Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Essay: Post Typhoon Ketsana and Science Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

This is probably more appropriate for a site like the Shine Anthology Weblog but I want to tackle it here. It's all too easy to take modern technologies for granted: it might be your flash drive (I still remember the days when I had a 650 MB hard drive), Skype (remember when calling people abroad was expensive?), or even PayPal. Typhoon Ketsana and people's reaction to it makes me appreciate that the present is the future, and that we have access to technology which makes life easier (although it's not without its own complications). Take for example the fact that I could donate to charities like the Red Cross by simply sending a text message. This wouldn't be possible if the Philippines didn't have 1) a functional micropayment system in place and 2) a widespread cellular network (to the point that mobile carriers are providing landline numbers to cell phones). You'd expect 1) since we're a third-world country but 2) is surprisingly considering we're a third world country.

Of course technology is only useful if there are people to utilize it. If Americans were saddened by the actions of former US president George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina, they can console themselves that such impotent bureaucracy is not limited to their country. Our president, for example, declared that Malacanang (our equivalent of the White House) would be open to victims as a relief center, rescinds the offer, and then reverts to the original policy. What's surprising however is how a lot of the relief operations arose from both the public and private sectors, whether it's businesses, schools (and this is where the Catholic-run institutions come into play), churches (my Protestant church was using a truck selling Sto. Nino figurines to transport goods so how's that for cooperation and irony), and individuals.

Social media played a big part in this. There were blogs for example that collated information and applications like Google Maps and Google Spreadsheets were used to organize, mobilize, and disseminate strategic news. Filipinos everywhere were flooding Facebook, Twitter, and Plurk with status updates, whether it's directing people to venues that need donations/volunteers/help, as well as tracking missing people. An interesting development was how relief centers were lacking either volunteers, goods, or transport vehicles (and it's a constant tug-of-war in having one but lacking the other), and all these social media sites attempted to remedy this imbalance. Amateur photographers and film students (or simply anyone who had a camera-ready phone) are also not to be discounted, and perhaps one of the reasons this tragedy gained so much attention was due to all the footage and photographs circulating around the Internet. One of the more heroic stories involved hijacking a radio station so that they could aid and comfort victims.

Not that all's well in such a scenario. Just as ingenious solutions have popped up, these technologies also gave way to unique problems. There were warnings against scams for example, as well as misinformation being spread around. Sometimes, this misinformation is unintentional: information that was a few hours outdated was still being forwarded. And since election season is next year, social media was also used as a venue to both praise and demolish political figures. And the negative aspect about amateur efforts is that there's a lot of redundancy (although some will claim it's better to be safe than sorry) and lack of verification (although in such a crisis, even professionals will be hard-pressed to check everything). For example, if you have 100 Filipinos on your Twitter list, imagine all one hundred of them, circulating every piece of information they come across, whether it's true or false, recent or outdated. That's not to say it did more harm than good, and I'd say the mob was directed at a positive cause this time, but there's something to be said about organization.

Of course post-Ketsana, Filipinos are suddenly in a panic at the news of an incoming storm (and rightly so considering some of our still-flooded streets). Supermarkets, for example, quickly ran out of supplies (to be fair, a lot of them became donations) but I also heard news of people stocking more food than their usual. Perhaps one valid criticism against this entire incident is our disposal procedures. First off, our floods are partially caused by drains clogged by trash and unfortunately, we don't fare any better at disposing of our donations (all those canned goods, bottled water, and plastic bags...). There's too much emphasis on short-term solutions as opposed to long-term ones (victims will be needing medicine and housing budgets in the long-run as well, nor do instant noodles and canned goods provide healthy sustenance).

Both solutions and problems wouldn't have been possible two decades ago. The potential for technology swings both ways, and we have to remember that while there's no magic-bullet, it's human effort and will that determine how effective these tools are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

despite the advances in technology(and the science with it), there will always be abuses, as everything has pros and cons. we all strive, however, that the positive outweighs the negative uses/benefits of the ever-advancing technologies. keep posting thought-provoking essays - angelo a.