CyberTrackers: Bushmen and Information Technology

Stephen Talbott

"The art of tracking", writes Louis Liebenberg, "may have been the origin of science". As a physicist who has spent many years tracking with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, Liebenberg speaks with some authority. And there can in any case be little doubt about the remarkable observational and interpretive skills of expert trackers -- skills that would be the envy of many scientists (or, at least, of those relative few who still occupy themselves with the appearances of the natural world rather than with instrument readings and abstractions). A good tracker can read a detailed public story written upon a littered forest floor where the rest of us would see only a chaotic mass of dead leaves. The bushmen of the Kalahari can identify an individual rhinoceros by examining the pattern of cracks in its droppings -- cracks determined by the intestine's distinctive convolutions. And they can make a good guess about the psychological state of an elephant (are poachers harassing it?) by examining the distribution of the droppings.

Not that the world's few remaining elder trackers are miracle-workers. They readily acknowledge making mistakes. Mark Elbroch, who recently spent several weeks in the Kalahari with Liebenberg and the native trackers -- and who is himself one of the world's premier trackers -- tells me of the "tremendous humility" of the Bushmen. After exploring the signs in a particular area, they may engage in heated debate among themselves, refusing to venture an opinion to outsiders until they reach a consensus. "Their curiosity is amazing", Elbroch says. "They are always asking questions and trying to push their knowledge further".

Elbroch is concerned to do away with the miracle-worker idea. Certainly there is special aptitude in some cases. But if you pay attention to the environment long enough -- and especially if your life depends on it -- you will learn the basic skills. In every domain of life, whether it's a Picasso exploring the expressive potential of simple, drawn lines, or a physician reading volumes about the condition of a person in the appearance of his eyes, or a trainer getting to know the ways of a particular animal, we find ourselves amazed by the results of a disciplined, life-long attention to meaningful detail.

What such attention yields is a capacity to read a larger context, or whole, through the qualitative expression of the part. The slightest shift of intonation in the animal's growl may reveal to the trainer the inner state of the animal, its circumstances, and the impending events. Only a long habit of inattention to contextual relations makes such skill seem miraculous.

In 1996 Liebenberg collaborated with a Cape Town computer scientist, Lindsay Steventon, to develop the prototype of what is now known as the CyberTracker system. Under this system, a Palm Pilot with a GPS unit and icon-driven software can be put into the hands of an illiterate Bushman, who then may enter up to several hundred "data points" in a single day -- tracks and signs, animal movements, predator attacks (successful and unsuccessful), plant species distribution, and so on, depending upon what is being studied. These observations are fed into a remote database where the data is assembled into a larger ecological map. Many are predicting a bonanza for wildlife conservation, habitat management, and ecological research.

If encounters between one of earth's remaining hunter-gatherer societies and modern technology are inevitable, this is the way you would like to see it happen -- under the guidance of someone who has spent years learning the native wisdom, who appreciates what the culture has to offer, and who sees the technology as a way to encourage the practice of native skills while bringing these into productive contact with a wider world that will in any case increasingly make itself felt.

There are currently ten Bushmen employed to use CyberTracker in conservation work. Many of these -- for example, a former road construction worker -- would have found no other opportunity to pursue the skills they love.

Liebenberg is currently setting up an evaluation program for certifying master trackers in preparation for their employment. Elbroch tells me that, in the case of one elder tracker whose sons considered his skills useless in the modern world, the situation changed dramatically when the father received his Master Tracker certification. The sons decided they wanted to pick up these valuable skills for themselves.

If Liebenberg's spirit were to rule, the Bushmen might be enabled to evolve in relation to the larger world, not simply through being overwhelmed by it, but rather through exploration of the yet-unrealized, more forward-looking potentials of their own culture. But we do need a realistic awareness of the risks. The history of encounters between cultures and technologies is replete with examples of social breakdown and demoralization. My own unease on this score is hardly allayed when I hear a Wired magazine commentator saying,

Liebenberg's work seamlessly connects the earth's oldest form of knowledge to its most modern, sophisticated, and automatic counterpart. It represents an extraordinary moment in technology transfer. Indeed, Liebenberg has produced something akin to a Stone Age computer by hacking into a bygone world.

What strikes me in this romantic, Gibsonian rhetoric is a preoccupation with the "cool factor". But such a preoccupation is the one thing that can virtually guarantee disruption rather than a "seamless" interaction between cultures. Tracking, after all, is not "cool" for the few remaining Bushmen who pursue the traditional ways; it is life and survival. To inculcate our own gadget-worship in them would be to violate almost everything worthwhile in their lives.

All this comes into better focus when we consider the scientific role of CyberTracker. The Bushman's astonishing ability to understand the interworkings of his environment through careful, integrative observation is the polar opposite of the scientist's predilection for analyzing a thing down to a set of decontextualized data points. The Bushman is engaged in a thoroughly qualitative act of recognition that depends on his having grasped, in a participative and imaginative sense, the characteristic way of being of a thing. He knows the animal "from the inside". The scientist, on the other hand, is bound to distrust both the notion of sympathetic participation and the phrase, "way of being", preferring to take the thing as an external given and immediately set about the act of (preferably quantitative) analysis.

It is obvious enough that each of these poles could be enriched by the other. Here we see the positive potential of Liebenberg's experiment. The Bushmen stand to gain from a growing ability, not only to immerse themselves harmoniously in their environment, but also to stand apart from it in a mood of detachment and ever more sophisticated analysis. Likewise, the scientist needs more than well-honed analytic skills. He also needs the ability to participate in and thereby recognize the wholeness, the integrity, the organic processes of becoming -- none of them mechanistically describable -- that give us significances worth analyzing.

We should recognize, however, that within the extremely one-sided scientific and technological realms today, analysis always seems to trump the recognition of wholes. Data wins out over the qualities of things. So it is that the unity of the organism -- for example, of the animal whose entire manner of being speaks to the Bushman through the smallest, all-revealing signs -- dissolves for the scientist into a collection of tissues, or genes, or survival strategies, or whatever.

If you doubt the difference between the scientist's and the Bushman's styles of awareness, ask yourself whom you would rather have at your side if you suddenly found yourself marooned in a wild and dangerous place. An expert in genetics and evolutionary theory, or a Bushman? And please note: the kind of insight serving your personal safety is hardly unrelated to our long-term, collective safety upon planet earth.

Let us hope, against all odds, that an echo of the Bushman's qualitative understanding will somehow be passed along with the computerized data points to the researchers at the other end of the satellite link. And we might hope further that this will counterbalance the single-minded obsession with ever more massively assembled data, submitted to ever more extensive computer manipulations.

There will truly be a renaissance within science when we can combine our quantitative and analytic skills with a sense for the way the world actually presents itself to us -- that is, with a receptive and imaginative eye for the contextual unities and inner, meaningful significances that give us more than a dead (if well-analyzed) collection of parts. Some day, I'm convinced, we will learn to track our photons and electrons, our genes and proteins, our Martian strata and cometary dust, as much in the spirit of the Kalahari Bushman as in the spirit of the computer analyst. Then, and only then, will we find the good and proper place for computational technique within science.

2004 Stephen L. Talbott

Steve Talbott, a frequent contributor to SCR, is the editor of NetFuture and author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. You can read more of Steve's writings at: www.oreilly.com/~stevet/index.html and at: www.netfuture.org

Email: stevet@oreilly.com


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