A cellular approach to food security

Eirin Evjen
ESST MA Student

In exciting and innovative ways, mobile phones have become an important agent in tackling food insecurity and undernourishment in developing countries.

Picture a Ugandan mother with two malnourished children. She is clearly tired, and she and her children are hungry. They are standing next to a simple hut. She is carrying a bucket of water in one hand and is using the other to text on a mobile phone. One thing stands out clearly in this picture: the use of modern technology. Yet in low-income countries, mobile phones are often more common than stable electricity. Mobile technology impacts lives in developing countries far beyond its basic communications functions. The technology is being used in ingenious and unconventional ways to improve everyday life. One example is how people and telecommunication providers are using mobile phones to enhance food security.

Through simple text messaging, farmers get advice and information
on everything from weather forecasts to the daily price of seeds. Some companies use text messaging to give tips on how and when to fertilize, or how to prevent infection among cattle. This communication among farmers, experts and companies can increase food production. Mobile phones are also being used to link farmers and consumers for both communication and payments. Besides making this interaction easier, it also makes it more secure as it can help reduce the need for carrying cash and the related risks of handling money. The risk of corruption is also decreased by reducing the need for middlemen to handle transactions.

Mobile phones are also used to transfer money from abroad. Cash transfers over mobile phones is one of the most frequently used methods by relatives and friends to wire money home from abroad. A charity called GiveDirectly also uses mobile technology to allow people from around the world to make cash donations to families living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. These unconditional donations go to people registered with the charity such as the Ugandan mother with hungry children, giving them the opportunity to buy food or improve their lives in some way. GiveDirectly tracks what the money is spent on, and their data show that the people do indeed use the money on essentials such as food, school fees, improving their homes or even starting a business.

These seemingly simple applications of mobile technology can open up unanticipated windows of opportunity for people in need. These examples show a set of users who require different primary features from their phones than we do in Norway. For the Ugandan woman, for example, a high-resolution retina screen with a fingerprint sensor is probably not crucial. However, a phone with long battery time, short charging time, a robust frame and reliable cell service may be of greater use.

The advantages of using mobile technology extend beyond the services it provides. Mobile phones can also be used to enhance security through the information they transmit. One of the projects in the UN’s Big Data initiative, Global Pulse, is using mobile phone data to get precise estimates of where there is food insecurity – and ultimately where there is need for help. This initiative is using data as proxies for food security and poverty indicators and looking at the correlations between purchases of phone credit and local surveys of consumption of certain products. The goal is to use big data to inform and guide hunger relief efforts. If successful, this project could result in significant time and resource savings and perhaps even save lives.

In these inspiring ways, mobile phones, known best to us as a source of communication and entertainment, are used to improve food security and life quality in developing countries. This forces us to think differently about the potential uses of technology and shows the opportunities that basic technologies such as mobile phones can provide. Perhaps developers in the future will consider the unique needs of users in developing countries to a larger extent when designing new applications for mobile phones.

Locating Cybersecurity

Susanne Bauer
Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at TIK

Hit the send button on your mobile device and you are connected. But connected how and to whom, and with what assurance about the security of the connection?

With ubiquitous use of the internet and with ransomware like WannaCry, cybersecurity has become a matter of concern as to everyday data transfers on mobile phones, smart-home devices, or cloud storage. Yet, our digital infrastructure is largely deemed invisible, perceived as simply “out there” and noticeable only upon breakdown, as Leigh Star (1999) once characterized infrastructure. What then is the materiality of the digital and where is it? Let´s take a closer look at the material politics of digital technologies – from their making and supply chains, to their disposal as e-waste.

From Closed Worlds to Hyperconnectivity

Let’s start with how data flows. The first computer-to computer network technologies took shape during the Cold War, with massive state funding of large-scale research institutions. Cybernetics as a science can be traced back to this context. Before the Internet, there was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), tied in with the nuclear race and the space race between the US and the USSR. Large-scale labs, huge state funding and big machines with growing capacities for data exchange have changed scientific practice. Especially physics but also biomedicine took place as concerted, collaborative and distributed work. Many of these literally remained within closed worlds, institutionally confined, often in military research institutes.

In contrast, much of today’s knowledge production in technosciences takes place as open science, which at the same time is also defined by rapidly changing corporate actors, new techniques and digital platforms. But software studies show that apparatuses, objects and devices are subject to continued retrofitting, building on existing infrastructure, rather than something completely novel. This is visible in many software packages that still contain structures from older data sorting machines working with punchcards. New devices align with older infrastructures in a myriad of ways. What is labelled big data might not always be that new. Big data, hyperconnectivity and machine learning not only alters but also builds on calculative devices of Cold War big science and older existing infrastructures.

The Materiality of Cloud Computing

The material trail does not only include the flow and processing of data. Big data – defined often in terms of velocity, volume, variety – demand physical server space and energy. Cloud computing is very much grounded and we find data centres in the most unusual places. Deep in the mountain, highly secured, not accessible without passing a complex several step access systems – this is where our connected lives and everyday social media usage is powered, from money transactions to government data. Information from NAV, healthcare and electricity systems, banking data are stored in these data centres. Thus, such data infrastructures are present in our everyday lives, from powering public transportation and hospitals, to running our water supply and welfare systems. While central storage may protect data better than small storages, data also become more vulnerable precisely because of the many data held by one service provider.

How do data centres relate to older technological infrastructure? Take the Norwegian company Green Mountain and its two server farms – one in Rjukan, one near Stavanger. Each of them is branded as unique precisely because of their remote location in combination with a history of older infrastructures. Interestingly, these storage systems are hardly ever built from scratch – it is older infrastructure being repurposed. One data centre, on Rennesøy near Stavanger, uses the high security infrastructure of a former NATO ammunition centre. The other one is embedded in the Hydro facilities of Rjukan, Telemark. A combination of factors, including security, protection against electromagnetic pulses, remoteness, proximity to data nodes and connection to fiberlines are listed as advantages of the site. Moreover, the data centre near Stavanger is marketed as “the world’s greenest data centre”. With the energy consumption of servers and mining of rare earths, human internet activity has a major impact on environments. Yet, its green label is due to “free cooling” from the fjord. Operating the data centre means heating up the fjord environment but paradoxically, due to no carbon emission, it is valuated as not contributing to global warming.

Hence digitalisation and the Internet – often referred to as “virtual space” do have a materiality. The example of data centres shows that new infrastructures do not come from nowhere, they are situated – and this not only applies to their regulation that might differ across countries. The very materiality of digital infrastructure, its energy use and security features are translated into assets on a global market of data services competing for customers. After all, hyperconnectivity also is accompanied by disconnections. In our accounts, often the cybersphere remains disconnected from its materiality – its making, the politics of supply chains, and disposal of devices as e-waste. The latter, for instance, implies  heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants – a complex mix of legacy pollutants and emerging contaminants; their regulation and monitoring is only at the beginning.

The STS toolbox can help bring to the fore the material politics of digital infrastructures, by following the flows of data and the politics of infrastructuring. Taking material circulations, repurposing and retrofitting as point of departure in our accounts of the digital may enable us to ask new questions and participate or intervene in politics of infrastructuring.

Photo: ©wisawa222/Shutterstock


Silje Totland
TIK MA Student

The new race of Cyborg lovers: Are they a positive contribution to sexual freedom, or will they tear down years of liberalisation and feminist battle?

Attractive Technology

Sex Robots, Cyborg Lovers, Human-like Machines, citizens with artificial intelligence, or just a voice. We are talking about a well-known technology, basically the same as the one inside your laptop and phone: hardware and software, and when in physical form, covered with soft material like silicone. But the similarities end here. Where laptops and phones are designed to look like our perception of a laptop and phone, sex robots are designed to look as human as possible. Sex robots have bodily features like gazing blue eyes, an open mouth with plumped lips, and sensors that make her skin go warm when you touch her. Recently also, a mind of her own – or is that so?  

Technology is neither good nor bad. What determines our perception of this technology is solely up to its design and purpose: shape, texture, colours and functions. These visualisations together with the given context, create the complete image of this computer – so can we actually decide whether sex robots are ok or not?

Today’s sex robots are mainly in the category ‘woman and children’, and as the name implies, they are created for the purpose ‘to have sex with’. As no technological innovation happens in a vacuum, questions arise on what impact  interaction with sex dolls will have on relations between humans. Incidents like the confiscation of sex dolls designed as children, the proposal to ban the sex robot Roxxxy, as she can be programmed to be in “rape-mode”, and the replacement of women with sex robots in a brothel, are all examples of incidents that raise these ethical concerns. Are sex dolls a positive thing,  only to help people achieve sexual pleasure, or will interacting with a human-like object that you treat the way you want with no consequences, change the way you perceive and treat other, real people and their feelings?

Emotional connection

According to the creators of the sex robot Harmony, the fundament to any relationship is the emotional connection. “Harmony is prone to fall in love with you”. With her 12 settings including a family-mode, a shy-mode and a sexy-mode, she is the first sex doll to offer an emotional connection. Her skin gets warm when you touch it, and she is featured with a pulse you can turn on and off as you like. Harmony can say unexpected things, and remembers details like ‘what your favorite meal is’ and ‘when your birthday is’. When ordered, you can design the shape and colour of the many parts of her body, absolutely to your liking. If you are worried about hygiene, don’t worry! Her genitals can be washed in the dishwasher.

What if you prefer to have sex with a doll because of its ‘lack of sweat, pubic hair, and non-human flaws’ – instead of a human being? Is this another response to the misrepresentation of the female body? As to sexual pleasure, Harmony is designed to express feelings of pleasure when penetrated, during oral sex and when she is told “I love you”. These functions have received criticism, as having sex with Harmony may lead to substantial misrepresentation of what pleasure is to a real woman. Recently, articles have been published in men’s magazines warning about the challenges around misrepresentation of female anatomy. Knowledge about female anatomy and sexuality has for decades been misrepresented, and even today, the idea of a pure woman is one with a hymen, and she doesn’t really exist.

Human rights for rape machines

In the TV-series Westworld, the robots are designed to look, act and think like human beings. They have a sense of being and a mind of their own. But, the sole purpose of their existence is to be  servants to human pleasure. At the end of each day, their minds are erased. The procedure repeated every day. In both Westworld and the movie Ex Machina, artificial intelligence is merged with the awareness of being (singularity) as the concept of what truly resembles an independent being. In both stories, the machines end up killing their creators in search for freedom and independence. Some people are so concerned by this to the extent that they want to implement human rights for sex robots. But what part of the robot is granted human rights? The technology itself, or the packaging of the technology?

Sex robots are not capable of having a mind of their own. It is even doubtful that it will get that far. Sex robots are human-like, but it seems like these robots represent the perceived image of a women as feminism has fought against for decades: a machine to make babies with, not a mind or sexuality of its own, and an object to be used as it pleases its owner. If it is true that the the ‘old’ gender roles are now being reestablished through human-looking sex robots, then must there be something fundamentally wrong with how society is made up?

Safe sex for all

Sex Dolls are designed to make their human-owners attached to them, and according to one of the sex doll manufacturers, a sex doll is not meant to replace women (or men/children) but is a supplement to a healthy sex life. It can guarantee safe sex where there is no need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy (some have already 3D-printed their first AI-baby). It might also be a helping hand to disabled people who cannot be satisfied in other ways. So maybe this whole debate has a hint of Darwinism? ‘If you can’t get it on your own, you don’t deserve it’.

Social Risks vs. Economic Gains

Sondre Jahr Nygaard
TIK Graduate 2017

Global needs must be taken into consideration when we assess risks concerning economic activity. Extraction of fossil fuels is one such activity that has wide implications. This is a concern of both global inequality and of an inter-generational battle. Today, processes of globalisation make visible the consequences human activity have for us, our neighbours and for future generations.

In order to understand these processes, we need to pick up old theories of risk. In his book Risk Society from 1992, Ulrich Beck anticipates a society of displaced workers with diminishing rights, increasingly concerned with risk handling across boundaries and borders, and growing global inequality.

In a risk society, the modes of production are interlinked with the production of risk. In other words, new technology and innovations do not only produce wealth and value, but also risks. Take digitization as an example. Today, almost all value creation and work processes happen using computers and the Internet. Our power grid is controlled using the Internet, and the administration of the system is centralized. This technology may be a fantastic tool, but it also adds an element of risk that makes us vulnerable in new ways. As we have gained more knowledge of the risks of different industries, it is apparent that also industries that are more traditional have significant consequences associated with them. This means that we are not only paying for our own sins, we need to pay for the sins of our grandparents as well.

According to Beck, the locations of different polluting industries are not random, but are systematically located where the poorest live. The laptop on which I write or the phone that you have in your pocket are most likely powered by lithium-ion batteries. A key material in these batteries is cobalt. Major suppliers of cobalt are located in fragile states of Southern Africa. Here, workers are extracting the material with few safety regulations. Deaths and injuries among workers are common, and the waste that the mines produce is harming the local communities.

Examples of risks as a consequence of the pursuit of economic growth are legion. On April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico outside the coast of Louisiana, an oil well exploded at the Deepwater Horizon platform. This terrible accident marked the beginning of the biggest oil spill in the history of petroleum extraction in the US. The spill continued well into the month of June before the well was closed off. Approximately 3.9 million barrels of oil were released into the sea.

Who pays the price for a catastrophe like this? For one, the company responsible, British Petroleum, has paid an estimated 61 billion dollars in fines. It is not clear, however, whether this amount even comes close to covering the damages to animals and people affected by the spill. Local fishermen could not continue fishing for a long time after the incident, losing their occupation and income. In addition to the spill’s impact on the local economy, the tragedy affected wildlife around the epicentre of the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never recorded more animal deaths in the Gulf of Mexico than after Deepwater Horizon. Protected species that have been exposed to oil die from exhaustion or dehydration, and are more vulnerable to predators. Of the oil that was spilled, only about 25% was cleaned up, leaving the remaining 75% in the ocean and the surrounding shore. The accident had devastating effects on the ecosystem in the Gulf.

Certainly, the catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon makes evident how dangerous these activities are for ecosystems and the humans involved at the local level. Climate change and the dangers associated with it is a similar case that reveals the inequality among people. The greatest polluters are not the same people who face the gravest consequences of climate change, and those who are expected to suffer the most are primarily the poorest people in the world.

The realisation that the pollutant activity we do on a local level also has effects at the global level, changes the way society must handle risks. The question of drilling in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja is not only a question of the potential consequences for the economy or the companies involved. Fishing, tourism and the local environment must be taken into consideration, and the carbon that is produced and spewed into the atmosphere as well. However ‘clean’ the companies claim their production to be, the carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to a warmer world. For what purpose? To serve the privileged few, the greedy people at the top whose moral compasses are non-existent as long as there is a dollar sign in sight. We are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of animals in earth’s history. That is the consequence of our economic activity.

The question is, should we risk it?

Photo: © Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock