Archive for December, 2007

Tracking Our Children with GPS: Does it Solve or Mask the Problem?

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

(written by Intro to GIS student, E. H.)
Growing up in New Hampshire I always watched the Boston news stations. A particular announcement came on every night before the ten o’clock news. It was a public service announcement that said “It is ten o’clock, Boston; Do you know where your children are?” This announcement was to remind parents to be active participants in their children’s lives and know where they were going and what they were doing. This question of “do you know where your children are?” has taken on a whole new meaning in recent years. In North America, most cell phone companies have created tracking services. The cell phones are equipped with GPS locators so that parents can watch where their geolocated children are in real time on a map on their own cell phones. It doesn’t stop there. New tools for tracking children are coming out everyday. The GPS nanny is hidden within a wristwatch given to kids by their parents. This device not only locates the child and warns the parent if they stray too far from them, but it also has the option to be equipped with a video camera, speaker, and microphone, as well as the ability to monitor the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature of the child. In recent years in Japan, several high-tech advances have come out for monitoring children, including built-in GPS locators in school uniforms and backpacks. Between April and July of 2006, a prototype for a child tracking system was tested in Yokohama Japan. One hundred and eighty-eight children in the region were tagged with wireless IC tags which transmitted radio signals to 27 sensors. If a child walked within 30 meters of a sensor an email was sent to their parents. This technology has been used in private schools to monitor when children arrive at and leave school and where they are during the time between leaving school and reaching home.

With the advent of all of this technology for pinpointing the exact locations and physical states of children at all times, one begins to wonder where the line should be drawn. When does tracking become overstepping boundaries and violating children’s rights? More importantly through this technology are parents distancing themselves from those they wish to keep safe? Are children no longer to be trusted? The phrase, “do you know where your children are?” no longer means “do you talk to your children and know who their friends are?” but rather “have you checked your laptop lately to see that the house they have entered is in the right part of town?” What happened to parents relying on themselves to protect their children? Have they become so busy and so wrapped up in themselves, that they can not take the time to walk children to the bus in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day or arrange for someone they trust to do so?

The recent increase in the fear of not knowing where children are at all times is not one that should be fixed with technology and tracking devices but rather with taking responsibility for kids and being good parents. Relying on technology to satisfy these fears is like taking cold medicine when one has a virus. Cold medicine will relieve the symptoms, but in doing so it prevents the body from actually fighting the virus and fixing the problem. In the same way, the use of technology to calm fears of where children are relieves the symptom but does not solve the problem of the break-down of communication with and the lack of active participation in the lives of children. I feel it is high time we that take a step back to evaluate what the real problem is and take steps toward solving it. This is not a matter having time to talk to children; it is a matter of making time, a matter of parents making their children a priority in their lives and not just another thing they must keep track of and monitor.

A Change is Gonna Come…

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

I attended two talks last week, both generally dealing with the same subject matter: mechanisms of cultural adaptation or change. One was Michael Bollig’s exploration of east African the disappearance and reemergence of pastoralism, and the other was presented by geographer Robert McLeman’s presentation, drawing on the use of the 1930’s Dust Bowl as a model for predicting human adaptations to future, more severe and/or extreme climate change.

McLeman is a geographer from the University of Ottawa, whose fieldwork looks at historical migration of farmers from Okalahoma to northern California during the worst drought years of the pre-war 30’s, and an exploration of why some families decided to stay and attempt to eke out a living on the plains, while others left for greener (literally) pastures the first chance they had. McLeman’s examples invoked strong parallels to Jared Diamond’s more pervasive ideas, as espoused in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. McLeman pointed to several other historical and contemporary examples of humans choosing to live in a place of recognized – and at times, incredibly conspicuous – environmental instability, not including an expected reference to Diamond’s outline of the Easter Islands, but rather the more local southern California coast hillsides (prone to erosion and wildfires) and New Orleans, where the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina aptly advertised potential effects of setting up residence below sea level. McLeman underlined the seeming irrationality of humans continually attempting to live in such areas, even after enduring disastrous effects in the past and knowing such calamities will inevitably happen again. I enjoyed his perfunctory attitude towards future climate change, in which he stated that extreme weather is going to happen, without a doubt; many people are reluctant to make such confident assertions. But the lecture concluded with a vague and markedly unassertive reiteration of the fact that humans are adaptable, and that environmental refugees will become a more and more commonplace factor of the twenty-first century world. I wondered his specific ideas for redress of or reaction to global climate change, as none were mentioned.

Bollig’s talk, as thoroughly outlined below by merle, focused on the changes in productive practices of a society in Kenya generally referred to as “pastoralist.” Bollig focused on the fact that anthropologists usually like to understand social change in a Darwinian time-frame – that is, the reconfiguration of cultural worldview (and the way this metamorphosis is manifested on the landscape) does not typically happen quickly. The Pokot, however, appear to exemplify rapid change, modifying their mode of production three times within a two-century period. What accounts for this change? Why the need to change? Someone in the audience suggested that all societies rely on more than one productive practice, so that for example, in times of drought, they have a back-up plan, thus perhaps the Pokot simply favoured one over the other at different times, but did not actually undergo any cultural change. Bollig, however, did not buy this as a strong enough reason for the Pokot’s alternating pastoralism/non-pastoralism history.

These two scholars’ area of inquiry is pertinent to today’s climate – literally and figuratively. Applied anthropology is one sub-field which draws on such fieldwork and research to work to enact change, or at least help in policy-making, development work, and so forth, but such work is obviously not limited to the one discipline. Nonetheless, such fields, no matter the specific categorization, are contentious; application seems to be equated with “intervention” and “fixing,” both dangerous words in the minds of most cultural relativists. But relativism, in some ways, becomes a term of moot significance in the era of global change. And application and advocacy go hand-in-hand with the precautionary principle here, as uncertainty is often presented as reasons for not acting. However, I will save that lengthy debate for another time. For now, in searching for answers and calls to action in McLeman’s and Bollig’s inevitably, necessarily inconclusive presentations, I reiterate merle slightly in declaring the need for further research on the mechanisms of cultural change and adaptation – in theory and practice alike.