Will Technology Ever Marry Public Services?

January 12, 2009
Aditi Nadkarni

As was expected, talk of the Mumbai attacks have died down in global media. With the Gaza war the media now has a new situation to cover. And this how the world operates now I think. Before we have dealt with the questions from one crisis and begun to look for answers, we are tested with another.

A few days ago, I read with great embarrassment, an article on Yahoo that detailed how the terrorists had been more tech savvy than the police force in Mumbai. The adjoining picture had a morbidly obese police officer struggling to climb over a fence, his copious belly seeming to arrive roughly five seconds before him. I didn't know whether to feel sorry for his underpaid, engorged being or feel a sense of despair about a system that allows a police officer to be so totally out of shape. This man's daily job description involves using a five rupee whistle and waving his stick around at vulnerable rickshaw drivers. The news report described how the terrorists had arrived with several high-tech gadgets, satellite phones, GPS systems and automatic weapons and encountered police who did not even have walkie-talkies. This would've been a disgrace anywhere in the world but what adds insult to injury is that this was in a nation which boasts of recent technological advances and is home to a significant fraction of the world's lauded techies. I can just imagine several eyes rolling to the skies, wondering what technological advances would have anything to do with the police being well-equipped. This is where we are now. In the 21st century, we can imagine a world where everything can be done with a computer and all things important are digital and user-friendly, except services involving the government. In our dealings with the government, we always expect and grudgingly accept that the paperwork will take time and the service will be less effective because lets face it, the government does not have all the snazzy gadgets and devices that we do. I have viewed my apartment complex using Google Earth and never realized how people could actually use these detailed maps to launch an attack. Today, as we grow, the problems grow with us, multiplying our questions and mocking our simplistic answers. The arms of our technology grow and indiscriminately embrace even the evil-doers in some part of the world. We live in a world where phones do more than phones should. We have i-Pods that can play an obscene number of songs and we can now make international calls for no cost using G-talk and Yahoo Messenger. It remains a mind-boggling fact that everyday technology that one can buy and use for personal entertainment or education is never applied to public security measures. If technology can ease our daily life, it seems obvious that it also be applied in public services. All our taxes can surely buy us a national security environment that matches the times. Apparently, it cannot.

Last year during a visit to Mumbai somebody suddenly screamed that there was a fire in a pav-bhaaji stall across the road. People, just common every day people, ran with full buckets, appearing out of nowhere, from other shops and surrounding slums and they slowly doused the flames. There were even kids who brought pails of water and flung at the flames giggling as they did it, their mirth severely contrasting the blazing crisis. The cook's hand was badly burned and a rickshaw drove him to a hospital. Nobody arrived. No sirens. No ambulances, no fire brigades, no police cars were to be seen. A little distance away, a traffic policeman glanced toward the scene from a paan shop and paid no further attention. There was no 9-1-1 to call and people just relied on the tax-paying crowds to do what needed to be done. I remembered this when watching CNN cover the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks that shook Mumbai. Survivors and escapees described the brave operations carried out by the commandos and then provided dismal accounts of how no paramedics or emergency medical services were available when they finally ran out of the hotels.

If an emergency system existed in Mumbai, would the police have received a call from someone who saw a gunman sauntering into a railway station? Should security officials have been sitting across the screen, monitoring the events, when the camera captured the 21 year old terrorist strolling away after a shooting spree? We have several hundred traffic policemen in a city that has traffic signals. These policemen do absolutely nothing to ease the traffic jams that clog the roads and yet they can be seen in Mumbai occasionally pulling over a car for their "thanda-paani" when they could be more useful elsewhere.

My question at this point is not what can the system do. I am tired of asking that question. My question is can the people do something minus the system that has repeatedly failed to protect its public? Because, quite frankly, for how long can we, the educated, the thinking and the law-abiding ones be mere victims of a failed and corrupt system? Did our education and our intelligence not arm us with the most basic of all skills: the skill to survive? Remarkably talented engineers graduate every year from the excellent schools in India. In my naivety, I always dream of a day when I will read about this pioneer, techie-genius somewhere in Bangalore who comes up with a system to secure the nation. I don't know how it can be done. I admit that I have neither the skills nor the technological suavity to even begin to answer some of the questions I pose. If you ask me how such a project would be funded, I might say something downright stupid like "Um, private funding?". My questions may even sound juvenile to say a CEO of an elite, thriving techie company. All I know is that even with the availability of all the information at my fingertips, a GPS in my car, an i-Pod for when I workout, a touch-screen ticket kiosk at the nearest movie theater, a car that can call emergency by itself when in a crash, a phone that has stuff on it that I don't even know how to use, I am still unhappy because I am scared of walking in the streets and traveling in the trains of the cities that I love. And not just Mumbai, but any city. In spite of all our stunning global accomplishments we are not safe in any city, no matter where in the world we are. We have all these terms to distinguish "developing nations" from "superpowers". But when a terrorist attack results in a toddler being on a no-fly list in the world's superpower, we realize that there is no first or third world, we may just be one screwed up world, in this mess together.

The merger of technology with public services may if explored bring an interesting turn of events in a nation in terms of the economy. It would be an exciting place for us to start examining how our education, our degrees and all that cool stuff that looks so good on paper could work constructively against those who use their minds for destruction. It may take longer since making something is always harder than destroying it, but will decidedly be more gratifying and fruitful.

Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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Will Technology Ever Marry Public Services?


  • » Published on January 12, 2009
  • » Type: Opinion
  • » Filed under: .

Author: Aditi Nadkarni


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