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Probing the ‘Information’ Society

On this issue’s back page you will find a profile I prepared on Donald Hopkins, MD. It was a nice break to write about a topic other than technology. Hopkins’ work overseas eradicating the guinea worm disease takes place in impoverished areas where the technology we take for granted doesn’t exist. The tools at his disposal are primitive ones, including screens used to filter water—one of the first steps toward eliminating the horrific disease.

Hopkins himself seems a bit uncomfortable in the modern age of technology. He has e-mail, but relies on an assistant to answer it for him. And he has little use for cell phones. Spam is part of the problem; Hopkins keeps a fax machine in his office and commented to me about how many “junk faxes” he gets. It is a truism of information technology that it opens the flood gates to unwanted information—but there’s more to it than that, he says.

I asked Hopkins what it was like to have worked in such adverse conditions, then return to the United States where affluence is widespread. He’s clearly disturbed by the contrast, and commented to me about the tremendous amount of waste here. People routinely discard “old” clothes that might be the beginning of a brand new wardrobe in the third world. We are served huge portions in restaurants when halfway around the globe youngsters scrape by meal to meal. Hopkins criticized our media for its celebrity “obsession” and for turning a deaf ear on international health issues that could be tackled if more resources were poured into the effort.

No wonder Hopkins looks askance at modern information technology. It’s not the technology itself so much as the information the technology conveys. “What makes the nightly news are stories that are photogenic, rather than things that are important for people to understand,” he says.

That underscores the mission of magazines like HealthLeaders. No matter how far off my technology beat I may wander, I will never have to write about Paris Hilton.

—Gary Baldwin