In 1997 Gary Chapman of the University of Texas wrote that the unregulated development of technology was an enemy of social harmony: “There are many causes of income inequality, according to economists, and one cause is technological development itself….technological progress creates its own discontent….
“James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas, says that because corporate managers look to a small segment of the population as their target market—people with high disposable incomes—we get innovation characterized by over-engineering, ‘baroque’ product features and short product life cycles with built-in obsolescence.
“‘What inequality tends to foster, in terms of innovation,’ says Galbraith, ‘are “toys” for the rich instead of investments in mass use.’ That, he says, is why we favor $30,000 cars over mass transit, cellular phones and expensive services over universal access …”
The phrase “toys for the rich” seems to have been originated, or at least popularized, by the physicist and “futurist” Freeman Dyson. He used it in print as early as 1993, and when he was awarded the Templeton Prize, for progress in religion, in 2000, one British journalist wrote: “Professor Dyson has criticised science for concentrating too much technology on ‘making toys for the rich’ such as cellular phones and ever-smaller laptops.”
Whether Dyson himself ever specifically described cell phones as toys is unclear. In 1999, in fact, he wrote: “Most of our socially important technologies, such as telephones, automobiles, television, and computers, began as expensive toys for the rich and afterwards became cheap enough for ordinary people to afford.” Still, he was clear and emphatic about the need for science to concentrate its efforts on technologies aimed at the poor, so that “every Egyptian village can be as wealthy as Princeton.”
In light of these sentiments, it’s interesting to read in the July 9 issue of The Economist that “Mobile-phone firms have found a profitable way to help the poor help themselves.” Africa and rural India are among the biggest developing markets for mobile technology. People there use the phones—which are often shared by groups of users or rented out by the call—to check prices on the goods they produce, find out about jobs, transfer funds, monitor how projects are going, and do dozens of other things that Americans take for granted. They even love handsets with musical ringtones and video games.
The Economist continues: “Mobile phones have become indispensable in the rich world. But they are even more useful in the developing world,” where fixed-line phone systems, with their ravenous need for wires and switches, are expensive and unreliable in cities and non-existent outside them. “In a typical developing country,” the article reports, “a rise of ten mobile phones per 100 people boosts GDP growth by 0.6 percentage points.”
The same magazine’s September 17 issue tells how in Mexico, a country whose bureaucracy is normally “far from efficient,” a new anti-poverty program is able to give a poor woman a check in less than ten seconds: “As names are called, each woman appears before the window with an identity card and a difficult-to-forge holographic stamp….All this would have been impossible without computerization … [and] the ability to crunch numbers on a massive scale.”
It’s unlikely that the inventors of mobile telephones, holograms, and megacomputers were motivated by the thought of helping poor countries escape poverty. The entrepreneurs who backed these inventions probably never envisioned selling them in Kenya and rural Mexico either, but they knew that they would be a lot more than “toys” and would find a market extending far beyond the rich. Inventors have a much better idea of what is possible than bureaucrats and academics do, and entrepreneurs have a much better understanding of what the public needs—as the comments at the beginning of this posting demonstrate. The reason is simple: Unlike bureaucrats and academics, their success depends on it.