Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
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What happens when your dishwasher breaks down in Antarctica?

When you're living at the bottom of the world, you can’t just pop out to a hardware shop when something breaks, so your appliances are like part of the family.

Can you connect to the internet at the South Pole? It might not be the most obvious question to ask when planning a trip to one of the coldest, windiest and driest places on earth, but it has an unexpected answer: yes. We often assume that Antarctica is a lot like the moon or Mars – dangerous, uninhabited and with no wifi. In the past decade the situation has changed.

Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explains: “There’s a gizmo which turns your satellite phone into a wifi hotspot, through which you can then connect a smartphone.” Mundane as it sounds, it’s transformative. Gone are the days of lugging heavy radio transmitters across the ice; and it isn’t just a piece of kit, it’s peace of mind. As Aston explains: “I’ve been able to tweet, I’ve been able to make podcasts, and it’s also my lifeline. It’s the way I can get help if something goes wrong.” The bandwidth isn’t sufficient to upload photos or video yet, but Aston predicts it won’t be long: “I think that’s more a case of them bunging up a new satellite in space than creating new technology.”

Out there on the ice, hundreds of miles from any other human beings, her phone enables her to call anyone on earth. But that’s a mixed blessing, as the tantalising prospect of a chat with your mum when you are utterly alone can play tricks with your mind: “It was too difficult to have those loved ones effectively in the tent with me one minute, and then press the disconnect button and send them back thousands and thousands of kilometres.” The potential link it represented was psychologically important, though. “The whole time I was in my tent, I would have my satellite phone in my lap, even if I wasn’t using it . . . It became a symbol of the connection to the outside world, and I was literally clinging hold of it.”

Yet technology isn’t just a guarantee of safety or a means of alleviating loneliness. For Anthony Powell, a film-maker who has worked on the BBC’s Frozen Planet, keeping his equipment going in viciously cold temperatures is vital to being able to do his job. “Cameras tend to start failing at about -60°C with mechanical and electrical problems,” he explains. There is also the problem of power – normal lithium batteries fail after about ten minutes in the cold, so he has to wire up his cameras to car batteries. Video cameras work in Antarctica only with difficulty, so he has designed his own timers and motion-capture techniques in order to get the magnificent time-lapse sequences in his films.

Powell has been working in Antarctica since 1998 (he and his wife, Christine, even got married there). His most recent film, Antarctica: a Year on Ice, chronicles life from the point of view of the mechanics, technicians, cargo handlers, carpenters, electricians, cleaners and cooks who keep the research stations running. Technical problems are on a different level there. As Powell puts it: “You can’t pop out to the local hardware store to pick something up.”

On the Antarctic Sun website in 2012, Beth Jennings of McMurdo Station (the largest community on the continent) mourned the passing of their dishwasher, named Bertha. “She may not have been flesh and bone, but Bertha was indeed part of the family – love her or hate her,” Jennings wrote, reminiscing fondly about Bertha’s ability to “unexpectedly spew slime” over kitchen workers. Next to the report was a photograph of black-clad people standing around a dishwasher with heads bowed. The report recorded, only half-mockingly, that a “dance was performed in her honour”. At the bottom of the world, you have to take care of the technology that takes care of you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.