Alan Jacobs notes a piece by Kevin Kelly highlighting the preference for cell phones over plumbing in Yunan province:

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.

To which Rod Dreher comments:

Remember when consumer satellite dishes came out in the early 1980s? They weren’t cheap, which is why it was startling to drive by a mobile home — often one in not-great condition — and see one of those gazebo-sized dishes in the front yard. Why would you spend your money on that instead of saving up for a house? For that matter, why would you spend your money on a luxury automobile instead of on improvements to your house? . . . Should Third World peoples’ opting for communications technology over more basic technologies like grid electricity and running water be seen as foolish, or merely different? Is there wisdom in that choice?

My own thoughts:

First, don’t assume that grid electricity and running water are as easy to come by as cell phones and internet access. One of the major reasons why so many developing nations have opted to skip the whole landline thing is that it is much, much easier to put up a cell phone tower than to lay wire or fiber – you can do it with much less capital, a much smaller organization, and much less involvement with the government. That goes in spades for laying sewer lines.

Second, don’t assume that what you consider an essential part of normal life seems essential to people who have never had it. If you don’t have plumbing, and have never had plumbing, and nobody around you has ever had plumbing, then you’ve presumably long since worked out an efficient way to relieve yourself. That’s what you do, and what your people have always done. Maybe it’s less private than an outhouse – but in that case you’re used to not having privacy. Maybe it involves walking further than you would to a bathroom – but maybe it seems normal not to defecate in your home. So somebody comes along and offers to build you an outhouse – would you pay good money for a luxury that solves a problem you don’t have? Or would you prefer to pay the money for something that opens up a huge range of new social and economic possibilities – like a cell phone?

Third, take a look again at the finished house in Kelly’s piece. At the work that went into carving and painting. Isn’t the real question why you would spend money on that rather than on an outhouse? The cell phone is useful. The outhouse is useful. The scale of construction and elaborate decoration is just a frill. Right? Except that, presumably, this is the normal scale and style of house for someone in that social class, and the decoration is also normal. Cutting back on these things would be the equivalent of doing without the expected markers of class in order to afford . . . what? You might do without to afford to send your child to university. You might do without to afford to buy a tractor to improve your farm’s productivity. But would you really do without in order to get an outhouse, which is some white person’s idea of a necessity?

Dreher was puzzled why people in trailer parks or shacks would own satellite TVs or Cadillac cars, rather than saving up for a bigger, better house. Well, is a bigger, better house strictly necessary? Is it obvious that the right good to be saving up for is more space? Or does it look from the outside mostly like a class marker, which is the kind of thing that attracts some people (who want to leave their class behind) and repels others (who want to stay in the class to which they were born). By contrast, the satellite dish or fancy car is a straightforward luxury, something everyone in their class would understand and appreciate – a sign of doing well, not of moving up and out.

In general, I think it’s a good idea to avoid jumping to the judging phase – is this foolish or wise? – rather than lingering in the information-gathering phase. A good rule of thumb is that most people do things that make sense to them. That doesn’t mean they are actually doing what is best for them in the long run, or what is best for their children – but if you don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing, you are unlikely to be able to determine whether it is, in fact, best for them, much less to convince them that they are wrong.

Back in the good old days of colonialism, Westerners decided what luxuries were really necessities for civilization – Western clothing, for example. Now, in the bad new days of globalization, people in developing nations acquire the Western habits they find most attractive. Turns out television and hamburgers are among the more appealing bad habits we have to offer. But cell phones are a no-brainer.