Thursday, November 23, 2006


Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, bringing to mind how much we have to be grateful for. Freedom and liberty ranks high for me, particularly since I wrote about how limited those are in North Korea.

The nighttime satellite photo shows South Korea as an island just west of Japan. A limited economy in the north keeps the artificial light at a level common before Thomas Edison made the incandescent bulb a commercial success. In Technology Challenged, I analyzed the smuggling of small, disposable radios into a country where…

“…any radios that can be tuned to frequencies other than the one carrying official broadcasts must by registered with the government. The tuners are soldered into place and police make surprise inspections, looking for tampering. Information is so tightly controlled that defectors are surprised to find that South Korea is more prosperous than North (which has had widespread starvation) and that U.S. donations of rice are not subservient gifts of tribute. Combating this dearth of information, a group in South Korea is smuggling in disposable radios. With ICE-9:

9. How do we evaluate it? The government of North Korea evaluates the radios in terms of their power. By promoting dissenting views, this technology is a threat to their control.

8. What are its costs and benefits? Like many technologies, radio offers tradeoffs between such goals as control and freedom. In this situation, radios subvert control and promote freedom.

7. How do we change it? Engineers design radios, activists distribute them, organizations fund them, and North Korean police hunt them.

6. How does it change us? Independent news sources heard over the radios change listeners’ conception of reality: they discover that starvation is not normal and that their nation is not the world’s most powerful.

5. How does it change? Electronic technologies, in particular, have become smaller and less expensive at an amazing rate, making disposable radios feasible.

4. How does it work? Many technologies can be characterized as either centralized or distributed. Unlike a large transmitter, the radios are highly distributed, so many could fail or be destroyed without affecting the rest.

3. Where does it come from? These radios come from specialization, designed by experts in microelectronics. Broadcasting, however, was an accident: radio was invented a century ago for one-to-one conversations where telephone wires could not be run.

2. Why do we use it? Communication is one of the oldest reasons we use technology and it still drives such devices as radios, satellites, cellular phones, and email.

1. What is it? Radio is a tool to extend our abilities, allowing us to hear something from far away. But the physical radio that we can touch is just the tip of the iceberg. Out of sight are systems of technical standards and networks of energy distribution and manufacturing just as important.

Technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. With conscious application and guidance of it, we can create a better world. Happy Thanksgiving.