. He certainly trusted me and I can't imagine that he saw a hidden agenda behind my offer. He wasn't too proud to let me help him, as is evidenced by his willingness to use me as a photographer, and as Antonio was an ambitious person, laziness is out of the question. A friend of mine suggested that Antonio may have been afraid that the Brazilian military, which is notorious for exploiting Indian guides, would use the information to take advantage of him. Though my personal experience with Antonio would lead me to discount this explanation, it is certainly a reasonable hypothesis. However, I believe that Antonio, never having used a computer, simply was suspicious of the Internet. I think he was anxious to put his name in cyberspace because he felt it would tarnish his reputation as a respectable guide and weaken his chances of being included in the guidebook.

Antonio's aversion to the Internet is, at least metaphorically, the subject of my Watson Fellowship. I want to devote a year to exploring the ways in which individuals' interactions with and relationship to computers depends upon local culture. I will spend more time with people like Antonio and try and better understand what people from different societies see as the benefits and drawbacks of computers, the Internet and similar technologies. I've spent most of my life waist-deep in technology and computers have come to dominate many aspects of my life; I want to see how the same technology affects people in cultures vastly different from my own.

Ever since I was a kid, I've been enthralled by computers. My parents used to limit the number of hours I could spend playing computer games, but that didn't prevent me from sneaking into the computer room late at night. In fifth grade, I became seriously hooked when I figured out how to reprogram a computer game so that I would win every time. In middle school, I delved into the world of online bulletin boards, the early nineties equivalent of Internet chat rooms. I spent endless hours in these online communities pretending to be an adult, and by the time I entered high school I was working as a system administrator for Morph Magazine's main bulletin board.

This trend continued in high school and college. I study Computer Science and Physics and I am currently writing a senior thesis on computational biology. In the last six years I've done internships at 10-person Internet startups and at major software behemoths and I've worked in corporate and academic research labs. Two years ago I even tried to start my own high-tech company. I'm a computer dork, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about computers -- how they work, what they can do, what they can't do, and what we should be trying to make them do in the future.

Even beyond the 'professional' work I do in computer science, computers are a fundamental aspect of my daily life. The Internet facilitates my participation in a variety of activities, from captaining the school volleyball team to playing drums in funk and samba bands. I record mp3 versions of my bands' songs and send them via email to friends in California and Spain; volleyball scheduling is done on Yahoo! message boards, and team rankings are contentiously debated in online chat rooms. I am an avid fan of world music, I DJ a weekly Brazilian radio show and am the World Music Director at the local radio station. None of this would be possible if it weren't for the digital technology that enables the inexpensive production and dissemination of music on a global scale.

Technology makes my life easier, but at the same time raises many ethical questions in my mind. Last August, as a reward for work I had done as an intern with Microsoft, I was invited to a barbeque at Bill Gates' house. It was an opportunity for me and other research interns to meet company executives and ask them the burning questions we'd developed over the course of the summer. Waiting in line for some potato salad, I struck up a conversation with Rick Rashid, Microsoft's head of research. As we left the buffet, I asked him if he had any moral qualms in developing technology for technology's sake -- if he ever worried about the ways that technology could potentially harm as well as help. After alluding to the progress technology had enabled in medicine and global communications, Dr. Rashid dismissed my question and sat down to eat his meal.

In neglecting to answer my question, Dr. Rashid avoided the hassle of justifying his life's work to a naïve intern. Scientists, in their pursuit of knowledge, are forced to wade through ethically murky waters -- basic science leads to technologies that both create and destroy. This dilemma resonates in my personal experience. While working for Harvard Medical School the year before last, I discovered an innovative way to use gene expression levels to derive an accurate prognosis for patients with a certain type of lung cancer -- to tell a terminally ill patient how long, in months, she had to live. Though I rushed to publish a paper on these findings, in retrospect I can't say for sure whether I'm proud to have helped find a way to predict a person's lifespan. My moral qualms echo the dilemmas faced by every scientist; in avoiding my question Dr. Rashid avoided an age-old debate.

I have a strong background in computers and I am concerned with the moral hazards of technological progress. However, my understanding and concern is primarily relevant to the lives of the first-world technical elite. Although my friends and colleagues may feel differently than I do with respect to the moral hazards of advancing technology (e.g. human cloning, genetic engineering, electronic surveillance), we all debate the same issues. Similarly, we all agree on the types of benefits to be reaped from computing technology - email, global connectivity, immediate access to media, next-generation medical therapy, etc. With my Watson fellowship, I want to spend a year considering perspectives very different from the ones I've encountered in my life so far.

I have, of course, read about the worldwide triumphs of information technology. Certain fishing villages in India broadcast Internet-based weather reports over public loudspeakers, informing fishermen where the best catches will be and whether the sea is too dangerous to fish. Telemedicine in rural Borneo has saved the lives of hundreds of citizens infected with syphilis. Smuggled videotapes of the assassination of Benigno Aquino aroused the Filipino people against the Marcos government and eventually caused its collapse. The Internet has given an anonymous voice to otherwise marginalized people, and in repressive countries such as Iran and China has created safe communities for people to share and communicate. Yet, for every success story there is an equally compelling cautionary tale. The fact that seventy-eight percent of the Internet is in English could easily cause a native Bantu speaker to discount its utility. Small businesses in Peru can't leverage software built for their American counterparts because there isn't sufficient technical support. Thousands of tractors lie rusting in South Africa because no one knows how to fix them. Technology isn't perfect, and sometimes people would rather not have it, in other countries as well as our own (just ask the Longshoremen!).

I have an erudite understanding of the global implications of the information revolution, but I have no idea what these facts mean on a personal level. I want to know what individual people think and feel about computers, what they're excited for and scared of. Antonio, quite clearly, was not worried that the flaws in Internet cryptography would allow hackers to steal his credit card information from His conception of computing technology and its inherent dangers is fundamentally different from my own; his concerns do not reflect the concerns of the people with whom I interact. I want to know why people in Rosario, Argentina are severing the phone lines at Internet cafés; how Chinese peer-to-peer networks are enabling the exchange of censored information; and how previously isolated communities in Cape Verde are reacting to telemedicine and tele-education. The Watson Fellowship will enable me to observe these dynamics and talk to people involved at every level.

Next year, I want to explore some of the broader implications of modern technology from the other side of the digital divide. Though Rick Rashid didn't answer my question, we speak the same language and I am confident that I could effectively engage him in an ethical debate. On the other hand, I still only vaguely understand where Antonio Gomez was coming from. I'm excited to learn how technology can harm and help people around the world. I'm eager to spend time with the people and programs that try and help them, and see for myself what technology means in places far from the ones I've grown up in. I want to spend a year considering perspectives very different from the ones I've encountered in my life so far and better understand the ways in which technology affects people around the world.

Posted by senorjosh at July 24, 2003 08:04 PM | TrackBack
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Creative Commons License
go to the top of the page