Grand Canyon digital divide

13 February 2012 - 03:25 By Toby Shapshak

As we flew over the rim of the Grand Canyon the helicopter pilot started playing the theme song from the Indiana Jones movies. It was both surreal and absurd.

Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

It s strident themes are synonymous with adventure and quite apt for seeing one of the seven wonders of the world. As many times as you've seen it on TV, it's even more spectacular to see it in the "flesh".

Of course, the pilots fly between the canyon's walls, weaving slightly as they do in the movies. It's all very dramatic and impressive.

But it was on the way out to this natural phenomenon, created by the Colorado River, that you pass an equally impressive man-made structure, the Hoover Dam.

A popular site for dramatic scenes in films - you'll have seen it in movies like Transformer and the James Bond Golden Eye - itformed Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the US. But the most impressive thing is the engineering involved. Call me a geek, but I marvel at these remarkable achievements of architecture. Engineering is the original technology, after all.

Taking a break from the hi-tech wonderland that is the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, I took the obligatory tourist helicopter trip to these two attractions.

Despite their necessity, dams are not without controversy. They often displace scores of people - as happened with China's mega Three Gorges dam project. Be that as it may, like the Suez Canal, they are humanity's grandest attempt to stamp its will on nature.

The construction of the Hoover Dam was criticised for the brutal treatment of its workers and the cost in lives, as well as for harming the Colorado River estuary because water didn't reach the river mouth in the six years it took to build it.

It was finished under budget and three years ahead of schedule, according to a TV documentary that first piqued my interest in it. Anyone who knows anything about such large-scale projects knows how remarkable that is.

It was built mostly to provide irrigation water and power for the states of Nevada and Arizona, which are linked by a road across the top of the bridge. But it was also built during the Great Depression, and was planned, in part, to provide jobs and to stimulate the economy, according to the historians.

What are the modern equivalents to this big public work? Is it a World Cup? We did that in 2010 but it left South Africa, as was forewarned, with white elephant stadiums and associated wastage - not least of which somehow involves the R20-billion Gauteng highway upgrades and its controversial e-tagging system.

President Jacob Zuma is launching similar large infrastructure projects this year, as he said in his State of the Nation speech.

He mentioned "information and communication technologies" but didn't specify any details - much like last year. It's a massive lost opportunity and a quick win gone begging.

Instead, there is R300-billion for rail, infrastructure and regional integration. Tenderpreneurs, start your engines.

A few years ago the GSM Association proposed the building of the next generation of cellular networks to achieve a kind of digital Hoover Dam in the great recession. To do so, the association, an umbrella body for the cellphone industry, argued that governments needed to release a set of frequencies known as the digital dividend.

These are the radio frequencies used in analogue TV broadcasting and are highly prized because they allow better coverage with fewer costly base stations.

But in South Africa the industry has to get past those geniuses at the SABC and Sentech, who have already missed numerous deadlines for a switch-over.

The digital dividend and its focus on internet access - which requires greater connectivity - would do a lot to spur information and communications innovation and thus boost economic development.

Connectivity, once called the information superhighway, is as important as its analogue progenitor, the railroad, even more so in this digital age. We need the beneficiation of our superb human resources as much as the beneficiation of our minerals.

Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine