Friday, March 11, 2005

Technology: My view of its role in development

If you know anything about me or have followed my writings here for a while, you know I have thrust myself into the “quest for growth.” Pursuit of the magical ingredient behind the booming economies of the west and near east has become the impetus propelling the branch of economics known as development economics. Yours truly has been has found himself swirling in the ideas of such big thinkers as Hernando De Soto, Bill Easterly and Joseph Stiglitz. And, as any good protégé, I have done some of my own thinking too. Today some of my ideas were validated.
I wholeheartedly believe that technology holds the hope for the billions living in abject poverty in the nations of the world. But my view of how it does that is, let me say, a little more ambitious and optimistic than the views of some of my peers who care about this kind stuff. A common view is that technology can certainly improve the quality of life but, implementing technology is such a mammoth task, it’s not the best route to bettering the quality of life. I beg to differ.
Most scholars thinking about development are westerners. “Why is that important,” you ask. I’ll tell you why. This seemingly innocuous fact changes their view of progress of development, in particular the role of technology in development. To westerners, technology while innovative, is really dependent on history, it’s not new. It evolves; improvements are based on previous versions. This idea is best articulated by economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” theory. The convenience of technology comes at a cost—at least in the west—people have to innovate and put up with unrefined inventions for a long time. So what you ask. Again, I’ll tell you what: this means it takes time, a lot of time, before new ideas revolutionize how we do life. There is a great deal of time and capital wasted between the inception of a great contraption and the time when said invention improves the quality of life for the masses.
Take the computer for example. There are numerous dates suggested for when this now indispensable external brain came into being. Here are some of the dates suggested. For arguments sake let’s go by the story that the computer was invented by Professor Douglas Hartree in 1935 at the University of Manchester. If this is true, do you realize that it took a full 60 years before the computer changed the way we do life? “And what’s your point,” I hear you whisper. Tarry, I’ll tell you what my point is!
For underdeveloped countries like my beloved Zimbabwe, the road to technology is not so long drawn out. We don’t have to wait 60 years, for the computer to change the way we shop, bank, or communicate. It already does that now. For us, the transition between inception and impact of new technologies is almost non existant. The reason for this is obvious, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel; consequently, we benefit from what’s already there.
A new study by Forrester Research on global use of mobile phones (a.k.a. cell phones) came out today. Read about it here, here and here. They found that cell phone use is growing fastest in Africa, the poorest continent in the world! Good for us. But you know what’s even better; the same study also found that developing countries that had more than 10 cell phones per 100 people had .59% higher GDP growth than comparable countries! This is a classic case of how a technology (we didn’t invent) is remarkably changing lives. What this means is that developing countries don’t have to wait out the tedious process of setting up analog telecommunications infrastructure to enjoy the benefits of being able exchange information quickly over the phone (economists you now what this means for capitalism…fungibility!). This same study also found that mobile phone coverage extends over more than 5 billion people (that’s more than 80% of the world’s population!) even though there are only 1.5 billion people with access to mobile phone technology.
This study is validating because it offers anecdotal evidence of the enormous role technology can play in the development. Notice, it is the technology impacting development, not vice versa.
Let’s focus on not only developing specific technologies for the poor, let’s work on helping them access current technology too!

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