What the world's poorer nations can teach YOU about technology

In the last few weeks we’ve been bombarded with a series of really important new hardware or software announcements. Take your pick: iPad mini, Nexus 4 and Surface among many, many, many more. Commentary is relentless from so-called official pundits and overly excited users --what in the days of paper would have deforested an area of the planet the size of Brazil.

You know what? None of it really matters. For all the noise about what these multi-billion dollar companies make, none of them has produced anything really new. We’ve seen no paradigm shifts. No Big Ideas. Nothing that will really change our lives in any way at all. It’s all been like putting racing wheels on the family car. Looks great, but doesn’t actually achieve anything real. Absolutely, our daily lives in the West have changed in extraordinary ways by this technology as compared to, say, 1990. But not 2012. Has the tide reached its high point? Does IT innovation really matter any more?

You bet it does. But maybe not close to where you’re sitting. The picture looks quite different when you view it from a less familiar perspective. There are parts of the world where mobile and Internet technology really change lives for the better -- not in corporate reports, music on tap or cool games kind of a way. It's more of a life or death kind of a thing.

Knowledge is Power

Imagine that you live in a village in a poorer country -- maybe in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or South America. You’ve never been more than 30 miles from home; travel of any sort is an expensive luxury. You’ve no mains electricity supply. One of the things that makes you vulnerable to exploitation by the richer and more powerful is isolation and consequently ignorance. For example, ignorance of what people elsewhere are paid, of what the products of your own fields are really worth; of sometimes simple solutions to problems that can literally ruin your life. But give you the means to communicate with and learn from others, and life changes overnight. Knowledge is power not necessarily over others, but, more importantly, over your own life. I've compiled some examples.

Peru. Ashaninka, an isolated village in Peru, has recently acquired a PC, satellite Internet -- and a generator. In a very short time, the villagers have used the equipment to sell their oranges to buyers in the capital, Lima; and to help in educating their children, at least one of whom is now at University in Lima.

Kenya. A farmer whose crop was infected with potato disease found both a cure for the disease, and a buyer for the crop by searching the Internet at an Internet café in his local town. And now he owns a smartphone so he no longer needs the Internet café.

Even a feature phone is enough to use the Kenyan money transfer service, M-Pesa, which has more than 17 million users in Kenya, most of whom don’t have traditional bank accounts. It’s much like a text-based version of PayPal -- to which most people don’t have access. The big plus for users is that the system allows long-distance payments, and acts as a trusted intermediary.

MedAfrica is a website and a mobile app that offers a first aid manual, and helps people find their nearest hospital, look up details of drugs, or check up on their doctor's credentials.

India. Although some of India’s cities have become technological powerhouses, the economy is still primarily rural, and by far the majority of people of the sub-continent still live in more or less isolated villages, many of them without mains electricity. Internet cafés in towns are revolutionizing the lives of local farmers. They have used the Internet to find going rates for jobs, or prices for crops to make sure that they are no longer exploited. They have been able to find out about support programs that mean they can branch out into new fields of work. They have been able to learn about crop diseases and how to prevent them, so that where only a couple of years ago, a whole community could be devastated by a disease, now they know how to prevent it taking hold. These are questions of survival.

Although this can all seem quite simple stuff to our jaded and experienced eyes, just stand back for a second and imagine what your own life would be like without any Internet, any telephone, and a very limited radius of travel. The impact of these (to us) simple solutions is like knocking down a prison wall for others.

End of the Desktop

It’s interesting that a high proportion of these projects are based on mobile technology. That’s revealing of something else that we tend to forget -- the high infrastructure cost of getting a conventional desktop PC in place, powered up, and connected to a fixed-line Internet connection.

So those who now proclaim the end of the desktop may be more right than they know. In a global sense, certainly outside big cities, many countries are skipping the desktop-and-fixed-line stage of computing evolution altogether.

Good example comes today from China. Quoting a China Internet Network Information Center, On Device Research reports: "Mobile phones are now the most common way for people to connect to the Internet in China and over 50 percent of new Internet users, were from rural areas". Among 538 million Internet connected users, 388 million do so from mobiles. Directly from the report: "The emergence of smartphones under 1,000 yuan [$157, £100] sharply lowered the threshold for using the devices and encouraged average mobile phone users to become mobile web surfers".

The examples I present above are uses of technology which occurred to few, if any, of the original developers of the mobile telephone, or the Internet -- even the World Wide Web; and while we, too, are using personal computing and communications in ways which were not envisaged 20 years ago, our big rush of excitement is over. I find the above stories much more interesting than news of yet another iPad or version of Windows.

And I find it heartening that the famous (and usually mythical) “trickle-down effect” is actually working in this case: it’s because the rich West has bought so much of this technology, that it is now cheap enough for the world’s poorer nations to use it.

Photo Credit: Spartak/Shutterstock

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