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Friday, June 24, 2011

Technology, History, and Embracing the Unknown

Strange Horizons 22: When Worlds Collide
Original publication: December 1998

Luxor, Egypt – My wife and I opted to spend this holiday season away from the incessant press of Christmas jingles—the ads, not the bells. In particular, I wanted to see what the holiday season would be like at the opposite end of the planet, in a place where loudspeakers blare the call to Muslim prayer five times a day and the average household income is $300 per month. For sure, the experience is an eye-opener. Among the splendor of ancient ruins are wild dogs, fly-blown and starving. Armed guards seem to patrol at random, officially to protect the tourists, but some will seize the chance to illicitly show you an uncommon photo vantage...for 50 cents.

We were extremely lucky to land a guide in Cairo named Mahmoud who was both fluent in English and extremely knowledgeable about Egypt past and present. He even took us into his home so that I could use his PC to email back home and let everyone know there was no danger to us from the attack on Iraq. Mahmoud, with his small but tasteful apartment, eloquent worldliness, and sporty black leather jacket represented everything I had imagined Western influence could achieve in the developing world. As we surfed the Web and fought frequent Windows 95 crashes, it was almost like being back home.

I interviewed Mahmoud briefly over a lunch of kabob and tabouli about what he felt the effects of the Internet are and would be on Egyptian society. I've quickly learned that when talking with Egyptians, reluctance to address an issue usually results in an abrupt, complete change of subject. While Mahmoud was courteous enough not to completely ignore the question, his roundabout, politic answer was uninspiring. Like most things, he said, the Internet will have its positive and negative effects on Egypt. I thought it strange that such an apparently Westernized man, who knew more about how to remotely retrieve POP3 email than I did, should be so elusive.

As the trip has continued, a barrage of images and experiences have jarred me. The Egyptian people, even in desperation, remain generous and humorous. A vendor outside the ancient temple of Hatshepsut held up a figurine of the queen and calls out, "Hot chicken soup!" knowing the two phrases sound similar in English. When a young boy in the market grabbed my wife, she gently told him not to. When the boy repeated the move, an adult grabbed him, threw him against a wall, and several vendors proceeded to slap the boy about. (Remember that without eager tourists, many of these merchants would starve.)

One man in particular, Hamam, captain of the felucca boat Alaska, stands out in my memory. A felucca is an Egyptain sailboat, about 12 feet long, with a distinctive, crescent-shaped sail. According to Hamam, each one costs about US$5,000. (For one hour's sailing, the charge is less than $3 per person, and competition is fierce.) It is both his office and home. In the winter, he sleeps in the few sheltered square feet under the bow, in summer on the craft’s floor. While Hamam greeted us in dress socks, black loafers, and a traditional galibeya long shirt (for the tourists’ sake), it wasn't long into the trip until he had stripped down to black sweats and bare feet. In conversation, Hamam echoed the common propaganda and said he thought Egypt should shoot down any U.N. nation’s aircraft, particularly the U.S.’s, until we ceased bombing innocent civilians in Iraq. However, such a protest would decimate tourism even worse than the 1997 Luxor shootings, and the country’s economy would be crushed. But that was all politics. Floating quietly down the Nile at sunset, we were friends, and he even invited us to join himself and the other felucca captains for dinner on the floor of one vessel.

I draw this man’s picture to illustrate the simple life of an average Egyptian. There are no PCs, no Internet, not even an electrical outlet. While the ruins of Luxor Temple dance in the water’s reflection behind us, Hamam still lives his life based on the same technology his ancestors used 5,000 years ago. I found myself wondering if it was right of me to think that Western technology was the healing panacea to the developing world's woes.

The pharaohs are dead, their monuments now largely dust and rubble. But the ancient lifestyle lives on in the markets, streets, and waters. Most Egyptians dream of the American life and covet the money we so carelessly toss about. But for those who visit America and can afford that lifestyle, there is a certain stigma, a perception of having become something other. It is the eternal Catch-22 of the classes, when an individual aspires to achieve greatness but becomes isolated from his home and heritage in the process.

The clock now strikes noon, and the call of Muslims to prayer rattles out from mosques across the city. In centuries past, the prayers were sang from the tops of minaret towers. Today, they are recordings blared from loudspeakers. Time rolls over Egypt like no other country in the world, save perhaps China. There are so many different Egypts around me, and each of them is priceless. Like kingdoms and dynasties, some are rising, some falling. It is obvious, though, that our technology does not belong in all of them.

Until this week, I had always viewed computers and the Internet as a positive cultural force. The ability to easily communicate and access information far outweighed any puritanical, culture-bound views about online pornography. But now I hesitate. Here in Luxor, along the Nile’s shore, there are palatial hotels, glittering tourist traps, and the cacophony of car horns. But two blocks behind this, there are donkeys pulling carts of sugar cane, flies swarming over butchered snakes for sale, and vast tenements built from mud bricks that will crumble at the slightest earthquake. I came to Luxor wondering if there was a place to check my email. I’m leaving it wanting to give money to carriage drivers so they can feed their haggard horses.

Since you’re reading this, odds are that you, like me, worship at the altar of cyberspace, praying to the gods of connectivity. Caught up in our online frenzy, it’s easy to assume that the technology which has helped us so much will help everyone. But it won’t. In past columns, I have advocated donating much of our cast-off PC equipment to developing countries. But I now see that such charity should be done carefully, given to the right people in the right places who want to follow the Western path. Not all do, and it would be a tremendous loss to the world’s richness if we expected them to.

I don’t know how to preserve Egypt’s ancient lifestyle while still bringing the country successfully into the 21st century. It would seem every step of progress is also a step of destruction. For instance, the use of wood planks in place of mud bricks in urban housing would be a great safety improvement, but mud bricks have been a piece of Egyptian society for millennia.

Likewise, the rise of telecommunications among the Egyptian masses may help educate children far more than has been previously possible and make Egypt a force to be reckoned with in the world economy 10 to 20 years from now. But will it have the same effects on interpersonal communications that it has had in the States? When Egyptian vendors become used to communicating in three-sentence bursts, will the carpet vendors still bring you in from the sun and sit you down with a glass of sweet tea? Will the felucca drivers still offer dinner, or will they, like me, feel the urgent call of email instead?

It is said that the average tourist exhales 20 grams of water during each visit to a tomb. This water, over time, collects on the tomb walls and corrodes the underlying paint and carvings. In effect, the tourists, with their laughter and chatter and flashing cameras, are destroying that which they traveled thousands of miles to see. If our breath is enough to erase Egypt’s past, I’m afraid of what our technology will do to their future.

~   ~   ~


Below is an image I snapped of the Biblioteca Alexandrina under construction. Located in Alexandria near the Mediterranean Sea, the BA is billed as a sort of 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Library of Alexandria. You can check out the finished library here, but for me, this picture encapsulates the feel of Egypt in transition. Already, you can see the theme of pyramids built into the architecture. The towering main reading hall features row after row of columns, thin but flaring into a square at the top—a very modern take on the ancient temple hallmark.

Clearly, the Egypt of today is not the Egypt I visited in 1998. I completely failed to foresee how cellphones would bring the Internet to all but the poorest masses. I couldn’t have guessed at the rise of social media and how it would enable the country’s youth to overthrow President Mubarek, who was in power during my visit and many years before. For all of my worries about how technology and the Internet might harm traditional Egypt, I overlooked the fact that while the past lives on in the present, change never waits. One can’t hold back modernization any more than a sandstorm or time itself.

Looking back on that trip, I remember taking a picture of a giant Cola-Cola billboard in Cairo. I took the shot because it struck me as such an incongruous Western image in the middle of a sea of Arabic. But I also remember having to take the picture very quickly, snapping it from the window of our car. My driver wouldn’t let me get out to take the picture for fear that the police would become suspicious. I my mooning over the beautiful ways of ancient Egypt, I was ignoring the deep problems and needs of the modern country. January 2011 showed us that technology and connectivity have the power to remedy some of those needs.

I have a curmudgeonly friend who often argues with me about technology. He’s the only person I know who still uses dial-up. He perceives, as I do, that technology can have a crippling effect on people and societies when used unwisely. But in looking at America today, is it possible that, like the Egyptians of a decade ago, we actually need more technology to fix our present problems? As we examine the deportation of jobs by the thousands, our falling performance in K-12 education, and impending energy and climate crises, could continuing embracement of our Web-based resources and other technologies by the average citizen actually enable future solutions?

In my home, I’m using the Web to help overcome the deficiencies of our American public school system. If the Internet were snuffed out tomorrow, most of my work would vanish. The Internet was at least partially responsible for Barack Obama winning the White House. Will we see technology continue to give the ordinary person more sway over large events? I hope so, because our old ways are clearly not working effectively in the modern world. Whatever system ultimately replaces the Mubarek regime may over time prove to be no better than the longstanding tyrant. And if we find ways through technology to solve our current problems, I have no doubt that new challenges will rise in their place in part from the technologies we used to remedy the present crises. But forward motion at least keeps us upright through sheer force of momentum. If we don’t push to leverage our technological tools and use them to fix what must be fixed, then our momentum will be lost, balance will fail, and America will suffer immensely.


  1. Saw your review at Books And Pals. 4 Stars = wonderful! Best of luck with your book.

    The Merry-Go-Round
    Return of the Runaway Bride
    Taking Love in Stride
    Mountain Laurel

  2. Many thanks, Donna. And best wishes on your own!