That, above, is a photo of a house under construction in the Yunnan province of China. Kevin Kelly, one of the high priests of technology, has spent some time in that part of the world and shares some thoughts:
This area of Yunnan is consider one of the poorer areas in China, and the standard of living of the inhabitants here would be classified as “poor.”
Part of the reason is that these homes have no running water, no grid electricity, and no toilets. They don’t even have outhouses.
But the farmers and their children who live in these homes all have cell phones, and they have accounts on the Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, and recharge via solar panels….
The farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one. and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet. As you can see from these farmers’ homes in Yunnan, they definitely could have at least built an outhouse if they found it valuable. (I know they don’t have a toilet because I’ve stayed in many of their homes.) But instead they found the intangible benefits of connection to be greater than the physical comforts of running water.
Most of the poor of the world don’t have such access to resources as these Yunnan farmers, but even in their poorer environment they still choose to use their meager cash to purchase the benefits of the 3rd revolution over the benefits of the 2nd revolution. Connection before plumbing. It is an almost universal choice.
I have no idea whether the choice is as universal as Kelly says it is; but his story is fascinating. I’m reminded of Iqbal Quadir, who, a good many years ago now, saw that his fellow Bangladeshis in rural areas needed phone contact with the rest of the world, and just couldn’t wait for landlines to be built. So he founded Grameenphone to help his country to skip that technological stage.
Economic, technological, and intellectual development happened in the West (and in certain other parts of the world) in one particular sequence, but that sequence isn’t natural or inevitable. It’ll be very interesting to see, in the coming decades, which technologies and tendencies created in the West are seized upon by people elsewhere in the world — and which ones get ignored.