Katrina and native technologies

We’ve been reading The Human-Built World (Thomas Hughes) in the informatics seminar to get participants started in thinking about technology. I find it an interesting little book that fills a particular niche nicely. It’s a short read that spurs questions of how we can and should think about technology in a very broad way. Our discussion in the class was wide ranging. I wish we could have gotten more directly at the kinds of arguments Hughes puts forward, but I’m also not used to graduate seminars this size (>30 students), and so it’s hard to get down to the good stuff. I have a feeling I’m going to have to provide a bit more structure than I am used to in seminars, both in terms of some mini-lectures and, perhaps, in assigning people to brief and present sections of the work. In fact, next week, I’m going to institute a couple of conversational structures that may allow for broader input from folks in the class.

One of Amazon’s “Statistically improbable phrases” (SIPs) for the book is “large technological systems,” and Hughes takes some time to talk about how systems approaches in the cities and how “normal accidents” in such systems can be catastrophic. Of course, with the devastation of the Gulf Coast foremost in most people’s minds, it was hard not to consider where the informaticist fits into this picture. (Lois Ann Scheidt addressed this question more directly in her undergrad class.) The approach taken by many of the participants drew on the question of technological literacy and of people fully understanding the risk/threat at different stages. How is it that people were not aware of the threat?

What most struck me was the division Hughes makes between the organic and mechanic and how it applies here. The levies in New Orleans are as clear an example of attempting to tame nature as can be had: literally holding the sea at bay, so to speak. The alternative would be to locate above sea level, and away from the coast. Of course, the reason that New Orleans exists is access to the water, for some time a major trade route with both Europe and the Eastern United States. While this remains important, I suspect a small minority of the population of New Orleans still relies on such trade for their livelihood. Yet, the existence of New Orleans where it is now is, in some way, organic. It is there because it has been there for so long, and residents feel a certain sense of place. Working with the organic culture of a community is just as important as working with the organic natural environment.

Several of the participants noted and applauded the idea that while Europeans saw the Americas as a wild place that needed to be tamed with technology, aboriginal Americans already had deployed technologies that worked with the environment. Hughes mentions this only off-handedly — the Boston Globe has a very interesting article on the technology of Native Americans — but it seems an idea worth exploring, particularly within the context of Katrina. After all, the Mayans found a technology that made sense for dealing with hurricanes on the Yucatan and elsewhere: build your house somewhere other than on the sea.

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