Geekcorps volunteers spend four months on the ground in developing nations, working to help partner businesses on a technical level. This corps of people and backers is largely drawn from the pool of successful U.S. technocrats. One volunteer, for example, came from the management and technology consulting firm Accenture, where she became an advocate for more corporate involvement in developing-world efforts. The firm now has several initiatives looking at how developing nations can embrace information technology to achieve economic growth. Getting a taste of the reality in Ghana, through one of its employees, translated into boundless energy and fresh leadership for Accenture-and that energy is what keeps these companies thriving.Often, through these experiences, new opportunities arise for both volunteers and their partners in developing nations. Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira was a United Nations official for 16 years. Working in hardship countries, she saw many beautiful local handcrafts and was struck by what happened to them en route to the world market. In Africa, she saw handcrafted masks being sold for $15; back in the States, Bloomingdale’s would sell the same mask for $300. Enter Novica United, founded by Nercessian with her daughter and son-in-law. Novica applies an Amazon-like approach to the marketing and distribution of local handcrafts from around the world. By connecting local offices in dozens of countries to the Internet, Novica has organized a vast online catalogue of goods created by thousands of regional artists. These items can then be sold directly to consumers at far below Bloomingdale’s prices, returning a much greater profit to the artists.
For the recipient, each little gift, each product Novica ships, is a key that opens a doorway to another part of the world-a tangible, evocative connection to a living artisan, a person with a name, face and life story. Novica profits because its networked approach eliminates legions of middlemen. At the same time, the company is promoting a new kind of savvy eco-consumerism. This is a “good karma” company par excellence.
Novica’s business, if it succeeds, could help conserve indigenous crafts and cultures. Like Geekcorps, it is pursuing a path that heightens public awareness, enriches communities, elevates tastes and deepens sensibilities. As technology evolves, it is important, and I would argue critical, to be able to hold in one hand an ingenious handmade toy from Ghana and in the other some sort of beeping, blinking, battery-powered, computer-infused techno-toy. Pondering the difference between the two will help us come to grips with what sorts of artifacts we want to surround ourselves with and why.
In my last column, I argued how vital it is for scientists and technologists to get into the field and immerse themselves in reality, up to their eyeballs in different ecologies, different cultures, different ways of thinking and doing. Now more than ever, the world is our laboratory. We are connected to each other through a fresh matrix of instant communication and easy travel. Burgeoning masses of people are constantly transforming the world. Humans have changed the climate, reshaped the land, harnessed rivers and extinguished species. Science gives us tools to change the world in incredible ways and at a frightening pace. But it can also help us restore some of what has been lost; it is also our compass for navigating the future. The question is: Who knows how to wield that compass?
The answer cannot come solely from scientists who have lived their lives in a lab. It must come from a new generation of technologists who have an active, firsthand sense of the world: scientists who know what the spirit of service means because they have served; engineers who have not just a textbook understanding of a problem, but who have had liberating experiences in settings that range from inner cities to outer wildernesses; inventors who know not only how to invent things, but how the processes of invention can help nourish a healthy, sustainable community.
The idea of dispatching volunteers with technological expertise to different parts of the world is gaining momentum. The MIT Media Laboratory, in collaboration with Harvard University’s Center for International Development, recently launched a consortium called “Digital Nations.” The consortium aims at bringing a broad set of next-generation technology projects, from e-commerce to health technology, to people in developing regions. The U.S. Department of State formed the Global Technology Corps, which enlists volunteers to share their skills in a number of areas, such as Web development or information science, with people around the globe. The leaders of the G8 (major industrialized countries) formed the Digital Opportunity Task Force to work on bridging the digital divide. Venture groups from Softbank to the World Bank are actively spurring new economic activity in developing regions.
This is encouraging news, but there’s a long way to go. Right now, only seven graduates of MIT and four from Caltech are enrolled in the Peace Corps. And that just won’t do.