The Labyrinth of Nuance, the Desert of Fact

Illustration by Mindscanner/DepositPhotos.

When I read, “Journalism 2017: The Lost Visual History”, I sighed.

It’s always been difficult for me to look around and see all the data and information around unused and lost. In the late 1980s, I was a young man with the future in his eyes and unpredictable winds behind him thrust his bow beyond these shores in search of ways to fix this and other problems in the world since it didn’t seem doable here.

There are many young people now looking beyond these shores for similar reasons, altruistic and selfish at the same time, with families providing the winds in those sails, driving them beyond these shores.

We call this ‘brain-drain’. It’s cultural in Trinidad and Tobago for reasons open to speculation but solid enough for it to be fairly consistent. We could all probably agree that it’s complicated.

That’s really our first loss of culture. We seem to think that success is something only to be found in foreign lands. In the age of the Internet, in a global information economy, this antiquated method of thinking diminishes our presence in the global village where our presence is already relatively small – sparks strike here and there around the world, showing our presence.

Still, our presence shrinks in everything but what we consume. We are not alone in this, of course, but talking about other people – while a popular pastime – isn’t productive.

We’ve barely scraped the surface of what we can do, and many of us know that. What we often disagree on are in the nuances of ‘how’, and these disagreements culminate in how we lose things. We lag the world in everything but what we want most – and what we want most, collectively, is easily seen if one looks around.

We have a rich and vibrant culture in Trinidad and Tobago that we lose every day; we have stockpiles of information that defy our attempts to keep. I see it all over in various ways, where we have perfectly good information – be it photographs, data, or what have you – that are lost, or not even kept, or not even collected properly if at all. It extends well beyond journalism; what has happened with journalism is only a symptom.

It’s all around us.

Save the Reef

Recently, there was a gathering at a Rituals in Chaguanas where a few of us got together to take on the myth of the Buccoo Reef being dead – it is most certainly not in the best of health, but it’s not all dead by a long shot. One of the things that we tasked ourselves with was finding images of the reef over the years so that we could have a visual history to show. While this is in process, the number of images we’ve been able to get are not inspiring.

Imagine that we can’t find pictures of the Buccoo Reef for a visual history. Imagine that all we have is hearsay on what used to be there – and imagine how difficult it is to say how much it has changed over the decades. We speculate, and we look at what is there, but the truth is that we don’t have much records in the way of what it used to look like.

In what it used to be.

Agricultural Futures

When I looked into the NAVDEMCO data, all 9 years and 11 months, I found the numbers questionable. When I delved deeper into, those numbers became more questionable as what I found published as far as daily market data was not done throughout the month – I think I saw one month with 9 entries – and from that, a monthly average was given.

Nine data points used to give a representation of 28 to 31 data points per month. What looks like almost 10 years of data isn’t complete, it’s like swiss cheese. It’s flawed, and while it might be good at giving guidelines, it hardly presents something worth basing a future off of.

We think we have data there, but we really don’t have useful data. We haven’t tied it to anything useful, like historical weather conditions. It lays there without context.

The Wider Scope

If you speak to anyone and ask them about what they did, or what people that they knew did, you may get an oral history. Ask someone else about the same, and you will get a varying oral history – I’ve dealt with this myself in dealing with land issues.

It’s difficult to negotiate the truth of what happened when all you have are opinions and you have no facts, and that is what is happening right now throughout Trinidad and Tobago as things get thrown away. A few people worked to change that – Angelo Bissessarsingh immediately springs to mind. We’ve lost him, though you can still see the Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago while it lasts.

We have many others now, unearthing things – but how long will it be before copyrights, private collections and the erosion by evolution of technology (think VHS and Betamax) become an issue? And then, consider that content distribution rights kept people from watching Anthony Bourdain’s recent television show on Trinidad and Tobago to not be seen on local television? People forget the latter because of the leaked video, but we weren’t legally supposed to see that.

We have open data initiatives by the government, a government that has to be staggering under the weight of illegible log books. Two of my great-uncles had problems getting copies of their birth certificates because the log books they were in had become illegible. They are gone, the record of their births out of reach of the government.

We discuss the Property Tax forms and question whether they are properly tax forms – but it looked to me like an initiative to attempt to crowdsource information because the government doesn’t even trust it’s own data on lands and properties in Trinidad and Tobago. If I didn’t have my own personal experiences with dealing with that in 2009 – “No, those houses are NOT on my land” – I might think differently about it, but I know that their data is suspect.

That we need to get a handle on all of this data is important for a lot of reasons. Like the journalism and personal aspects, it’s about history – it’s about having a basis for deciding our futures by knowing who we are and what we are capable of. It’s where we keep promise and hope on our own shores instead of pushing skiffs of our young people away in search of promise and hope.

The Path Forward

We have to first believe that we have things worth keeping, from our photographs to our youths. We have the technology, there is no question, and as I cast my eyes around my social networks, I continue finding young up and coming people who have the will and talent to make the foundation for the future some of us think that we deserve.

I also see hindrances that I know by hitting my own head against over the years. The stifling bureaucracy that is maintained by those that profit from it, be it through corruption or not. A reliance on government to fix everything when over the years they still haven’t even fixed themselves – perhaps the first step would be to admit that the government is broken and needs repair. I’d be remiss not to mention the antiquated ways of thinking about things as well, and in writing that I am often reminded by younger minds that I am a danger in becoming one myself.

The economy, which should have been diversified long ago, has paid lip service to technology and it’s potential to remove it’s own obstacles. This is a political issue is only that politics hasn’t solved it; it doesn’t wear a particular colour. It accommodates both just as easily; khaki pants have two legs that catch the light differently.

How much more must we lose before we stop sacrificing the future to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean?

We must resolve to change things on a personal level, an organization level, and a government level. We must not get lost in the Labyrinth of Nuance and commit to ways to preserve not just our history and the data we need to chart our future, but to make space for those we need to fix what is broken.

And that means that we need to stop apologizing and making excuses for things that are broken so that we can fix them.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.