Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Technology to Die (Hard) Fo(u)r!

It’s difficult to start philosophizing about every movie Hollywood has made, but without a doubt, in the same way that the September 11 focus has driven a number of films after 2001, it is safe to say that so does technology regularly drive many a film from Tinseltown.

The latest one, in my review of the representation of technology on both the big and small screen, is that of the 2007 blockbuster summer hit with Bruce Willis. The role of the ordinary but affable New York cop John Mclean (with the inimitable style) is reprised by Willis, which character is asked to pick up a computer hacker and deliver him to authorities. For those who have not yet made time to see the film, the bulk of the action begins after the scene when Mclean goes to the hacker’s abode--only to have gargantuan gun-toting criminals, including a strange Spider-Man character who is able to get from the street to the hacker’s apartment in minutes by jumping acrobatically over railings, shoot his apartment down. I believe the essence of the film comes out here, for we get to find out why these criminals want the hacker dead.

With the basis set, the rest of the film follows the narrative, whilst continuing to provoke the viewer into wondering what would really happen if techno-criminals ever got to shut down the electricity grid of a whole country, cause traffic jams; and make away with astronomical sums of money, while prosecuting a murderous agenda of killing their team and all those who might stand in their way.

So, slowly and surely, the plot is broken down for us. “Die Hard Four” is in essence about how Thomas Gabriel, an aggrieved technophile who also happens to be an ex-employee of the United States Department of Defense, “amasses” a bunch of ill-intentioned and equally-experienced technophiles (including hackers) to shut down the information systems (including satellites) of the US. His motive stems from a huge grudge held against his former employers who failed to take him seriously when he warned them that terrorists were capable of bringing the country to a halt by hacking satellite and ICT systems—and he shut down parts of the country using his laptop! No-one listened to him, despite the fact that a facility in the outskirts of the capital that would download the country’s whole financial information into a database was built by this same Gabriel. It would turn out that Gabriel would use this as his base to prosecute his agenda. Ofcourse Maclean had to stop him—not without dodging a fighter plane, which communication’s system Gabriel’s aide was able to hack into.

So, this is Hollywood, and by all means, most of it is over the top.

Technology to Die For!
When we look a bit more closely, there is clearly something going on—and in my view, it’s about how technology can both look at us and kill us in foul sweep. We might feel like complaining every now and then when our broadband/dial-up internet connection goes off for the umpteenth time, or when the electricity provision is as sporadic as the disco lights in a night club. Truth is we might be better off this way after all. Cast your mind back to ideas or memories of how public services work so seamlessly in the West, and think for a second about their digitally-exuberant society where almost everyone is so wired that even authorities think about wiring the underground.

Now, imagine that reality here in Ghana, where regulation is normally this side of ineffectual, and we might just have a perfect storm of chaos in our hands. Let’s not even yet talk about our humble National Disaster Managament Organisation(NADMO) being equipped with ICT tools to manage disaster efficiently in the same way that the UN and multilateral organizations pledged never to have a repeat of the tsunami of December 2006 off the coast of Southeast Asia by establishing early warning systems (EWS).

Let’s talk instead about the coping mechanisms that would exist in the event of a breakdown of Ghana’s information systems. Let’s also think a bit about what the regulator—the National Communication Authority—as the first port of call could do in informing its consumers about the necessity of extolling the virtues of a sound Ghanaian information society, whilst remembering that these same consumers ought to be responsible in the utilization of the increasingly wired society. So it should be that using ICT systems responsibly should be part and parcel of any agenda that the NCA has for us. Examples could include using our mobile phones *responsibly* when (driving) in the car or walking in the street; or the health effects of sitting for too long in front of the computer.

At this point, it seems we might have reached a supreme case of bathos, having climbed down from the bombastic action film of Die Hard Four to the almost mundane usage of our mobile phones in the car. At the end of the day, what separates the latter two is the usage of technology, and the lessons therein.

For me, the film asks very well how reliable a wired world is; but more importantly, how on Earth do we find the balance between a technologically-driven world and the analogue one, whilst contemporaneously using technology to enhance our lives without going overboard? Finally, it is also a commentary on the human condition and its relationship with technology: where the antagonist used his technological skills to create destruction, the protagonist’s sidekick (Maclean’s hacker) used it for good by restoring the destroyed information systems.

If that isn’t food for thought to die hard for, I don’t know what is!

(c)Sunday World (
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