The Technium

Technologies That Connect


[Translations: Japanese]

Every month the Long Now foundation hosts its Seminar on Long-Term Thinking. I serve as a sort of co-host, winnowing questions from the audience to the speaker. This month’s speaker was Iqbal Quadir, formerly at Harvard and now at MIT. I met Iqbal at least 10 years ago and have been following his adventures in changing the world one cell phone at a time. Iqbal’s talk focused on how technology can alleviate poverty. Here’s my summary of the talk:

When Iqbal Quadir applied to US colleges from his home town in Bangladesh he was surprised to discover that not all American universities were found in Washington, DC. That’s how it was in Bangladesh, where everything of importance was centralized in the capital city, Dacca. He later realized that Bangladesh was not unique; in most developing countries, the infrastructure  is concentrated in one or two cities, leaving the rural areas almost blank. As he acquired degrees and experience in finance, he realized that this centralization is not only a mark of poorer countries, it is probably a cause of their poverty.

Quadir presented this broad outline of development in order to give context for his belief that technology can alleviate poverty. He reminded us that 500 years ago, when the western countries were still “developing” their own societies, their political systems were no better, and often worse, than the instable corrupt regimes of many developing countries today. England had a series of kings who were impeached, arrested, ousted, or beheaded for their crimes. It was only after citizens were empowered by economic markets did the balance of power shift from the central king to decentralized citizens. All steps that devolve power away from a central authority — including laws, trade, and education — will raise democracy.

In Quadir’s view, it’s not that centralization per se creates poverty. Poverty is the natural beginning state of all societies, east or west. Rather, decentralization is the engine which removes poverty and brings wealth. To the degree that infrastructure, education, and trade can be decentralized, wealth will rise in proportion. To the degree that infrastructure, education and trade are centralized, poverty will remain.

Whereas many of us in the west, particularly the digital west, agree with this intuitively, we act contrary to this observation when we give large-scale aid to poor countries. As Quadir’s colleague Wiliam Easterly argues in his book “The Elusive Quest for Growth,” the billions and billions of dollars spent on aid for developing countries has not only  *not* helped, it has set them back decades. Aid, as we know it, kills development. This harm occurs because almost all previous aid has funneled through a central government or semi-governmental organizations and that official route tightens centrality. Even if the governments were saintly, and they are definitely not, the scale of money flowing through these centralizing nodes prohibits the distribution of resources, infrastructure, trade, and education. The more aid that arrives, the less development can actually happen.

Technology is the escape from this quandary. Quadir came to see that “technologies that connect” could liberate productivity. He matched his experience in Bangladesh as a 13-year-old boy having to walk 10 kilometers to get medicine, only to find out the medicine man he sought was not home, and then walking back empty handed, having wasted a day — all because there was no connection between his home and the pharmacist. Many years later he wasted a day at work when there was no electricity to run phones or computers. Productity required connectivity. If connectivity could be decentralized then it would lead to increased wealth.

Quadir settled on the cell phone as a way to decentralized connectivity. In the early 1990s cell phones were big, dumb, and very expensive. Calls were $3 per minute. Only the rich could afford them. But he wanted the poorest people in the world to get them. How would this be possible?

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First, he believed in Moore’s Law: that the phones would decrease in price and increase in power every year. That seemed inevitable to him. He said he could see “micro-chips marching toward the poor.” He was right about that. Second, he piggybacked his hopes on a remarkable invention of another Bangladeshi, Mohammad Yunus, who developed micro-financing (and later won a Nobel prize for this invention). In Yunus’ scheme a woman who owned virtually nothing could get a loan of $200 to purchase a cow. She would then sell the surplus milk of the cow to pay back the loan, earn both milk and an income for her family, and maybe buy another cow. Ordinarily, no bank would have lent her this trifling amount because she had no collateral, no education, and the costs of overseeing such a small loan with small gains, would have been prohibitive. Grameen Bank, Yunus’ creation, discovered that these illiterate peasants were actually more likely to repay these small loans, and were very happy to pay good interest rates, and so that in aggregate, these micro-loans were more profitable than loaning to large industrial players.

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Quadir proceeded to ask, what if the women could rent a cell phone instead of a cow? Grameen Bank could make a micro-loan to the poor for the purchase a cell phone, which they then could sell/rent minutes to the rest of the village. The enterprising phone-renter would benefit and more importantly, the entire village would benefit from the connectivity. It did not really matter if the minutes were expensive, because when you have no connection, you are willing to pay dearly for it. Quadir started off his GrameenPhone with 5 cell towers, and eventually GrameenPhone erected 5,000 towers.

In 1993 when Quadir began, Bangladesh had one of the lowest penetrations of telephones on the planet — only one phone for every 500 people. GrameenPhone project unleashed 25 million phones. Today there are 100 times as many phones, or one per 5 people. Just as Quadir had envisioned, this decentralized connectivity has increased productivity. Without connectivity people waste a lot more time on economic errands. With cell connectivity farmers maximize their profits by getting real-time prices at distant markets; shepherds can call a vet, or order medicine. One study concluded that the total lifetime cost of an additional phone (including the cell tower and switching gear) was about $2,000, but that each phone enabled $50,000 of increased productivity. And surprisingly, the poorer the country to begin with, the greater the increase in wealth from connectivity.

A lot of myths cloud the good intentions of developmental aid, Quadir says. Myths such as: poor countries have no resources, or that the poor don’t have discretionary spending, or aren’t concerned with brands,or aren’t good credit risks, and so on. All these assumptions have been proven untrue over and over again, and especially so with GrameenPhone. The chief myth it dispelled was that government needs to subsidize technological development, when in fact there is good money to be made enabling the productivity of the poor. As Quadir says, “You don’t make money on the poor, but with the poor.” At dinner I asked Iqbal what he would have done differently with GrameenPhone. He replied, “Kept more shares.”

Quadir is now searching for other technologies to decentralize, and thereby become a tool to erase poverty. He is director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, which has been funded with $50 million. He is investigating whether energy can also be dethroned from its current mode of extremely centralized generation. Only 10% of the electricity produced at its source remains at the end of the wires as they reach homes and factories. Perhaps there are ways to decentralize its generation, which would trigger connections at the local level, and in his scheme, elevate wealth and democracy. If it worked, decentralized energy might also work in rich countries, increasing wealth and democracy in our part of the world as well.

Throughout his talk, Quadir reiterated: “To raise productivity (and wealth), raise connectivity. It’s that simple.”  Jaron Lanier suggests that connectivity might be one of the criteria we should use to evaluate whether a technology is desirable or not. We should ask ourselves, Jaron says, whether this technology increases connection among people, places and things, or decreases connections. Those technology that up connectivity will more likely do good. So far I have not thought of any counter examples.




Comments
  • http://www.yuri.typepad.com Yuri van Geest

    Kevin, great post ! Thanks again !

    Connectivity breeds positive outcomes, I agree.

    I would like to extend this idea a little to a possible logical (positive conclusion). At first for the rich countries, later on for underdeveloped countries as well. Here goes:

    The overarching theme of our times in my view is authenticity and self realisation. The mobile phone and mobile internet in this respect is a key driver and enabler/facilitator. Why ?

    1) The more we share (the more open we are), the more transparent we are. Open APIs, GPS data, photos, videos, blog posts, tweets, clickstream data and increasingly attention data concerning what we read and watch (see APML) are examples. This sharing (increasingly using our moble phones) stimulates authenticity and honesty as inconsistenties and lies are exposed to ourselves, our family, our social network, our peers and even the market/public as a whole.

    2) Information overload begets us the question of what is important to us ? Choices… Choices are based on your identity (who am I ? what are my values ? what is core to me ?). Filtering (using our mobile phones) based increasing identity awareness stimulates authenticity. If we are overwhelmed with options, possibilities and choices, we are drawn to ourselves.

    3) Change is everywhere and seems to speeding up. This creates stress in people. In most cases, people can find their core personality in these circumstances as it makes us naked in our needs and wants. As a result, authenticity comes to the fore. As a mobile phones is present with us almost all the time, it seems likely this will be a key gateway to learn about ourselves in these circumstances.

    4) Increasingly, (mobile) technologies are on the market for the automated detection of deception and lies. Examples are Facial Coding techniques integrated into and applied to videos and presentations. If you lie, certain particular facial expressions are salient. These expressions can be logged and analyzed using technology. Increasingly, these techniques will be incorporated into mobile phones. As a result, authenticity becomes not only a valuable choice (see point 1, 2 and 3) but also a necessity in certain instances.

    5) Mobile phones transform conversational techniques due to ‘presence’ capabilities. If my loves ones and social network can follow all my updates and actions on Twitter, my blog, Facebook etc…this transforms my real-life interactions. The basic questions are skipped as they are already clear using mobile phones and mobile internet. In the past, the basic questions were a necessity due to the lack of the mentioned apps. As a result, real-life conversations focus on more deep questions related to emotions, feelings and intimacy. Shallow, factual questions are more unnecessary. All of this might stimulate authentic conversations and authenticity.

    In short, the mobile phone is not only a fantastic connectivity and thus productivity, growth and empowerment tool but also increasingly IMO a tool for higher levels of trust, authenticity, self realization, transparency and honesty.

    This is not a sure scenario, just a likely scenario IMO. It is evenly possible to construct an opposite case/scenario with fear (instead of hope and trust) as a key theme as a result of using a mobile phone and mobile internet (including Internet of Things/UbiComp). Fear due to increasing control by classic institutions and even ordinary people. Fear -> more closed systems -> negative outcomes across the board including Less authenticity. Yet again, I am an optimist :-)

    Looking forward to seeing your responses… thanks !

    Kind regards,
    Yuri

    • Kevin Kelly

      Yuri, you say “In short, the mobile phone is not only a fantastic connectivity and thus productivity, growth and empowerment tool but also increasingly IMO a tool for higher levels of trust, authenticity, self realization, transparency and honesty.”

      I agree.

  • Tom Buckner

    Jaron Lanier’s suggestion that techology should increase connection between people is very close to the Amish criterion for technology, “Is it good for family and community?” So the Amish reject television, conversation-killer that it is, and mechanized farm equipment, which requires all manner of outside supply, maintenance, and massive loans, while draft animals not only work the land but fertilize it as well.

    I think the economic Achilles heel of the Soviet Union (and communist countries in general) was central planning, which represented an information bottleneck: in a market economy, production decisions are decentralized by the consumers making buying decisions in thousands of stores. In the Soviet Union, there were no factories making tampons or napkins; the old men in the Politburo just didn’t prioritize it. Even the wife of a general had to make do with old t-shirts. Such are the absurdities of centralization. (I know it’s hard to believe, but see: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,956641,00.html )

    Centralization is inherently fragile, too. Why does a blackout affect millions? Centralization in a huge power grid. There’s a lot of myopia in what I hear about future energy policies: More coal! More nukes! Hydrogen! Ethanol! All centralized and unsustainable: the real answer is generating as much as possible on-site and wasting a lot less of it. Again, look at the Amish: how little of what they need has to be made elsewhere.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Tom, yes, the Amish make a very similar criteria for which technologies they adopt.

  • Dionysio

    I have always thought that it was strange that developing countries would centralize resources in such a way. I attributed it to a sort of urban snobbery that you see in some places as an attempt to segregate members of the same country. For example, it is really common to hear people say in Argentina, “Are you from Buenos Aires or the country?” and it is also common to say the same thing about Mexico City in Mexico. In both countries, there are a number of other important cities but by far the bulk of the national resources are consolidated in the capitals.

  • http://www.bobwelch.com Bob Welch

    The TRUE decentralizing technology, suppressed for nearly 100 years, (starting with Edisons victory and subsequent persecution of Tesla )is the so called free energy, or “zero point” energy technology. Today, the suppresion of this technology continues (by bribery, intimidation..or worse) by the petro-chemical /energy/government oligarchies.

    Check out Tom Beardon’s site.Google “Townsend-Brown”. Read, by Nick Cook, (writer for the respected UK publication “Janes Defence Weekly”) “The Hunt For Zero Point Energy”, subtitled, “inside the classified (black) world of anti-gravity research”

    Suppression of over-unity energy is what’s keeping the “economics of scarcity” and the outdated “Malthusian doctrine” going.

    Bob Welch
    http://www.bobwelch.com

  • http://www.diovo.com/ Niyaz PK

    What about the most basic connectivity mechanism?
    Roads.

    I think if we could decentralise roads (whatever that means) and get good road connectivity to rural areas, that could be much powerful and efffective than mobile phone connectivity.

  • http://blog.thesol.com Solburn

    Excellent post! This statement should be worth the Nobel prize: “To raise productivity (and wealth), raise connectivity. It’s that simple.”

  • http://www.yuri.typepad.com Yuri van Geest

    Kevin,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I just came across a new TED video by Paul Collier who basically endorses your post. In the end talks about informed citizenry : http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/270. This complements your blog post. It seems as if mobile phones in developing countries could be a boost for informed citizenry, democracy, checks and balances and growth.

    Perhaps a new initiative like OLPC (one laptop per child) for free or cheap mobile phones might transform these countries in the long run.

    Let’s hope for the best !

    • Kevin Kelly

      I think our views converge, though I suspect Collier has been thinking about this stuff for far longer than I have. I just got his book The Bottom Billion and am looking forward to reading it.

  • JaniyahX

    The technologies have lots of advantages to all of us. Through technology, people communicate better, make our research more interesting and fast as well improve our lives. One of the technologies that help us to make our work easier to accomplish is the computer together with the help of the internet. By means of internet, we are able to make our research more exciting and fun. We can also find friends and interesting news on celebrities by means of social networking sites such as the facebook, friendster, myspace and twitter. Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets. Twitter has been utilized by personalities such as Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, the director Kevin Smith, singer Lily Allen, and LaVar Burton, the actor known for his role on Star Trek as Geordie the engineer, as well as host of the Reading Rainbow and his role in Alex Haley’s Roots. Membership in Twitter is free, so you don’t have to get installment loans to get onto Twitter.

  • Fommy

    The tmobile G1 has been unlocked, this will allow you to use a SIM card from any network, in any country. Hey guys FYI, T-mobile will unlock any phone for you for free if you are in good standing with the company, so don’t shell out the cash to get that iphone unlocked just call T-mobile.

  • Paul H

    Sounds like VW and Lichtblick are making strides to turn this into reality:
    “The whole plan is centered on households, hundreds or even thousands, installing a mini power station in their basements, garages, or where they can find the space. These mini energy plants will run on natural gas and will not only be able to provide energy and hot water for the house in which it is installed, but also dump excess power back into the grid.” http://bit.ly/y7kUR