The Technium

The Myth of Leapfrogging

Hour by hour technology continues to demassify, to shrink in size while expanding in power, and to obsolesce earlier measures of excellence. Through the rear view mirror we spy the manufactured stuff of yesterday and are generally happy to have it recede into the past. Although there are exceptions, today’s technology is more desirable to what came before it. In particular, the products of the first phases of the industrial revolution seem rough, rigid, inert, and harmful compared to products available now. Who would not prefer the solar power panel to the long copper cables strung along on poles, or the efficient compact refrigerator to a clumsy behemoth icebox? To judge from consumer patterns from around the world, apparently no one.

Recent technology, particularly in communications, has disembodied to such an extant, that it has become an almost feathery accessory to the body, rather than a heavy appliance it once was. This liberation births a radical idea: perhaps the billions of people in the world currently living with little advance technology can skip the industrial generation of technology and zoom immediately to the good stuff. Rather than suffer trough the smoky pollution of industrial factories, begin with the best we have right now. The billions in the developing world could jump directly and immediately from the pre-technological era right into the nirvana of six-sigma manufacturing processes, light robotic assembly, and the mind-numbing choice of personalized everything. Because the developing world often lacks established large-scale technological infrastructure, those on the lagging side of the technological divide have a clear opportunity to install a state-of-the art system. They would be starting with a clear slate and could – in theory – populate their entire technosphere with only the latest stuff. This particular choice is not open to developed countries crowded with old systems still in operation and yet to be amortized. What an amazing chance it would be if the very first computer you ever turned on was a supercomputer laptop!! And your first electricity came from solar panels; your first house was super-insulated, your first car was hydrogen powered! In theory, the “rest of the world” could leapfrog right over the backs of the most developed, and land squarely ahead with a the least polluting, most efficient, best personalized and least constrained technology in the world.

In theory. That’s how it would work. The most commonly cited evidence for leapfrogging is the pattern of cell phone adoption in China and other parts of the world. For hundred of millions of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, their first telephone is a cell phone. But second examples of skipping the industrial revolution are scarcer. I am aware of a small island in the Ganges delta of India and one village in Thailand that installed solar power. Beyond that, the examples of skipping the industrial revolution evaporate on inspection. A few pilot programs here and there, but no real adoption. In fact the closer one looks at the evidence, the more unlikely it seems to me that leapfrogging actually happens.


Part of the problem in trying to demonstrate leapfrogging lies in our definition of it. If we mean simply the broad notion of skipping a generation of technology, then leapfrogging happens all the time, but perhaps not in ways we approve. For instance, in Mongolia today often the first practical wheel technology to arrive in Mongolia is the “leapfrog” technology of Mercedes trucks. With these trucks Mongolians skipped over wheel barrels, carts and bicycles and shot directly to diesel powered lorries. In fact the trucks often come before roads appear. In parts of China the first water pumps a farmer may get may be powered by nuclear generated electricity, rather than say the initial windmills of the west. The first clock in a village in Nepal may be a digital watch. Or the first TV’s in Africa are often satellite driven color TV, skipping over terrestrial black and white technology. In these and many other examples, entire lines of technological evolution are skipped over. But surely leapfrogging must be more than the relative sudden appearance of modern gizmos, even if they skip the previous generation of gizmos.

Intuitively we feel that leapfrogging entails beneficial infrastructure, rather than consumer appliances. It’s not solar battery rechargers that count, but the absence of a huge electrical grid. It’s not cheap commercial jet fares, but the escape of having to building a long-haul highway system. It is not the latest SM mobile phoneset, but the ability to leave millions of mile of telephone wires unstrung. To reckon leapfrogging as significant, it must be seen as a way to skip a complete generation of infrastructure.

We do have examples of this. A large portion of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as well as sections of the Amazon and African frontiers have been modernized with the wholesale importation of the newest systems. An entire 20th century infrastructure has been airlifted onto its soil and wired up – from roads, to power, to communication, housing, and utilities. Look at Dubai, which was not much more than sand and camel tracks a few decades ago. One day there is wilderness; the next there is urbanity, in semi-working order. Most people (except those living there) are horrified by this type of leapfrogging. These instant towns lack any of the smooth depth that ordinarily occurs in organic growth. Because they have skipped over so many steps in the usual evolution of technological accumulation, they are ragged, sharp, obnoxious, untested, and in many ways fragile places. They are certainly not what we would hope upon the rest of the world.

I conclude then, that what we mean by leapfrogging is the skipping over of one particular kind of infrastructure; specifically the kind of large-scale industrial style often imported wholesale into developing countries; and in place of that, the clean installation of a post-industrial more lightweight, less mass-bound, higher-tech system. Mere purchase of post-industrial products is not enough. In other words, leapfrogging means the acquisition of the virtues of a digital livelihood without having to suffer through the vices of an industrial livelihood.


That brings us back to cell phones. Until recently the common complaint of middle-class aspirants throughout the developing world – from the Mid-East to Latin American – was a continuous wail about the inordinate waiting times to get a telephone. This delay – years or decades — almost amounted to a prohibition against phones, and was all the more painful because the centrality of the telephone in modern life was clear to everyone, particularly those without one. The digital economy is primarily an information and communications economy, so unless you were connected, you did not exist. Until the mid 1990s, most of the unwired world did not exist in the modern economy.

Then cellular phones came along. Cheap, portable (hidable), and available now, they were a technological tsunami crashing through the wall of political bureaucracy that had kept the phone locked up for the elites. There was a world-wise sucking sound as anyone with a few dollars grabbed a cell phone. Motorola went to China in 1995 to manufacture cheap cell phones for the US but never managed to export any because all were sold in China itself. The rising curve of phones sold in China was an astounding mirror of rising Chinese standards of living, and of their hopes and ambitions. Doubling every year, cell phone use was explosive, changing the culture in a way nothing had done since Mao. And this mild revolution was accomplished without having to build a million telephone poles, with a million linemen, and a trillion miles of copper. China had leapfrogged over the telegraph era, and flown directly to the digital gold zone. They had gone from unwired to no-need-of wired, and had skipped the wired generation altogether! If they could, then so could the rest of Asia, and Africa and Latin America.

If only that is what had happened. While the exponential increase in cell phones is certainly factual, the assumption that this new technology removes the need for the old is not. The simplest chart of cell phones and land lines per year in China shows the problem. As cell phones acquisition goes go up, so do land lines. Not as fast, but telephone land lines continue to increase in China. They sure aren’t being skipped over.


Perhaps China is an exception? So far the rest of the world is following a similar pattern. India, the other poster child in leapfrogging, is a few steps behind of China but reveals an identical pattern; an explosion of wired phones, trailing an explosion of mobile phones. In the rest of Asia, the mid east, Latin America and Africa wireless phones are proliferating faster than wired ones, but wired (the old generation) continues to expand as well. To be clear, the numbers cell phones in the world tipped past the number of fixed lines about October 2001. That means that three quarters of African countries have more mobile phones than stationary ones. All telecom forecasts for the next five years predict cell phones to continue to eclipse fixed lines. But every forecast also expects land technology to increase as well. The old style grows even as the new accelerates. (The only place in the world I could find a certifiable drop in land lines was in Chile in 2003 when fixed lines dropped to 3.25 million lines from 3.47 millions a year earlier.)

Why would the old generation continue to grow? One study of Latin American telephone adoption suggested that cell phones train people to rely on telephonic communication and thus boost their demand for land lines as well. Cell phones are training wheels for real bandwidth use. So far internet use is primarily confined to land lines. If you want to get online, you need good old copper (or optic) wires, so the real vanguards of society leap past cell phones to get dial-up modems or DSL. One way to interrupt the sizable gains in fixed lines around the world is to see it as internet conquest. Or as a indication of bandwidth. Mobility brings thin and spotty communication; fixed lines brings you deep, constant fat bandwidth. Those relations could change in the future of course, and probably will as technology evolves, but a fiber optic cable is like to beat out wireless for the immediate future.

Since internet connections are booming, might the wired trump the unwired in the realm of TV? What a lovely world it would be if the internet (interactive) leapfrogged over passive TV. But that is not happening either. While one in ten people on earth is an internet user (a success we would not have dreamed about 10 years ago!), the ancient technology of TV is more prevalent than ever: Globally there’s one set for every three people, and one for every household on average. Television adoption has been growing at 13% per year, which is actually faster than telephone line growth.

There is simply no evidence for the “skipping over” part in the one realm that everyone claims demonstrates the dream of leapfrogging.

What we see instead is “racing forward.” We see newer technologies booming on top of a slower boom of old technologies. While cell phones in China are increasing exponentially, China’s use of cement, steam boilers, steel, and all the other ingredients of the industrial age are likewise increasing.

I may be wrong but I believe you can not have a rise in new infrastructure technology without having a rise in old infrastructure. To a degree that is invisible to us, new tech sits on a foundation of old tech. Despite the vital layer of intangible activities which constitute our modern economy, a huge portion of what goes on each day is fairly industrial in scope: moving atoms, rearranging atoms, mining atoms, burning atoms, refining atoms, stacking atoms.

It is no different with our brains. Most of our brain’s activity is spent on primitive processes – like navigating — that we can’t even perceive consciously. Instead we are aware of only a thin, modern, sophisticated layer of “hi-tech” processing that sits on and depends upon the reliable workings of older processes. I don’t think you can do calculus until you do counting; I don’t think you can do cell phones until you do land phones. And I don’t think you can build a digital infrastructure without including an industrial process.

Does this mean that if we were to try to colonize an uninhabited Earth-like planet that we would be required to recapitulate history and start with sharp sticks, smoke signals and mud-brick buildings and then work our way through each era? Would we not try to create a society from scratch using the most sophisticated technology we had?


I think we would try but that it would not work. If we were civilizing Mars, a bulldozer would be as valuable as a radio. Just like the predominance of lower functions in our brain, industrial process predominate the technium, even though they are gilded with informational veneers. The demassification of high technology is at times an illusion. It is not that information technology has no mass, that it lives in an abstract virtual world. Rather, high technology is the embedment of information into materials, the seamless fusion of bits and atoms. It is adding intelligence to industry, rather than removing industry and leaving only information.

In this way, there is no hi-tech without low tech, and no leapfrogging over low tech. We may find times when a new technology races forward, and the velocity of the new outpaces the velocity of the old, but even then we won’t see the myth of leapfrogging.


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