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When tech and tradition collide
Friday December 6, 2013 11:56 AM, Nury Vittachi, IANS

An empty plastic chair succeeded in getting an official government photo ID card, I read in a newspaper.

What's wrong with that? Many people have less personality than furniture items, and are not as useful since you can't sit on them - unless of course you're a deranged psychopath, traffic warden, or my high school sports teacher.

Equally unsurprising was the article's report that a number of ID cards were found to feature the fingerprints of the fingerprint machine operator, instead of the person (or chair) in the photo. This made them "less useful" to police investigating crimes, observers noted.

I wonder how was it discovered that print machine operators were accidentally putting their own fingerprints on the cards? Were the detectives about to arrest a small group of people for an astonishingly large number of crimes when they realized what must have happened?

If I was one of those fingerprint office guys, I would immediately embark on a major crime spree right now, knowing that my fingerprints all over the place would be immediately disregarded. Talk about a once in a life-time opportunity.

Anyway, whatever your interpretation of these ID card intrigues, all true stories which took place in India recently, they are part of a wider tale: the collision between technology and tradition.

In Thailand, a man in a car was spotted driving slowly through a small town, photographing every street. Suspicious villagers surrounded the car and accused the driver of being an Agent of Satan or a property developer (which they consider the same thing, demonstrating an impressive level of insight).

The man told villagers that his employer, a tech company called Google, wanted pictures of every centimetre of their village because the world's population desperately wanted to gaze at it through their smart-phones.

Yeah, right. How believable is that?! But the naturally skeptical villagers found a nice scientific way to solve the dispute. They dragged him to the local temple statue and made him repeat his wild claims in front of it. The statue raised no objections, apparently being a Google Maps user itself.

In most cases, my sympathies lie with technologists, but not always. For example, consider the amazing time travel tunnel in Zunyi town, Guizhou province, China. Say the digital clock on your mobile phone says 4 p.m. You drive through this 400-metre road tunnel, which takes a couple of minutes, and when you pop out of the other end, it will say 3 p.m. You've gone back in time one hour! I am not making this up.

Tech people recently told reporters that this could be caused by transmitter tower faults, but I much prefer the local theory that the tunnel is a relativistic wormhole taking users back 60 minutes back in time. It would be SO useful, particularly to married men.

Wife: "Did you remember to buy the stuff I told you to get on your way home?"

Husband: "Er, before I answer that question, darling, I just need to go for a quick drive."

In a Japanese newspaper, workers had found a bit of technology that could stop a tradition no one likes: the country's high suicide rate. People buying things on the internet noticed that the automatically generated recommendations at the bottom of the page sometimes kind of told stories. For example, one said: "People who bought this Suicide Manual also bought this Length of Rope."

Inanimate objects such as computers are too stupid to work out what's going on, but humans can leap into action to rescue people.

Only humans can do this.

Chairs would also be useless in this situation, even those with ID cards.

(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via

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