Tripoli File: Electronics Before Water or Food

In Tripoli today, it is easier to find a working mobile phone than it is to find a bottle of water. The supply chain for electronics is one of the first that has resumed functioning here, before the lines for food, water, and medicine.

Part of that is the ease of shipping modern electronics, compared to shipping many of the other things this broken city desperately needs. A hundred thousand SIM cards weigh a lot less, and are a lot easier to store and distribute, than a hundred thousand bottles of insulin or baby formula. But the physical facts aren't the only story.

There is also a massive demand for electronics here. Families have been separated by six months of conflict, and many are still scattered between havens in neighboring Tunisia, homes in the nearby mountains, or throughout the city. Cell service is spotty but resumed two days ago, and Internet has been operating on and off for nearly a week. On the list of priorities for families here, finding a working SIM card is more important than standing in the long lines for bread.

It isn't just communications. Medical equipment is also needed, and the dramatic reduction in the size of some medical electronics has made it faster and easier to ship, even on Libya's damaged, militarized roads. Regular PCs are also being put to use. In one neighborhood we toured yesterday, a hastily-arranged local council was using a new HP desktop to register serial numbers from weapons issued to the local militia. They will use the information to compile a database of weapons in the neighborhood, so they can collect them later, when the war is over.

In the city's Corinthea hotel, which has been taken over by international journalists, the equipment used to broadcast television images from the war is a fraction of the size and weight it was just a few years ago. Getting news from places like Tripoli used to require massive expense to move so-called “flyaway” communications equipment: parabolas, video cameras, and editing stations.

Now, much of the news you are seeing from here is being produced on equipment very similar to what you probably have at home: a small HD video camera and a laptop. Rather than spend tens of thousands on transmission fees, the television images are now often sent as compressed video files by local Internet or BGAN, a microwave Internet box just slightly larger than a notebook computer.

What we're seeing in Tripoli today is just how widely distributed electronics has become, and how the ubiquity of electronics has become helpful in situations like Tripoli's. They couldn't call for more medicine, at least not as fast, if the phones didn't work.

The flooding of the world with gadgets over the past 10 years has had its upsides and downsides in normal times. But in a crisis like Tripoli's, the reach of electronics to virtually every part of the world, even remote desert towns hours from here, is proving very useful. Unlike water, food, or medicine, an electronic signal is both weightless and reusable, and the parts and pieces are everywhere. The technicians here already have most of what they need; what they don't have comes very quickly, in small, fast vehicles, helicopters, or airplanes. By comparison, Libya needs new water every day, brought from outside in tractor trucks, 40 tonnes at a time. That's a massive challenge, faced anew every morning now.

In the neighborhood where they are registering the guns, however, their phones work. It's a stark thing to see amid the rest of the dysfunction. One street here has been converted to a trash dump, because the city can't spare gasoline for the garbage trucks. The neighbors can't open their windows in 100 degree heat, because of the stench. The lights are on — but if a bulb burns out, you have to be lucky to find a new one. The bathrooms don't work yet; people bathe at the local mosque, or borrow water from those living in older homes, some of which still have wells.

But in the neighborhood office, there are computers in each room with working data lines, one of which I'm using to write and send this. The office router says it came from {complink 2430|Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.} in China. For many in this city, it's a lifesaver.

12 comments on “Tripoli File: Electronics Before Water or Food

  1. Houngbo_Hospice
    September 6, 2011

    Foods and water matter a lot. But it is also reassuring for people to know the whereabouts of their relatives with the help of electronics. However, the new authorities have better work hard to provide foods and water very soon, otherwise, they will face protects from the very people they liberated.

  2. Anand
    September 7, 2011

    The ubiquity of electronics has become helpful in situations like Tripoli's.

    @Marc I totally agree with your observation. Electronics and Internet have played major role in Libya. We have seen how protestors shot short videos and uploaded them to internet. This kind of live journalism wouldn't have been possible earlier. Thanks to electronics and Internet we can witness major events unfolding.

  3. Jay_Bond
    September 7, 2011

    The new age electronics trend has led to unprecedented change throughout the world. You can now see coverage happening live that you couldn't before. With cameras the size of phones, people are able to document things for absolute proof of what happened. It is completely understandable that the electronics supply chain and all the necessary components are much easier to receive than vital supplies like food and water. Thanks to today’s modern communications it is not only easier to locate loved ones in times of despair, but to also locate vital supplies.

  4. Marc Herman
    September 7, 2011

    All true. But surely I am not the only one who finds it bizarre just how many places are finding it easier and easier to announce, via a bgan uplink or cell connections, that they are thirstry, than it is to actually get them a bottle of water. I see why that is but it's still seems like a case of mixed priorities. It reminds me of that old chestnut about the rich guy that thieves lock in a vault, where he starves to death surrounded by billions in gold.

  5. Jay_Bond
    September 7, 2011

    @Marc, I agree completely. I do find the notion rather odd and disturbing that more people are concerned with their electronics than finding food or water. It would seem like maybe the phone or computer that is being used could be bartered for some much needed food. I think the story of the old man is spot on.

  6. mfbertozzi
    September 8, 2011

    Amazing article Marc and interesting posts from everybody. I can only say that interest in electronics from local people, in a such way, was born basically for the reason a device, it's doesn't matter how is or what is, represents a great thing to sell for acquiring food or maybe a ticket from black market, carrying on the dream of leaving the region.

  7. Clairvoyant
    September 8, 2011

    The article really shows how much we have become dependent on technology, and how much of a benefit it is to society.

  8. Tim Votapka
    September 12, 2011

    I appreciate Marc's firsthand account of the scene, and I too find it odd that one can have a SIM card far easier than he can get some basic surival necessity. I get the value and impact of gadgets, particularly when used to expedite communications and assets. Being on the fringe of some major flooding recently, I can appreciate that. But it does seem awfully out of whack to think bottled water and other basics can't get into an area where electronics can.

  9. Wale Bakare
    September 12, 2011


    That's it. We have become too obessesed with technology, and this has caused us  reliantly on its use. Am afraid, this might exponetiate in years to come, aiding it –  era of virtualization and internet of thing.

  10. Kunmi
    September 24, 2011

    This is very true. Our lives are now centers on electronics world-wide because if you remove communication from our activities, then we remain dormant and ignorant. The only way by which Tripolians can communicate to the outside world is through technology. Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming adicts to technology. We can ask oursleves a question: Can a day pass witout using any technological item? NO! It is becoming the water we drink and at times we forgo food for technology.

  11. Adeniji Kayode
    October 2, 2011

    @Kunmi, You are right on that.Is it not true that technology is what really determines our level of comfort right now, it has become a measure  that determines how much comfort you enjoy or available to you.

  12. Adeniji Kayode
    October 2, 2011

    @Clairvoyant. I concor with you on that. You know to some extent right now, how much of technology you use or have around you is almost becoming a yard stick for determing your status in the society. people love to check out your phone and your car to get a glimpse of how rich you could be. This really show how far technology has brought us and made us.

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