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Networked Reindeer
Alex Steffen, 7 Dec 03

How do you network reindeer herders? It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke, but the problem's actually a real one for the Saami people of northern Scandinavia.

Many Saami (better known in North America by the out-of-date, somewhat derogatory term Lapps) are still nomadic, moving with their semi-wild herds of reindeer to the rythym of the seasons. Their tech needs are real. Reindeer-herding is not easy work. Being able to tag, track and measure their herds means more food, fewer risks and the ability to make better decisions about culling and calving and such. But the Saami are also citizens of advanced post-industrial nations. Their kids need an education. They need a voice in politics, better information on markets and business opprtunities and the ability to communicate with those who aren't trekking the tundra with them.

That's where the Saami Network Connectivity Project comes in. These folks are helping the Saami create a distributed ad-hoc bush network, to "provide email, cached web access, reindeer herd tracking telemetry and basic file and data transfer services."

"Permafrost street-cred" is a Bruce Sterling coinage: this project's got it.

(Update: Petteri suggests that understanding the pan-Saami political movement makes this all the more interesting. I agree.)

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I have to say that I loved this story. I don't know very much about the Saami but this is a fascinating story and it makes me want to learn more. What I wonder is if this project goes forward and succeeds with the stated goals, what is the long term effect on the culture? Does it improve it by bringing together people who are typically isolated in sparsely populated regions, or does it cause some creeping non-obvious problem by fundamentally altering the way they interact? It seems like a good idea now, but many things seem like good ideas that have bad unintended consequences. I don't think this is a high probability, but it is worth thinking about.

Posted by: Dave Slusher on 8 Dec 03

That's an important question, and one I don't have the answer to. But I would note that change is ripping through every last little nook and cranny of the world - there is no culture, no people so isolated that they aren't having their world restructured radically before their very eyes - and it seems to me that, in general, it is a better bet to make people players in the way that change happens rather than simply having that change imposed upon them by multinational corporations, international aid organizations or national governments.

Perhaps it's niave of me, but I have a genuine trust that people are almost always better off being helped to become active authors of the transformations they're undergoing than they are winding up on receiving end of changes they have no say over.

That said, 'ware the unintended consequence should be tattooed on all our foreheads.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Dec 03

I'll agree that in general it is better ride the tiger than let the tiger ride you. My direction of concern is this. At first blush, it sounds wonderful but that's me with my white male American technocrat perspective. Is it necessarily in the best interests of a culture that has evolved to deal with "information underload" to load them up with information? Suppose they are somehow more susceptible to "internet addiction" or similar ills and this causes fundamental alterations for the worse in the fabric of their society? There was a time when Saami culture was actively suppressed and that was also ostensibly for their good, with a similar argument about "bringing them up to the norms of society." (Cajuns went through the same thing in the 50's in Louisiana.)

Again, I don't think a bad outcome is necessarily likely. Maybe what would be the best way to go would be similar to the Amish approach - allow the technology in for an evaluation period and then they can have a sensible debate on whether it helps or hurts their society as a whole and use that to decide how to proceed.

Posted by: Dave on 9 Dec 03



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