Making the world a better place

By Vicki Ball

In Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, poor Laura Fairlie and resourceful Marian Fairlie struggle to outwit and escape the clutches of Laura’s evil and sadistic husband Sir Percival Glyde. Set in the mid to late 17th century I greatly enjoyed this novel when I first read it a few years ago. Perhaps the greatest impression it made on me was how truly liberating technology can be.

But what does this have to do with Google, Twitter and making the word a better place? Well, let me explain…

In The Woman in White the nefarious villain Sir Percival manages to manipulate Laura into being separated from her protector and sister Marian, and committed to an asylum under a false name where she languishes while her family thinks her perished. Meanwhile Sir Percival uses her inherited fortune to clear his debts and live the high life.

While reading the story the first time it occurred to me that this situation would have been much harder to contrive had just one invention been available to these two women: a telephone. In the time that this novel is set a woman of a certain social position was unable to travel alone, had to do what her husband commanded her to do and had very little control over her own money and finances. In her attempts to protect Laura, Marian spends a lot of time trying to send urgent letters to other men who may be able to help them, like Laura’s uncle and the family lawyer. She must wait hours or days for a response and her correspondence is extremely vulnerable to tampering.

If she’d had a telephone she could have sorted it all out very quickly. If she’d had email, Twitter or a blog then she would not have been so isolated, alone and vulnerable. If she and Laura had mobile phones they could have maintained contact while physically separated. Laura could have used a smart phone to record Sir Percival’s threats and expose his brutality to the world.

Inevitably when these technologies first emerge they are the toys of the wealthy and the privileged, but after a while they make their way to the masses and, I believe, ultimately liberate them. Phone, email, internet and mobile technologies allow us all to have a voice, to be heard in our time of need and lead us to being less isolated.

Occasionally I get very passionate about how wonderful the internet is and how I think websites can make the world a better place. Usually I get mocked by a certain friend for these views, who wonders out loud how buying shoes online makes the world a better place- although I can counter these days with a remark about how buying t-shirts certainly seems to!

One such website that does make a difference recently sprang into being as a result of Google’s efforts. It’s the Google Crisis Response: Haiti Earthquake and it’s for helping people learn about and locate loved ones who are victims of the earthquake.

Here’s the deal:

_"In the response to the earthquake in Haiti, many organizations worked to create sites where people could find one another, or least information about their loved ones. This excellent idea has been undermined by its success: within 24 hours it became clear that there were too many places where people were putting information, and each site is a silo. The site began “scraping” — mechanically aggregating — the most popular such sites, like and American Red Cross Family Links.

As people within the IT community recognized the danger of too many unconnected sites, and Google became interested in helping, they turned their work over to Google which is now running an embeddable application at"_

It’s not uncommon to hear someone decrying Twitter for limiting our attention span, texting for destroying our grammar and the internet for making us dumb and illiterate, but the same things were said about the printing press and the phone… and every time I hear these complaints I think about Marian and Laura and how lucky I am to live in a less isolated world.

And now I will think about the people in Haiti, their families and friends and people who use the internet to make the world a better place.

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