Saturday, June 12, 2004

Signs, Motorcycle Diaries, and Academic Research

Signs in Brazil:

Hello: Thumbs up
Cheers: Thumbs up
All Okay?: Thumbs up? (appropriate suggestive eye contact and angular tilted head)
All Okay.: Thumbs up.
What a magnificent body: Thumbs up
The water is warm: Thumbs up
I like you: Thumbs up
Can we get the check: Thumbs up

And a woman at this café speaks loudly on her cellphone, right now, throwing off the uneasy equilibrium on socially accepted norms of public sounds in the realm of civility.


I saw the film Motorcycle Diaries, in Spanish with Portuguese subtitles. It is a film based on the experiences of Ernesto Che Guevara and Alberto Granado as they rode a motorcycle through most of South America. It seemed like the kind of film that one would miss out a lot on without understanding the language, so I probably did.

But I did notice a few important things about the film. First, it seemed remarkably value neutral, and did not go into the radicalization of Che Guevara. The film was nicely shot, but not phenomenal (the locations themselves are phenomenal though). On the whole, it is a grood road film, and does one thing that helps understand people with significant histories very well – it shows the importance of isolated and trivial incidents when serialized and applied to a certain viewpoint. It is hard to write a script that does not put Che on a pedestal or alternately demonize him – this one does.

The film shows us Che as a person without strong value affinities (and through the film, there is a slow change in that). A number of the experiences and personal exchanges during the motorcycle journey are reflective, but not one overpowering. Certainly, not a single experience is one that could not happen in a city or a train, and lack the same insight depth that the (mainly rural) encounters of Che. There is no moment of awakening, no incident of shocking significance, no sudden melodrama, nor any extraordinary profoundness to anything Che says or does.

Even as the film ends, it is never clear that the journey could have had the effect that it did – though the beauty of the film is that it is now possible to see exactly where the pieces fit in, and how. While reading about the life of Che, or of his revolutionary acts, it is good to see him start as a mild-mannered (horny) youth taking a trip that could in some people evoke a sense of karma, and in others, a desire for action. To summarize, as the film gets over, you’d probably feel, “Ah, that makes sense!”

The film made me think about what we are doing in Brazil, and thereafter elsewhere in the world. As academic researchers, we come here to record what we see. We will then critically document these on the basis of academic best-practices, conduct a survey and assess impacts in as neutral a fashion as possible. We will travel for days, and suffer a series of experiences and personal exchanges that will be reflective, but few overpowering.

At the end of our trip, we will have a fairly good idea of what the economic value of computing projects in Brazilian slums and perhaps even miraculously be able to attribute a dollar worth to this phenomenon. (That being said, we as academics are fairly aware of the absurdity of a statement such as “Access to computers is worth $0.60 per citizen, per square mile, per annum” to community X)

But as researchers, the consequences of our actions are always separated from our work. We are trained to be as neutral as is possible, and walk away from the situation with an assessment that is rational and applicable to economic and social indicators. Our job is to do this analysis as per generally accepted industry standards, and we will.

We may never know the value of access to a computer to the three people in the slum who have learnt to use it, and are on the Internet now, six hours a day. We can only tell if their usage of the Internet generates income (for them) or for the community. We can tell for certain, that someone is paying a lot of money for that Internet access, and that access essentially benefits three people in a community of 3000, while 13 others suffer malnutrition – a food need which could in turn be reduced to 70%, if the amount payable towards the computer were diverted within the next quarter (after that, we’d need a new assessment).

I perhaps never can know what it is to live in the slum and have Internet access, or what it is like to not. Like a guilt-ridden prosperor, or fascinated trespasser, I may be overrating it immensely, or as the trained speed-reader, I may have just skimmed the surface. But I’ll go with my gut feeling. After weeks of going from one telecenter and computing training school to another, it is clear to me that something substantive is being done here, something expensive, that cannot be entirely quantified in cash. The succor from the digital divide to me is as measurable as shade in a sunburnt beach. But can we presumably judge whether the shade can be extended, if the canvas were cheaper, or could customer acquisition be better, if we cut some of the canvas budget to publicize the joyless disposition of sunstroke?

In academia, we lay the foundation for building societies, and when we can’t do that, we at least document the conventions for keeping it in check. Here we will seek technological and economic sustainability, and perhaps find it some places, find it nowhere. Two years down the line, some brighter spark than me will redefine sustainability.

After we leave, our report will be up for public access on the Internet. Funding agencies will read it, and write-off certain organizations. Somewhere, a decision will be made that food is more important than google, or pornography, and somewhere a plug will be pulled. Another professional revolutionary with a vision for a marginally different Brazil will be written off as “business model garbage generator” for the technology era.

We will leave Brazil in the hope that what we did here served an uplifting purpose, but we can never know who it was we trampled. Or, like all academics, we may have greatly overestimated our worth, and the reach of our work. That being the likely case, we can probably recommend in a report that our air ticket expenses were better spent on canvas in some scalding beach. Preferably a beach that we aren’t sunbathing at.


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