Forty years behind - or just a heartbeat

Photo of old and new phones

“Did you know that 60% of the earth’s population still haven’t made their first phone call?”

I don’t know when I first heard that claim, but it must have been sometime in the eighties or early nineties. Surely, the number was already old by then, but I’ve since heard it repeated several times, and long past its due date.

I’m also not sure what the moral of such a statement should be, but I guess it’s meant to highlight the vast differences of standards between… uhm… us and them?

Let’s just take a moment and remember the brilliant Hans Rosling (Yes, it’s a link. Make a donation!), founder of GapMinder.org and all around great dude. He taught us, in the most fascinating way, that the idea of “us and them” is no longer viable, so please keep that in mind while reading on.

Back to the telephone, and the distribution of users. If there was ever any truth to the statement that only 60% of the earth’s population had ever used a phone, it should definitely be debunked at this point.

However, it is probably true that there is a gap between the richer and poor areas around the world, when looking at the use and availability of technology. The latest iPhone is currently priced at USD649. I’m sure lots of Somalians have iPhones, but with a GDP at USD400, according to CIA (subject to change), I suspect it’s not as common as “we” in the west are used to.

Where am I getting with this, anyway?

Well, technical jumps, really.

In some of the poorest parts of the world, phone availability was extremely low as recently as the 90’s and 00’s. The number of phones per capita was roughly the same as in “western” countries during the 40’s or 50’s. There was effectively a 40 year gap in technological development/availability between the richest and the poorest countries.

But what does that mean? Does it mean that it will take 40 years for the poorest countries to catch up? Or does it mean that those countries will always be 40 years behind?

No, of course not. None of the above.

In fact, because the results of all (most) technical research and development are shared globally. Even more importantly, both the knowledge and the products are becoming more accessible.

In practice, this means that the poor regions can skip all the intermediate steps and catch right up with us. If a village in the rural mountain regions of India doesn’t have access to phones, they will not bury hundreds of kilometers of copper in the ground and use landlines for 40-50 years just for the fun of it. Instead, they will jump straight to mobile technology. Neither will they go for GSM technology and then slowly upgrade it to 3G, 4G and then 5G. They will go for the latest available technology. Along with a few solar panels to power the system.

They are not 40, 50 or 60 years behind us, they are but a heartbeat away from catching up. And when they do, their circumstances will in some ways be better than what ours, since they will not be burdened by old copper wires and legacy systems.

I sometimes detect a hint of smugness in some people, who think that the western world is at the forefront of technical advancement, and that this head start will last forever. But those people are wrong, because that same technical advancement is available to the whole world, and the head start will soon be eliminated.

And it will be a better world for us all when that happens, so let’s make an effort to get there soon.

(Feature photo: MasterPhoto-DK)

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