Monday, November 14, 2005

Beacon No. 71: Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns


I attended a DoD-sponsored conference in Carmel last week focused on strategic listening: How might the U.S., and specifically the Defense Department, best listen to the messages other cultures transmit or just emit? This wasn't framed in terms of competing with established electronic eavesdropping capabilities or having more agricultural attach├ęs do spook-work on the side in their host countries; far from it. The DoD was looking for non-traditional ways to find things out.

Some participants thought electronic means would be best for this task—shower the Middle East with computers, Ethernet cable and blogging tools and the kids will just type what's on their minds, i.e. the Web 2.0 approach.

This approach bothered me for many reasons. While blog-watching sounds like an excellent approach for First World countries, someone said during a break that about 60 percent of the world's population has never even made a phone call. The world outside the West and the urbanized Far East is still largely rural and removed from First World modes of self-expression.

This world depends heavily on family ties and long-term relationships and is economically centered on manual labor. It is, in a phrase, blue-collar, and depending on the Internet to assemble an accurate picture of populations that lack typing ability, to say nothing of computers, electricity, Internet access or literacy, isn't likely to succeed.

How about cell phones, someone argued? They're becoming increasingly powerful, cheap, easy to use, and Web-enabled. Unfortunately, they have the same requirements as computers, with the addition of cell-phone towers.

Others suggested that watching changes in graffiti and fashion would be useful, and previous suggestions about the cultural power of Iranian cinema were also welcomed.

There was much enthusiasm about a film producer's approach of giving out cameras to kids, who would then record their lives and concerns. The producer pointed out, however, that she took three six-month stretches in India building trust among her subjects, followed by three more six-month stretches of filming. This is a huge time investment by any standard, one that would require passion to duplicate on large scale.

There was also general agreement that the U.S.—and particularly the DoD—needs to drastically increase its on-the-ground cultural knowledge in many countries and that all these proposals were only partial answers. I scribbled some notes about this during an afternoon session and finally proposed an idea to the group:

Have units of soldiers whose job it is to pick one kid out in the area where they're stationed. One male soldier, one boy; one female soldier, one girl. That soldier's primary job, for their entire tour of duty, is to make sure that kid is taken care of, not just in the next week or month, but five years from now.

I call this idea Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns (hereafter "BB/BSWG") and I'll outline it at greater length in my next post.

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