I will admit to not being motivated to own the latest gadget. I don’t feel any need to have the latest version of Windows on my computer and I don’t think it absolutely necessary that my microwave oven should be able to talk to my fridge. I think of technology as being something that enables us to do things we might otherwise not, but which we want to do for their own sake, not just because the technology to do so has been invented.
Take tents, for example. Not many people will think of a tent as technology and I would agree with you there, but they serve as a great analogy for the white stripes down the side of my neighbour’s Ford Escort. Some people have a tent because they like to go camping. They like waking up in the morning and catching the aroma of freshly cooked bacon drifting on the cold, moist air, they like connecting with their primitve urges by cooking over an open fire and tasting food with wood smoke on it and picking the creepy crawlies out of their coleslaw. They like sitting in front of their tent over a glass of wine chilled in the river and watching the sun set on a glorious day of doing nothing but catching some rays and chilling out. What’s not to like?
I like camping because of the things it enables me to do. I use my tent as an Access All Areas pass to the great outdoors, so that I can walk the North Devon Coastal footpath, or go rock climbing on Kiwi Slabs in the Cairngorms. Last year I got the train down to Bath then spent the weekend walking the two hundred miles back home along canal towpaths, watching the year’s new ducklings emerging from the reed beds and the swans performing their mating rituals. I saw a kestrel hovering over the river bank then dive at its hidden prey, and I camped overnight in woods and cow pastures cooking my supper on a Trangia stove. My tent enables me to do these things which I might not otherwise be able to do. I choose to do these things first, then I obtain the technology I need to do them.
The other way to do it is to buy a tent and only then think about what you want to do with a tent. That’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but it’s not the way I go about it. Which means that companies who make gadgets, and who generally have marketing that emphasises how cool hip and trendy their gadgets are, do not normally get any attention from me. The question of whether the corners on my iPad are round or not just doesn’t enter into the equation. I want to do X, which gadget will allow me to do X? is the extent of my engagement with technology. Which I mention so that you know that I am not a luddite, but neither am I a slave to whatever happens to be trending this week.
And what is trending this week is balloons. This morning, browsing the Sunday papers, I come across Mike Cassidy, a man from Google, the search people. As everyone probably knows by now, they don’t just do search. We have already had Google cars, then we had Google Glass, and now we have Google Balloons. Or, as Google put it, we have Project Loon.
The Loon is an aquatic bird whose belly is, unlike ducks and geese, submerged when it swims; it swims in the water not on it. But they are great swimmers and divers and are as happy beneath the water as they are flying above it. They eat mostly fish, frogs, crayfish, eels and the like and they also eat stones (called gastroliths) which they keep in their gizzard where they help crush their food because birds don’t have teeth and so eat their food whole. Quite why Google named their project after these birds is not known, maybe it was just a bird that many people will have heard of.
Project Loon, which is in the testing phase right now, is intended to be a series of balloons circling the globe at a height well above civil aviation flight levels, sending 3G-speed internet to the earth below. There are large areas of the world without internet access, indeed Mike Cassidy of Project Loon said, “I think one of the most stunning facts I’ve heard in the past two years is two thirds of the world does not have internet access.”
Before we go any further with this I think it worth spending a second thinking about who Google are. I don’t know about you, and I mean that, I genuinely don’t know about you, but I have never paid Google a penny for any of the ten billion times I’ve used their search engine. As far as I can tell, they are a company that provides a service for free to literally billions of people, but from doing this they make an uncountable amount of money. Apparently, and I don’t pretend to understand how this works, but it has something to do with ads. A person with a mouse in their hand clicks on an ad on a web page and one of the people involved in that transaction pays Google a tiny amount of money. Multiply that by ten trillion ad clicks per day and Google make more money than an army of accountants can possibly ever count. Personally, I don’t even see ads on webpages so how this works is an utter mystery to me, it’s like some weird form of black magic, voodoo science or witchcraft or something.
That it does work is undeniable, and it isn’t necessary for me to know how it works; I can’t fly an aeroplane and couldn’t explain to you how they fly but I have nonetheless been on holiday. The point is that Google make money out of web access. The more people who have access to web pages, the more people will click on ads and the more money Google make. And I’m sorry folks, but it really is as simple as that. Google are not increasing internet access out of the goodness of their social conscience, they are doing it to make money.
There is nothing inherently wrong with making money. Money might be the root of all evil but that doesn’t mean that anyone who makes money should be pinned to a dartboard and roasted with a Hot Licks Flame Thrower Kit ($149.99 with lifetime warranty), it just means that when someone is doing something to make money, it doesn’t hurt to remember why they are doing it.
So when Mike Cassidy said, “I think one of the most stunning facts I’ve heard in the past two years is two thirds of the world does not have internet access,” he didn’t actually mean that was the most stunning fact he had heard in the past two years. He didn’t mean that he hadn’t heard that one and a half billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, or that almost two billion people have no access to fresh water, or that almost one billion people are vulnerable to starvation because they don’t have enough food to eat. He meant that, for the purposes of making money, he is going to pretend that we are silly enough to join him in thinking that the one thing these people really need right now is internet access.
I am not, incidentally, implying that Google are required to fix world hunger just because they have pots of money. I am suggesting that for the public to engage with real issues like world poverty, economic inequality, hunger and fresh water supplies, requires the help of big companies like Google. They have the attention of millions of people, people who would be willing to do something if only they knew more about what’s wrong and what they could do to help fix it. Large corporations like Google could be using their public engagement to do a lot of good, to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people. But instead, they use it to lie to us about why they are doing the trivial and irrellevant things they do.
I can imagine a mountaineer, stuck in a snowstorm at 25,000 feet on the west wall of Changabang, idling away the time by checking how many copies of his biography are for sale on Amazon, so there will be people who appreciate the effort, but pretending that they are doing this because a third of the world don’t have internet access is fundamentally dishonest. Having money doesn’t necessarily make you evil, but experience seems to indicate that it sure does help.