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Farewell PNG: Reflections on a country of contradictions

Does your smart phone think it knows more than you?


TUMBY BAY - Have you noticed the new level of scrutiny that seems to accompany everything we do nowadays?

The days when you could safely potter away at something by yourself without causing offence to anyone seem to be well and truly over.

I’ve got neighbours who know exactly what I’ve been doing on any given day and at any given time of the week. Not only that but they’ve got video to prove it.

Talk about big brother – I’m surrounded by dozens of big brothers, big sisters, big aunts, big uncles and big nieces and nephews.

When I go into town to buy my groceries there are cameras everywhere, even when I walk down the street. It seems they record my every move.

In the supermarket the muzak is routinely interrupted by a jarring voice ordering security to one of the aisles where some sort of grand larceny has been picked up on their monitors.

As they march off a 10-year old with his hand still stuck in an open packet of Cheezels I realise that my confused perambulations in search of the rolled oats or kidney beans are being watched.

When I get home and turn on the computer to check my emails and tomorrow’s weather forecast I’m bombarded with targeted advertising.

Not only do they know that I’ve been searching for books I’m thinking of buying but they’ve got suggestions about others that they seem certain I will find equally if not more interesting.

Not only have they got into my computer, they’ve been inside my head.

If I check some fact about, say, the Middle Sepik on the internet, the next time I turn on the computer I’m confronted by suggestions that I’d probably find a river cruise in Europe much more satisfactory.

Me, on a European cruise? What on earth makes them think I’d ever want to be trapped on a floating hotel for two weeks with a bunch of geriatric retirees and no way of escape?

And who are these people making suggestions and parading what they think are alluring pictures of mouldy German castles?

Good grief, they live in London, or is that Hamburg, it’s hard to tell. And some of the other online touts trying to flog stuff to me come from China and Nigeria of all places. How on earth do they know where I live, how on earth do they know I’m retired, who gave them my name and address?

I should have seen all this coming of course, what, with all human automatons wandering around mesmerised by the little blinking screens in their hands.

Unfortunately I’m one of those people who still think that the fountain pen is a marvellous piece of technology. I bought my cherished silver and gold Parker in Port Moresby in 1972 and it’s still going strong.

Which reminds me, have you ever heard of a pop group called the Beatles? Really lovely music.

I’m being flippant. The point I’m trying to make is that it once took time to get used to innovations. Remember when it was wise to wait a couple of years before buying a new model of a car or electric gizmo to make sure it was any good?

Not anymore. People queue up overnight to buy the latest gadget. They seem to have supreme confidence that it will work as intended and make their lives tremendously richer.

And the gadgets they queue up for are invariably machines that pry into our lives. The more modern a gadget, the more it knows about us and the quicker it passes that information on to others, including people wanting to sell us stuff and organisations trying to influence the way we think and act.

Once upon a time we took pride in calling ourselves free thinkers. We could independently muster the facts on an issue and come to a conclusion best suited to our needs.

Nowadays those decisions are made for us. The mind benders know what we think and they provide pre-packaged conclusions for us.

And the medium through which they deliver our ideas for us are those gadgets we fall over ourselves to buy as soon as they come on the market.

It’s almost like we are all blindly marching with glazed eyes towards some sort of dystopian future.


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Arthur Williams

Phil - Looking out of my maisonette window I saw the end of an era this week. The disappearance of the phone-box just outside. Never to be replaced as the mobile takes over as preferred method of communication.

I was in Kavieng in 2007 when the mobile hit town. What an immense event that was. Really revolutionised life perhaps more than the arrival the first whitemen.

It meant no more waiting in the sun for perhaps hours for one of the five phones in the wired cage adjoining the post office. They were unavailable outside business hours Monday-Saturday and closed all day Sunday.

Then I thought back to April 1997 when Telikom installed a VHF mast on a mountain top in Lavongai Island. I recall Mani Rangai or may have been Bosap, both lapuns from the inland village of Baue, not being happy with this modern intrusion into their lives.

In Pidgin he told the crowd how having this invention would allow the government to pry into their lives. We sophisticated ones smiled condescendingly at the old man.

Our guest of honour was the late Paul Toihan then MP for Kavieng flanked by two of his successors - Ben Micah and Martin Aini. One of them attempted to pacify the old men with how secure the phone system was!

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