Technology helps, but its role shouldn't be over-simplified
A Business Week story adopts an almost mocking tone as it covers Bill Gates and his enthusiasm for the application of technology to improve the lives of India's 1,166,000,000 people. But it would be naive to discuss Gates's enthusiasm for technology without seeing it through the broader lens through which he undoubtedly sees it. Technology is how we materialize our ideas; the simple can opener, for instance, is the result of an idea that food can be preserved and that safely doing so requires isolating it from the environment. The can opener, which virtually none of us could build by ourselves, is at once a humble instrument and a marvelous gadget that helps to make a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle utterly obsolete. A child today doesn't have to learn how to hunt if he or she can learn to use the can opener -- yet that knowledge escaped humans until 1795. What Gates is surely gambling on is that India has a massive amount of human capital -- that is, pent-up knowledge and experience inside the brains of its people -- that can be used more effectively with the help of certain tools, like text messaging and the Internet. It's not the technology itself that makes the panacea. It's the act of freeing people to use their knowledge through the technology that makes things better. The subtler parts of this argument are easy to miss when people get caught up in the fact that Gates just cancelled his Facebook account. The "story" to people caught up in gadgetry is that the chairman of a company that owns part of Facebook doesn't even use the technology. But the real story is in his explanation: "All of the tools of tech waste our time if we're not careful."
Apple sold more iPhones in 2008 than the total number of refrigerators sold in all of the 1920s
More than 10 million iPhones. That's well in excess of the number of mechanical refrigerators sold in the '20s. Our sense of speed and popular adoption of technologies is warped beyond belief -- after all, the refrigerator is far more useful to health and safety. Scary thought.
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...or do you?