Pothole Theory, Lost Fingers, Caring and Crisis

[I’ve started, stopped and re-written this post 3 times since January as I’ve been struggling to come to terms with my thoughts on Ushahidi and what I should be doing. It’s long, be forewarned.]

Why a lost finger matters to you more than the death of a population

The Kenyan post-election fiasco had a rather jarring effect on me. Why? After all, I grew up in war-torn Southern Sudan, lived through disruptions prior to the Kenyan elections in 1993, and have seen the repercussions of these actions first-hand.

I subscribe to the train of thought that you can’t care for everything. There is always a crisis happening in some part of the world, and no one is capable of caring about them all, much less doing something about each of them.

It turns out that I’m not alone.

A couple of years ago I read an article by someone who was discussing some of the points around what Oxford philosopher John Mackie calls self-referential altruism in a collection of his papers titled Persons and Values. The basic idea is that we find it easier to care about those closer to us. Adam Smith talked about it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, on how it would be more troubling for a European to lose his little finger than to hear of the destruction of all of China (full quote here).

Steven Berlin Johnson, co-founder of Outside.In, calls this the “Pothole Paradox” and brings it to life in my digital world-view. He describes it like this:

“Say you’ve got a particularly nasty pothole on your street that you’ve been scraping the undercarriage of your car against for a year. When the town or city finally decides to fix the pothole, that event is genuinely news in your world. And it is news that you’ll never get from your local paper, or TV affiliate, or radio station…

…News about a pothole repair just five blocks from your street is the least interesting thing you could possibly imagine.”

So, What’s Important?

What I’m getting at is this: While people are being oppressed, fighting and dying in some foreign country what do you do? What about if it happens in your country? When does it become important enough to use your talents to make a difference?

Typically, it takes an event that directly affects you to make you go beyond thinking and to act. That’s why things that are happening in places like Sudan and Zimbabwe are on people’s radar, but so few are doing anything about it. You can only have so many things on your radar that you actually care about and fewer still that you do something about.

In the case of Kenya, it spurred me on to create Ushahidi, in the hopes that I could do something from my vantage point so far removed from the events taking place. Other Kenyans abroad worked on different, but equally important digital initiatives.

A digital world helps us to do that. Just decades ago those who were not in close enough proximity to an event were unable to do much, if anything about it. Today, we can successfully effect change through digital tools and be thousands of miles away.

That’s an encouraging and scary thought. Global tools that have real time read/write access are extremely powerful. Depending on ones motives, your impact can be good or bad. Even if your motives are good, your tool can be used for bad. How’s that for a quandry?

What does this all mean?
Quite frankly, I’m not sure yet. That’s part of the reason I’ve delayed posting this article for so long. I thought it would be helpful (to me at least) getting out some of my thoughts and theories on crisis, caring, action and the digital world.

I’d appreciate any thoughts and comments that you have on this too.

28 thoughts on “Pothole Theory, Lost Fingers, Caring and Crisis

  1. Hash,
    I understand the difficulty you faced writing about this subject and I think you presented the issue in a way that will generate interesting ideas.
    Here is my initial reaction: it is somewhat incumbent on the people who care the most about the crisis to illustrate the issues in a manner that would make people who are removed from the crisis relate to it on a more personal level.
    I agree that no one is capable of caring about all the crises in the world, but sometimes the extent of the crisis or the reasons behind it are powerful enough to reach across many communities. The news just had not reached those communities yet.
    By no means do I advocate a “marketing” approach to crisis awareness nor do I think some crises are more urgent than others.
    I just believe that more people would be drawn into action if 1) they get to know the exact extent of the damages more readily 2) if they knew the immediate benefits of their contributions and could trace them and 3) if they believe that such crises could happen in their community as well (or affect them indirectly).

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  4. Erik this is a great, thought provoking post and like you I don’t know what the answer is.

    While I like the theory there are different levels to what matters in all of our lives. For example I might actually care deeply about fixing the pothole but then not care enough about death and violence in my country to actually get off my lazy butt and do something.

    How’s that for absurd?

    Life is very random in events, emotions and actions. We actually find it easier to focus on smaller, niggly issues than we do on the greater issues no matter how close to home they are.

    IMHO – it takes a special person to actually do something about anything. Most people don’t have it in them and as a result only a small group end up actually do make a difference.

    I hope that made sense. Think I might need to go to bed now!

  5. One of the great lessons from Ushahidi has been the reach of its potential. Used to document human losses and violence, the same tool can also be used to document environmental disasters and other kinds of humanitarian crises. I think there’s a lesson in this.

    It is not that one solution fits all or even that one person can have compound eyes. Rather, it is realizing that crises tend to be multi-local, though particular in their specifics; that they often have similar effects (loss of jobs, destruction of property, political instability) despite their precipitating causes. For me (and, I hope, for you) the lesson is both technical and ethical. Technical in this sense: how can we (I mean you, since I barely know html) build tools that are, in a term I like to use “sticky,” able to work across multiple spaces and for multiple situations? Second, how might such building actually be part of a kind of planetary humanism (big phrase), a way of caring beyond one’s own local concerns? Or, more precisely, acknowledging the shared nature of one’s own local concerns?

    This, I think, might be a more generative position than claiming a model of one crisis at a time or one location at a time. Yes, focus is good, but the potential effects of that focus always extend beyond the moment.

  6. Well, Ushahidi is just a tool – and I take it that it was in the first place created to document the terror for a later analysis. Making ppl accountable for their actions!

    As for the other side – the rest of the world – sijui. You see, I’d already be happy enough to see some German “a-bloggers” become more political or putting things like SXSW or TED talks in focus. But they don’t – maybe because they are busy with their own world.

    Hence I think it’s already good to raise attention, blog on injustice and terror and show that there are ppl who actually care. And it’s not just words – Mamamikes for instance helped to distribute donations. They basically enabled me to contribute something small via *the click of a button* to our homies in Kenya.

    Is that enough? Sijui. I call this the “Schindler syndrome”. Remember Schindlers List? In the end, Oscar realized he could have helped much more ppl if he had spent less money on his luxury. So there’s never enough, and anything is better than nothing.

    “When does it become important enough to use your talents to make a difference?”
    Simple: when you feel attached to it. Like that finger….

    I think we should blog such thoughts much more often, also because my perception of “Africa” is that we are one big family, helping each other.

  7. “Kenya” in the recent past has put many of us Afro optimists i a quandry. But it has also been a wake up call to protect what we have. We cannot do this be sitting around and hoping that someone else will fight our fights….

    You have done (are doing) yours…

    You can be proud…

  8. Hi hash,

    I agree with you on the need to do something about the things one really cares about. It is only natural.

    What I disagree with is on the need to do something that is separate or different from what other people (and organisations) are doing. How is what you are doing different from the work of Amnesty? Why not join or support the ongoing efforts of others if the need is the same? Yes, I know it is possible to do both, however, I think it is probably impossible to do both efficiently. Add the fact that the people whose support you will be seeking for your project also probably support one or two other projects and you can see where this discussion takes you.

    There is also the question on the usefulness of your creation. How has it helped change the lives of the people that you care about? If it has, what and where is the evidence and how will it continue to do so? After all, the last thing you would want is to feel or know that your creation is making no difference whatsoever.

    The question you raise about how a project like Ushahidi can be used for bad intentions is extremely important. How do you stop people who want create mischief from posting information that is erroneous and that can be used to incite hatred? The very nature of the information contained within scares me as it is so sensitive. It seems to me that, at the very least, you need a properly resourced office and full-time legal workers to check the veracity of the claims of violence.

    I really don’t want to sound like I am putting down the work of projects such as Ushahidi and others. I am just concerned about their effect and effectiveness.

  9. Mshairi :-)

    I think that’s the risk you have to choose over an anonymous reporting that wouldn’t reach its full potential on the publicity side. The site statistics would then be the *indicators* (ati, our lovely ngo lingo). ==> Effect: making ppl with inet access aware of a) the situation in Kenya, b) what ‘s happening, c) “Hello, yes, we actually care, pls tell us your story”.

    Just look at Ushahihi and its target audience – whom does it help and for whom was it created?

    I tend to compare this with war tribunals where murderers are taken to court. Only – those they’ve killed are still dead. So what’s the effectiveness on that?

    Sure, one can argue that other projects are much more solid and legaly secured, even since many of them rely on donations and have to prove their work all the time, but Ushahihi (to me) really is just an open reporting tool and not much more. It’s real efficiency and qualitative content will only be proven once it’s applied on the ground (eg taking ppl to court). Again, i think it’s better to have something than nothing. It’s a tool for a medium that reaches an audience that isnt directly affected – but has the critical mass to make ppl aware of it. Haia…Mshairi, you know it yourself how hard it is to measure awareness.

    Also – besides of all those arguments – what has the GoK done for its ppl during this time?

  10. I think regardless of the positive/negative possibility dichotomy that exists in terms of living in a much more wired and interconnected world, we must focus on the opportunities and expand them out at a far greater pace than we are currently doing.
    I also agree with Mshairi that we should simply look for existing initiatives and complement or expand them rather than having to go through the struggle of recreating initiatives from scratch -e.g. combining blogging with Paypal like Mama Mike has.

  11. Everyone, thanks for your additional thoughts on this, as it’s been something taking up an inordinate amount of my time all of the sudden.

    I’ll be the first to say that it’s not worth re-creating the wheel when you come across an issue. First see what’s going on, and help there if there is already someone doing something. In our case, there wasn’t anyone else applying mapping technology to the incidents. We really wanted to work with NGOs on this, some did, some didn’t.

    The truth is, it’s not about me, or what we did with Ushahidi. It’s not about the technology either really. What it is about is having the greatest amount of positive impact. And it’s also about doing something when your name is called.

  12. Hey Erik

    I’m totally with you on this. I don’t have the connections with Kenya (and the wider African continent) that you do, but felt way back in 1993 after my first visit (to Zambia) that things in the world were far more unevenly distributed than I realised. I empathise when you said you felt you had to do “something” for Kenya. The one big disappointment for me in ’93 was the number of people I was with who didn’t share that feeling of needing to try and fix the issues in some way, however disempowered they may have felt at the time.

    During a lunchtime gathering at Stanford late last year, a professor called what you’re referring to as “discounting by distance”, a term which resonated strongly with me. Unlike you, however, I still haven’t got round to blogging about it. Until people actually experience the horrors up close, it’s hard for them to imagine the reality.

  13. At the end of the day, I still side with Ethan on this. His take is that it doesn’t really matter what technology is available, but its whether or not there is empathy…have you visited, do you have relatives, things like that. fascinating piece, thanks Hash!

  14. “Just decades ago those who were not in close enough proximity to an event were unable to do much, if anything about it. Today, we can successfully effect change through digital tools and be thousands of miles away.”

    Neither of these statements is quite true. Decades ago you could have joined Amnesty International campaign, or given money to a relief agency, or written to your MP; these options are still available, and will make a difference. You might not feel that it makes enough of a difference, because we’ve been told that we live in a networked world and we believe that things can and should change more quickly than they in fact do.

    The big question I have is whether we can successfully effect change through digital tools. So far I have not seen any evidence for this, at least in terms of advocacy initiatives. This isn’t to say that a project like Ushaidi is a waste of time – it absolutely isn’t. This is the seed of real change, change that we probably can’t really imagine at this point. The question is, what is the change that you want to effect through a project like Ushaidi?

    The first two questions I ask in my work is, what decision or action will this information inform, and who is responsible for making that decision or taking that action? The answers to those questions determine whether it’s worth collecting the information in the first place, and what we will do with the information once we’ve collected it.

  15. This post, and the comments, was probably the most influential on me all year, particularly the realization that engaging storytelling and personal involvement are such important parts of the emergency response equation.

    Also, the damn pothole in my street now triggers a lot of complicated emotion whenever I smash my bike into it.

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