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Technology, Cargo Cults and the Developing World
Alex Steffen, 24 Sep 04

There's been a minor tropical storm of debate blowing through the Net in recent days, triggered by a handful of stories about technology and the developing world, many of which we wrote of here before: the African fund for technology, the spread of cellphones and Internet access in the developing world, the changing nature of rural India, and the dawning awareness of major corporations that most of the world's people (hence most of their potential customers) live in poor Southern countries, that those people have technology needs, and that meeting those needs will be a major driver of innovation over the next decade

Now, we're really into these questions. We think they are signs that the world is, in fact, changing faster than anyone could have anticipated, which is why we spend so much time talking about leapfrogging, looking into ideas about innovation and intellectual property rights, and interviewing people like Ethan Zuckerman. How the rest of the world picks up and uses new tools will have tremendous impact of the fate of the planet as a whole. Tech + developing world = X is one of the Big Big Questions.

Unfortunately, Big Big Questions often draw some really silly answers. For instance, the recent talk about African leaders' desire to have some basic communications infrastructure in their countries as "cargo cult" behavior.

Rather than take on the silliness of this argument myself, I'll defer to Anne Galloway (who may now officially be my favorite solo blogger, by the way):

"BBC News reports that, despite a lack of promised support from industrialised nations, a global fund designed to shrink the technology gap between rich and poor nations is to be launched in November.

"Picking up on similar threads, Mike Masnick in The Feature reports that "some African leaders have decided that they can lift nations out of poverty if they just had more mobile phones" - but that they "might be better served trying to solve more fundamental issues first."

"I certainly don't believe that technology will "save" people. And I firmly believe that the historical problem of "third-world" poverty will not be easily overcome - especially as long as we still assume that overcoming the "digital divide" is our best option.

"But I cannot abide by the primitivist racism of this article. Masnick refers to Melanesian cargo cults as the actions and beliefs of people who were "a bit confused" and who "never understood what was really happening." Say what?! When searching the wikipedia, did he miss the entry for ethnocentrism?!

"But maybe I shouldn't be pissed off at Masnick. Reading the wikipedia entry for cargo cults that he linked in his article, I learned that physicist Richard Feynman was the one responsible for coining the phrase cargo cult science (see also cargo cult programming) and teaching whole generations of technologists that it's okay to ridicule or dismiss cross-cultural practices you think are stupid (or at least less well-informed than your own). Sigh."

Which is right on the money. Do developing nations need help with the fundaments of human life? Many of them, yes. But repeated appeals to fund the Millenium Development Goals -- which would raise every person on the planet to a basic, healthy and secure standard of living for less than we in the US are spending each year on the War in Iraq -- have gone unheeded. It's not like those African leaders have said, "Oh, forget about AIDS, hunger, illiteracy and everything else; just send cellphones."

Hunger, homelessness, disease, exploding population growth, and lack of access to education and jobs cripple the ability of many developing countries to move forward in any meaningful way. These masses of desperately poor people also work as a giant millstone around the necks of their neighbors who are doing a little better: famines destabilize governments that were making progress; ignorance and unemployment erode the gains of economies that were starting to flourish; rapidly growing populations overtax the abilities of doctors and teachers to do anything more than try to stem the tide of misery. All across the developing world, dire poverty undermines the prospects not only of the desperately poor within a nation's borders, but of all its citizens. These are pandemic problems. They are problems we in the developed world had a hand in creating. They are also problems we could solve.

The Earth Policy Institute, working from World Bank, U.N. and U.S. government figures, penciled up a budget for meeting seven basic and pressing needs throughout the developing world (getting every kid to school and feeding them lunch, teaching every adult to read, offering family planning to every couple and making sure condoms were available to any who wanted them, providing universal basic health care, and guaranteeing food for all pregnant women and preschool children). Their price tag? $62 billion per year.

That's a lot of money, but we could afford it. We Americans don't even have to bear all the burden: our share of of a worldwide campaign to annihilate desperate poverty would come out to pennies on every hundred dollars our government spends. "The tragic irony of this moment," says economist Jeffrey Sachs, "is that the rich countries are so rich, and the poor countries so poor, that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich ones, ramped up over the coming decade, could do what was never before possible in human history: ensure that the basic needs of health and education are met for all impoverished children in this world."

Investment in basic infrastucture -- which is what cellphones are in the developing world -- is not a stupid or ignorant strategy. Building infrastructure in fact facilitates economic development, makes the provision of basic services easier and gives more people access to more tools for solving their problems. It is a strategy which is, in fact, highly consistent with both attending to the basics and creating the opportunity for real future progress. Presenting it as the crude aping behavior of some benighted savages merely shows that we're not nearly as post-colonial as we might have thought.

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There was an interesting nanotech story that happened way back in January 2003, and I'd interviewed the scientist involved - Professor Ashok K. sood of IISc (Indian Institute Of Science, Bangalore). Just in case people missed it, this guy had found a way of generating electric current by passing water through nanotubes. In scientific jargon:

"Our measurements suggest that the dominant mechanism responsible for this highly non-linear
response should involve a direct forcing of free charge carriers in the nanotubes by the fluctuating Coulombic field of the liquid flowing past it."

Ref: A. K. Sood and S. Ghosh "Direct Generation of a Voltage and Current by Gas Flow Over Carbon Nanotubes and Semiconductors", Phys. Rev. Lett. 93, 86601(2004)

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Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 25 Sep 04



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