Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Media and Mountains

We need a shift in the way we view “climbing” merely as portering, and a source of foreign revenue.

The news of an unauthorized live video call from the top of Mt Everest is yet another manifestation of the age-old friction between human extensions in the form of new technologies and the equally time-worn barriers—human and natural—to overcoming space through such media.

On Sunday evening, a summiteer live-videoed BBC via his smartphone. As the saying goes, everything has its own time and place, and now the climber Daniel Thomas Hughes, who described being there as “a very proud moment” is happy that he has defined his day and place.

But his conquest of wilderness, and of distance via the latest technology, has become an annoying incident for our government. Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) officials have revealed that the expedition was authorized only to carry walkie-talkies, and had not been granted government permit to film Mt. Everest. The public broadcast from the summit has drawn “serious attention” of officials, who have warned of “necessary action” (, May 20).

Real estate on the ancient ocean limestone peak above the clouds is mighty precious. Summiteers have described the spot variously: about the size of a chair’s seat, a roof of a car, no bigger than a billboard table, or around 3x1.5 m. Time also comes expensive with snowstorm and extreme weather making it feasible to climb it only a few weeks in April or May.

So it is like a one and only musical chair, every second spent up there monetized (hence royalty for the icy throne), with every new stunt costing extra dollars. The amount our government collects varies from US $50,000 to US $70,000 for an expedition. The official “Mountaineering Expedition Permit” has the provision to declare “the nature of means of communication to be used and their number[s]” (item 19), and the “Mountaineering Rules and Regulation” (2059) stipulates that the government may approve import of two satellite telephone sets, 12 walkie-talkies and two wireless for temporary, emergency use (clause 7). It was reported in the news that the use of equipment would cost extra, for example, US $10,000 for a permit to film the summit and a little over US $1,400 for a satellite phone. However, these costs are not specified in the permit or the regulations or the official document specifying the royalty for the mountaineering expedition.

My interest here, to restate, has more to do with the buzz about technology use on mountains. How are new technologies in our rugged environment redefining our role, changing the way we perceive, see or feel things and act?

The ancients stand out with their natural and artefactual technologies. Hanuman was attached to his vajra (lightning) and he could not part from it even when he carried an entire mountain. Narad, with his ever-present veena (lute), orchestrated the demolition of the peak of Mt. Meru. Hercules climbed a mountain, clapped his bronze krotala scaring away the ferocious birds, and emerged triumphant in the challenge posed by his king. In Mahabharat, Sanjay’s augmented reality-type divyadrishti (divine-vision) helped overcome his physical limitations. Today, it’s us everywhere with smart phones.

For the western climbers, the mountains over the years have almost always been about “feeling the ultimate high,” that liberating experience reminiscent of the “Wild West,” a rebellious escape out in the new frontier with (and rarely without) the burden of civilization resting on their soldiers, often in the form of manufactured gears and communication devices. It started with the first humans trying to tame the tallest mountain. They carried loads of almost 20 kilo a person, including a bulky wireless, a novelty at that time.

The civilizing effects have been conspicuously vulgar. Mt Everest, of all the eight thousand-ers, has been commoditized, fetishized, and defiled, robbed of her virginity, starting with the first ascent. Edmund Hillary’s words just after the conquest unraveled this bitter reality: “Well, George, we have knocked the bastard off.” In addition, the adopted foreign name “Everest”, widely in use even inside Nepal coupled with our ever-increasing greed for tourism dollars, obscure the traditional image of the mountain as a pristine abode.

These rarefied mountains, still perceived to be savage, serve as rewarding labs for such civilizing effects of human extensions as Coca-Cola bottles to smart phones. Contrast this to the traditional natural technologies like stone taps. In his memoir Building Bridges to the Third World (1994), the late Swiss geologist Tony Hagen writes that “one great civilizing achievements of old Nepal” was the laying of a dense network of stone-plate paths betraying extra-ordinary know-how, with many stone walls along the way for resting loads. Among our populations, western technologies, for many decades remained merely an object of seduction, an item for display. Hagen recalls that a telephone call from Pokhara to Kathmandu in 1952 would not be possible because it remained “out of order”, almost always, suggesting that such inefficiency was internalized and hardly questioned.

Today, with increasing literacy, rapid penetration of interactive media with greater individual control and heavier oral bias, such as the radio and mobile phones, new media technologies promise wider use and deeper involvement, demanding, at the same time, a more critical assessment of the complex mediated environment we live in.

And such assessment comes with the willingness to see a difference between genuine, useful efforts and record-hungry stunts in which technologies use us instead of us using them. The media scholar Marshall McLuhan would describe this generation as a servo-mechanism of our smartphones, as a native American is of his canoe, a cowboy of his horse, an executive of his clock, and perhaps a dhakre (porter) of his tokma (walking stick).

Managing communication 
Many beneficial scientific tests with new technologies have been conducted on Mt Everest that go unreported, unlike the record efforts: studies on the effects of extreme weather conditions and high altitude on human health, on reduction of risks to climbers and casualties and real time transmissions, web and satellite telephony during emergencies, on environmental preservation, etc. In record exploits, it’s often the machine mania: first ever helicopter landing (that too unauthorized), first ever paragliding, first tweet from the top of the world (twice claimed; another controversy), etc.

From being an outdoor sports, Everest has turned into a broadcast studio background wallpaper. The product has nothing much to do with brand Everest. You could tweet from the top of your rooftop for the first time ever, and claim a record. But the temporal and spatial uniqueness of Everest continues to offer an irresistible sales pitch. Notably, Nepali climbers do not seem as enthused as their western counterparts in experimenting with new technologies in thin air. They could as well flash their devices for the world in an unprecedented way, or watch a mini documentary on peace-building, or read a newspaper headlines in the name of news literacy, first time ever!

We need a shift in the way we view “climbing” merely as portering, and a source of foreign revenue. Today, we don’t have to wait for decades for the transfer of new technologies, and we certainly are improving in scientific expertise and research potentials. We have new climbs to make to these areas. Already, for the first time, Nepali scientists are working to re-measure the peak. Next could be the study of rock formations on the summit, a topic that remains unexplored, and then the vast mountain terrains, for environment, agriculture and health benefits. In another major communication leap, the mountain and other rugged regions have already been wired, with 3G mobile coverage.

The recurrent controversies over Everest feats are the result of a lack of clear guidelines on the use of communication and technology there, and poor enforcement measure. We could take cues from reserves like Yellowstone and Olympic in the United States that restrict cellphones to just a few areas, or prohibit the use of Facebook to preserve the wilderness and natural sanctity of the heritage. A pragmatic approach to managing communication on Everest is to ensure that human extensions remain humane.

Published in Republica, May 22, 2013


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