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Monday, December 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Silicon Valley view
Digital world set to invade no-tech culture

By Mike Cassidy
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The isolated Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea don't know it yet, but they are about to land in the digital world.

Or is the digital world about to land on them?

Either way, it's coming by way of an expedition with Silicon Valley ties that will soon arrive in their village.

The excursion is the brainchild of Richard Bangs, a Seattle adventurer and travel promoter, who persuaded Hewlett-Packard to provide digital cameras and a printer for the trip.

And so, HW, meet HP.

No, Bangs won't ask the Huli to invent. Rather, he'll ask them to take pictures of what they consider to be beautiful. His crew will do the same. The work will be posted on MSNBC.com along with a travelogue.

There is some lofty talk here. HP and Bangs say the seven-member expedition will promote understanding between cultures. It will make the world smaller.

HP says the expedition could lead to economic opportunities for the Huli. It's one way the company is bridging the gap between high-tech and no-tech cultures.

All that and just in time for Christmas, too.

"The holiday retail season is an opportune time to demonstrate how easy our digital photography products are to use," Mary Bermel, an HP global-brand advertising senior manager, said in a written response to questions.
 
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"If villagers in remote communities can use and enjoy our products, so can the average consumer."

Now, HP will just have to hope the Huli Wigmen actually do enjoy the products.

See, nobody's asked them what they think.

Unlike some Huli, who have traveled or who have frequent contact with tourists, Bangs says he purposely selected a group that has never seen a digital camera. They live in an area with no roads, no electricity and no modern way to communicate with the outside world.

"We'll sort of surprise them," Bangs says.

Bangs seems like a sincere guy, but shouldn't someone have checked with the Huli? OK, they've had little contact with the outside world.

But does anybody know whether having more contact with the outside world (given the state of the world) would be a good thing?

Bangs and MSNBC.com get a good story and some fascinating photographs out of the trip. HP gets the possibility of a clever "Hey, if they can do it, anybody can" campaign with Huli Wigmen in ceremonial face paint and wigs.

And the Huli?

Bangs says if things go well, his contacts in Papua New Guinea might help the Huli start a business selling their digital images for postcards, which could be a good thing. Or not.

He says he understands the argument that remote people should be left alone. But he sides with those who value reaching out.

"It's a contribution to a better understanding of how the world is interconnected," he says. "How we share certain things and how certain differences have to be respected."

Posting the Huli story on the Web will offer insight to those who would never trek through Papua New Guinea. It might inspire others to travel, Bangs says, promoting even more understanding.

The exposure is no doubt good for those of us in the wired world. But is it good for the Huli Wigmen?

We'll know soon enough. And, like it or not, so will they.

Mike Cassidy is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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