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Village Technology 2004
Alex Steffen, 19 Sep 04

Bruce sends this link to this interesting piece on what "a world aswarm with gizmos for villagers" will mean:

Tech's Future -- With affluent markets maturing, tech's next 1 billion customers will be Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Thai... In reaching them, the industry will be deeply transformed.

In recent months, the Andhra Pradesh province in southern India has been the site of a rash of farmer suicides. Drought and low-quality seeds have left poor farmers with failed crops and no way to pay their debts. Many have swallowed lethal doses of pesticides as their only escape. Government officials estimate the toll since May at more than 60.

Against this bleak backdrop, a ray of hope: Neelamma, a 26-year-old woman, has found opportunity as a new type of entrepreneur. She's one of a dozen itinerant photographers who walk the streets of their farming communities carrying small backpacks stuffed with a digital camera, printer, and solar battery charger. As part of an experiment organized by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ ), Neelamma and the others are able to double their family incomes by charging the equivalent of 70 cents apiece for photos of newborns, weddings, and other proud moments of village life.

To make this happen, HP had to throw out its notions of how the tech business works. Anand Tawker, the company's director of emerging-market solutions in India, and his colleagues wrestled with fundamental questions: Does computing technology have a place in villages where electricity is fitful? Could it improve people's lives? How could villagers living in poverty pay for the latest digital wonders? And they came up with answers. In place of standard electricity, HP designers created the portable solar charger. Instead of selling the gear outright, HP rents the equipment to the photographers for $9 a month. "We asked people what they needed. One thing kept coming up: 'We want more money in our pockets,"' says Tawker. "So we do experiments. We launch and learn."

Now, in and of itself, more tech in more hands means little. Key questions still remain unanswered: What kinds of technology? For what ends? On whose terms? To whose benefit?

The farmers killing themselves in Andhra Pradesh are caught in the gears of massive, global forces, from which, to be realistic, technology can little protect them. But this mixing of poor people and new tools does promise all sorts of new possibilities, possibilities which are unfolding much more rapidly than anything most of us would have imagined even a few years ago. This Businessweek story -- not surprisingly -- focuses on one set of aspects of these changes. But the whole story -- of leapfrogging, developing world ingenuity, political resistance and technological evolution -- is much more complex, and much more transformative.

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