Sara Corbett has written a fascinating (long) article for the New York Times Magazine, Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty? Hmm. I just don't quite know how to react. For example, read this from the article. It's a paragraph describing the responses that anthropologists from Nokia received when discussing possible cellphone features with people in developing countries,
Jung and Tulusan said they’d found this everywhere, the phone representing what people are aspiring to. “It’s an easy way to see what’s important to them, what their challenges are,” Jung said. One Liberian refugee wanted to outfit a phone with a land-mine detector so that he could more safely return to his home village. In the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, people sketched phones that could forecast the weather since they had no access to TV or radio. Muslims wanted G.P.S. devices to orient their prayers toward Mecca. Someone else drew a phone shaped like a water bottle, explaining that it could store precious drinking water and also float on the monsoon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one designer drew a phone with an air-quality monitor. Several women sketched phones that would monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. Another designed a “peace button” that would halt gunfire in the neighborhood with a single touch.
So does Nokia see billions of cellphone customers or billions of impoverished people when it designs a cellphone that can withstand the rough and tumble conditions of a developing-world slum? Does it matter if they see both?
I suppose one reason that stories like Corbett's sit tentatively on my mind and heart is that my experience has been that cellphones and other technology gadgets are as much a conduit to unnecessary consumption as they are a means to economic subsistence. What will Nokia or partners of Nokia do with their billions of new customers? Market them, says the cynic in me. If corporations can sell a poverty stricken person a cellphone for $25 surely they'll be tempted to sell that person a brand name pair of shoes for $18. To a point, of course it is better to have a nice pair of shoes instead of no shoes at all. It's just that most of us in the West have passed that point. A nice pair of shoes is not enough to celebrate. Nor the nicer pair of shoes we want after we see an advertisement.
For us, it never ends. For the developing world, it's just beginning. With what I trust is genuine humility and concern, I'd say there is hope for our world to get consumption right. It will be hard. Very hard.