Last week, Anand Giridharadas penned an article for The New York Times called “Where a Cellphone Is Still Cutting Edge“. In it, he refers to uses of cellphone in the developing world and how transformational cellphones can be. He also poses an interesting thought on the US’s potential windfall from mobile-ladened cellphone users in the developing world:
All of which suggests the presence of an innovation gap between the world’s richest societies and the poorest — not in device design so much as in usage. And there is a question about whether the United States, which gained so much from the Internet revolution, will similarly profit from the entry of billions more people from the developing world into a massive worldwide middle class — consumers now but not yet rich, with a simple cellphone and a less-is-more sensibility.
But is desire replacing need as the mother of American inventions? Will domestic demand for ever sleeker, faster, fancier devices make it harder for Americans to innovate for the vaster, less opulent world outside, still dominated by frugal wants? Perhaps.
This is completely the wrong argument. It’s not incumbent upon Americans to innovate for the developing world (although we try hard). There’s a stark distinction between hardware and software, and between functionality and content. Sure, the industrialized/industrializing world may provide the hardware and functionality, even potentially ‘customized’ with flashlights and robust batteries, but it’s the individual contexts that will determine the appropriate applications and programs that users will most use. Some may be ported from the developed world, yet many will be developed locally.
Giridharadas then poo-poos Ken Banks’ assertion that the West oftentimes misapproaches implementing technology in the developing world:
Ken Banks, a British entrepreneur who works in Africa and developed FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging service for aid groups, put it this way: “There’s often a tendency in the West to approach things the wrong way round, so we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things just because we can.”
Well, yes. Then again, the mobile phone itself began that way. In 1987, when Michael Douglas famously carried one in “Wall Street,” it was an exorbitant gadget for high rollers. Now it’s more common than a toilet.
Again, the author is a bit off. The cellphone was developed for people like the stockbrokers in “Wall Street” who could afford the technology at the time, and not developed with poor people in mind. Technology built for developing world consumers that isn’t a marriage between bottom-up contextualizing and top-down possibilitizing will fail. I invite Giridharadas to come and implement a tech project with us. He’ll quickly understand that plopping a mobile phone loaded with cool applications in a poor person’s hand won’t work.