Technology for the rich and poor

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web. In 1989 it would have been impossible to predict the extent to which the Web was going to become part of our daily lives, with most of us, in developed countries at least, now incapable of being offline for more than a few hours. The progress of information technology over the last few decades has been breathtaking – consider the changes seen over the lifetime of someone born just after World War II, now in their 60s. They would have completed school before even the electronic calculator was invented, but would most likely end their working lives using a computer on a daily basis and even being able to check emails on their phone. 

The speed of change is not unprecedented – imagine the transformation witnessed in the lifetime of someone born in 1820, when horseback, or horsepower, was the only form of land transport. They would have seen the opening of the very first steam railway and by the end of their lives – should they have been sufficiently well off – could have owned their own car. They might even have lived to see the Wright brothers’ first flight. The evolution of communications technology has certainly gathered pace. At the start of the 1800s came the first telegram, followed by the invention of the first phone in 1876, though it wasn’t until after 1900 that the first telephone exchange opened. The first mobile phone came along in 1983 – with mobiles becoming commonplace in the 1990s – then the first Blackberry in 1999, followed by iPhones in 2007. 

With mobile phones came a revolution in the way that technology is adopted. Unlike with most technological progress, the developing world has not been left far behind first world countries. In fact, in some ways, Africa has overtaken the West in the sophistication of the services that are available to mobile phone subscribers – after all, it was a Kenyan bank that offered the world’s first mobile-only bank account. Lack of access to computers, and particularly lack of internet connectivity, meant that the transformative impact of the internet on, say, banking or education in developed countries was not seen in large parts of Africa. Until mobile phones became affordable, that is. African entrepreneurs soon embraced the opportunities mobile telephony offered and, in many ways, progress with things like m-commerce, was easier because having limited access to the older technologies meant they were less constrained by them. Sub-Saharan mobile subscriptions have risen fivefold in the last seven years, with three quarters of Africans now having access to a mobile phone. Africa’s embrace of mobile technology, and the continent’s innovations in the areas of mobile banking and even mobile education have been a rare but welcome example of a historically underdeveloped region leading the rest of the world. 

However, lack of affordable broadband internet access still frustrates many people in developing countries – there is, after all, only so much you can do on a mobile phone. Projects such as the Global E-Schools and Communities Initiative have been doing amazing work with schools in Africa to improve educational outcomes using ICT. But not all schools are able to benefit due to lack of internet access – and even lack of electricity in some cases. 

Solar models are currently being developed that could allow laptops to work reliably in areas where there is no mains electricity. And there could soon be a solution to getting broadband into remote areas. A group called – founded by Facebook and supported by other major technology developers including Samsung and Nokia – is looking into the idea of using solar-powered drones to beam the internet into areas that do not currently have connectivity. Meanwhile, Google is working on its own plans to beam broadband into remote areas using balloons. 

So where will the next 25 years take us? As technologies start to mature, it seems unlikely that progress will advance at the same heady pace as it has up until now. Then again, it’s hard to rule anything out. If you told someone in 1989 that they would soon be able to take a picture on a phone the size of their hand, type an electronic message to go with it and send it anywhere in the world (with no cables required), using technology that even children could afford, they might not have believed you.


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