Joining giant constrictor snakes, birds of prey and great cats stalking people in the jungles of the world is one more exotic predator: 3Com Corp. representatives wielding handheld computers, asking residents about their sex lives and how they sleep at night.
3Com said it is looking to cast light on the "digital divide" between computer haves and have-nots with its 'Planet Project', an attempt to create "the first global interactive poll of the human race," according to a statement issued by the company.
To that end, 3Com will tap about 2,500 of its worldwide employees and 500 "planet pollsters" from non-governmental aid and business organizations, arm them with Palm V handheld computers fitted with modems, and present an online survey to people in remote corners of the world who lack Internet access.
The poll will be offered in eight languages and carried out over four days from Nov. 15 to Nov. 18. As well as being offered to residents in remote areas like the Australian outback and the jungles of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, the poll will also be open to Internet users in developed nations who can answer the questionnaire using their own PC, 3Com said.
"Because nobody has ever done something like this, it's hard to tell how many people we'll poll," said Mark Plungy, a 3Com spokesman. "We hope there will be millions."
3Com said the poll will provide a kind of "digital mirror" through which people around the world will be able to glimpse a reflection of the human race. After answering questions on topics ranging from religion, health, marriage, dating, sex and death, respondents will be able to compare their responses instantly with those of other groups of people by sex, age and location.
As well as being an experiment in using the Internet to gather data about the human race, Planet Project also appears to be a way for 3Com to raise public awareness of the company and show off the technical capabilities of its computer and networking equipment.
John Coons, an analyst for the technology market research firm Gartner Group Inc., said he was unsure of 3Com's motives. "This sounds like it's out of their bailiwick as an equipment manufacturer. It's more like something we would do. I'm sure there are organizations for doing this type of large scale survey."
This, according to 3Com's Plungy, is beside the point. "It is going to prove that the technology works. What we hope it will do is start a global conversation, to start this global dialogue, to compare and contrast one's answers with someone in China, or Ohio."
The scope of Planet Project is ambitious, but the science of the poll is not. Neither 3Com nor their polling company partner Harris Interactive Inc. claims the survey will be scientifically valid. There are insufficient safeguards against multiple entries, and it isn't clear that those polled will be a representative slice of a region's population, said Dan Hucko, vice president of marketing communications at Harris. "Is this a scientifically valid poll? No. Not in terms of its scientific, statistically projectable validity."
No farmer on the outskirts of Shanghai will see the same questions as a farmer outside of Dayton, though. Harris saw fit to submit the questions to a third-party partner in China, which vetted the survey and suggested removing or changing many questions before it was submitted to the Chinese Government. Polls in China must be licensed, he said.
Among the questions removed in China, Hucko said, are sections on political leadership, death and the afterlife, sex and dating, and religion. Each one of the eight topic-areas in the questionnaire was altered for Chinese consumption, except for the section on sleep, he said.
Plungy described some of the questions as "provocative." They include: "Would you switch your race if you knew you could not change it back?" or, "When you die, what do you think will most likely happen to you?" or, "How often do you think about your weight?" or, "How do you and your spouse express affection for one another?"
The poll's content, however, is less important than it's intent, according to Giandomenico Picco, a personal representative of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the U.N. Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. "Anything we do to cross the divide makes plenty of sense. The idea I have is that in the next 10 years, the greatest problem we face (will be) how we manage diversity."
3Com's Planet Project, and the US$1 million it said it will spend along with it to connect schools to the Internet, is perhaps a small benefit compared to the commercial gain 3Com may achieve in media exposure from the project, but Picco said he hopes to see a snowball effect, where other companies also see the wisdom of reaching out to connect the unconnected.
"There is a commercial objective in all of this, that's to be taken for granted. But if the poll can be used to show how two individuals can communicate horizontally, without going through government or other intermediaries ... forget the poll, forget even the questions. If that message can go through what is being done can be beneficial."
For aid workers in poor places, a handheld computer may have a far greater impact than its US$500 or so price tag would seem to indicate, said Robin Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for Accion International, an aid agency that provides "microloans" averaging about $600 to the working poor in Latin America and the U.S.
Seventy "digital ambassadors" from the microlending institutions taking part in the project will get the Palm computers, and will get to keep them when the project is completed, she said. The Palms are more useful to the agency's loan officers, who can't risk having a more expensive (and more conspicuous) laptop computer that could break more easily or be stolen.
3Com, in Santa Clara, California, can be found on the Web at http://www.3com.com/.