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It is time to talk about Technology differently

While manifestly found in many animal species, humanity’s ability to devise and wield intricate tools is unique in its breadth and impact. Be it part of our genetic code, a proportionally massive cranium or an elegant pair of opposable-thumbs, some set of perfect conditions has allowed for the presence of a magnificent talent; our obsession with finding easier ways to achieve our diverse ends. We would do well to remember this. Technology is not an end in itself, nor is it a single ubiquitously recognised set of means. It is a talent found in all of us, an urge to create and innovate and move past obstacles set before us.

Statistically, most of you will be readers from Europe or North America. Recently, we have been exposed to a certain idea of what “Technology” is supposed to mean. If we go by published output from mainstream Technology- or Business press outlets, we could be easily led into thinking that Technology is euphemism for the “Information Technology industry”. Some of us might associate the word to a mosaic of gadgets that together form part of this vaguely coined “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a Global economy driven by automation. Why is our definition of Technology so limited?

As initially said by Robert Smith, Co-Founder of Seedlink and anthropology researcher, this is a “Euro-American Centric consensus”. A handful of financiers and technologists from London and San Francisco are setting the tone for how start-ups should be born and companies should be run. It is built around an obsession with the economic domination of four or five Big Tech corporations and the opinions of investors in Silicon Valley or Silicon Circle. This obsession is blinding us from the exciting developments in technology, like the midday sun outshining the moon and stars.

It is in fact a double blind. First you are being misled into thinking IT may be the most important technology, simply by merit of investment volumes and value (see CB-Insights’ 2019 List of Unicorns by Industry). Next that Big Tech may be an appropriate poster-child for contemporary technological development.

Let us decide to take a step-back, or rather, to remove our headsets and examine the question of technology as the fruit of an anthropologically-encoded set of creative or innovative behaviours based on improving the human condition.

Now a gospel to be repeated on San Franciscan dinner-tables, Moore & Grove’s balanced corporate-innovative environment at Intel in the 1970s, created the foundation on which several breakthrough technologies like the MOS transistor and integrated-circuit were developed. This foundation and the success that came with it enabled Intel and several other early digital companies to create a financially-supportive environment for start-ups to pursue ambitious high-risk projects.

It is in fact quite revealing how much directional influence Moore and Grove have had on the ideological tapestry of Silicon Valley. Moore’s law dictates the technical keystone: “The number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years.” Elsewhere, one of Grove’s laws (the exact law is subject to a great-many disputes) dictates the cultural keystone: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” (Attributed to Andy Grove in: Ciarán Parker (2006) The Thinkers 50: The World’s Most Influential Business. p. 70). Another Grovian law is that “A fundamental rule in technology says that whatever can be done will be done.” (Attributed to Andrew S. Grove in: William J. Baumol et al (2007) Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth. p. 228). Built on these two keystones was the ideological evolution of Silicon Valley, built into a highly self-confident arena for microchip-based solutions to an apparently infinite plethora of identifiable problems. It explains the emergence and dominance of disruptive innovation and unique value proposition as pillar concepts. It gives prelude to the impact left by Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which we have already covered here.

The recounting of the early days seems to be missing key ingredients. In addition to the leaders of the Intel corporation, were Gordon French and another Moore, Fred Moore. French and Moore were co-Founders of the Homebrew Computer Club, a club for DIY personal computer building enthusiasts founded in Menlo Park. This informal group of computer geeks was in all intents and purposes a digital humanist entreprise, openly inviting anyone who seeks to know more about electronics and computers to join the conversation and build with like-minded peers. Its great influence on Steve Wozniak and the many Stanford University engineers to that have built the Valley cannot be overstated.

Technologists from across the globe have inspired themselves off of this origin story, and innovative ecosystems have cropped-up in mimickry. New uses of IT, democratised and cheaper-to-access, have led to fascinating developments in parts of the developing world that do not enjoy California’s access to investment funds. And there is also the fact that Silicon Valley was not the only Tech story of the last 50 years (think vaccines, cancer research and environmental technologies). More colours come to light and the grey-bland world of Euro-American financialised IT will fade back into a world of people finding new ways of solving problems, finding new problems to solve, finding new problems from ways of solving, finding new solutions to problems yet unseen.

We dove into the mission of Supriya Rai — who seeks to bring beauty and colour into hundreds of identical-looking London office buildings with Switcheroo. She is now also Wonk Bridge’s CTO!

We followed Muhammad and Robbie, who broke away from the London incubator scene after an initially successful Agri-tech IoT prototype, to radically changing their business plan to launch a logistics service company in East Africa, against the wishes of their Euro-American investment mentors. Rather than launch Seedlink to improve the lives of Malawians and East Africans at large, which entirely satisfy the white saviour narrative and follow a set of Euro-American prescribed ROIs, they sought to build a proposition that would fit in this unique business climate. How can a company that connects rural farmers to urban centres ignore common practices like tipping that are branded as bribery in the Euro-American world. What explained the gap between the London investors’ expectations and the emerging strategy needed to succeed in East Africa?

Thanks to a double-feature from our China-correspondent Edward Zhang, we analysed how different countries used the power of their societal and political technology as well as how they leveraged their national cultures to combat Covid-19. Sometimes, technologies are a set of cultural values and political innovations developed over the course of generations.

We also saw how a different application of a mature information technology such as the MMO video-game has helped fight autism where many other methods have failed.

The real world

 

Photo by Namnso Ukpanah on unsplash / Edited by Yuji Develle

I am writing this article on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the shade of a hotel found not far from a bustling Tanzanian town. Here, I can observe a much healthier use of technology, less dictated by the tyranny of notifications and more driven by connection between individuals found in the analog. People here use social media and telephones regularly, but they spend the majority of their time outside and depend on cooperation between townsfolk to survive (in the absence of public utilities or private sector).

 

My own photo of a Tanzanian suburb town near Arusha (Yuji Develle / December, 2020)

The Internet is available but limited to particular areas of towns and villages; WIFI hotspots at restaurants, bars or the ubiquitous mobile-phone stands (Tigo, M-PESA, Vodacom).

 

Left: A closed Tigo kiosk, Right: A Tigo pesa customer service shop (Yuji Develle / December, 2020)

The portals to the Digital Civilization have been kept open but also restricted by the lack of internet-access in peoples’ homes (missing infrastructure and the relatively high cost of IT being primary reasons why). It has kept IT from frenetically expanding into what it has become in the North-Atlantic and East Asia.

Like an ever-expanding cloud, the Technology-Finance Nexus has taken over our Global economy and replaced many institutions that served as pillars to the shape and life of analog world.

  • Social Networks have come to replace the pub, the newspaper kiosk, the café
  • Remote-working applications, the office
  • Amazon, the brick-and-mortar store, the pharmacy, the supermarket
  • Netflix, the cinema
  • Steam or Epic Games, the playground

These analog mainstays have been taken apart, ported and reassembled into the digital world. While the size of our Digital civilization continues to grow in volume and richness, the analog is shrinking and emptying with visible haste. The degradations that the disappearances provoke and that the exclusive-use of these Digital alternatives generate are unfortunately well documented at Wonk Bridge.

A new way of covering Tech

With our most recent initiative, Wonk World, we seek to avoid falling into the trap of overdiscussing and overusing the same Tech stories, told through and about the same territories, as representations of Tech as a whole. We aim to shed light into the creative and exciting rest-of-the-world.

We will be reaching out to technologists and digital humanists located far beyond Tech journalism’s traditional hunting grounds: Israel, China, Costa Rica. We will be following young Founders’ progress through the gruelling process of entrepreneurship in our Portraits of Young Founders newseries. Finally, we are looking for ways to break out of our collective echo-chambers and bring new perspectives into the Wonk Bridge community, so diversity of region as well as vision will constitue one of Wonk Bridge’s credos.

So join us, wherever you are and however you are, beyond the four walls of your devices and into the unexplored regions of the world and dimensions of the mind to see technology as Wonk Bridge sees it: the greatest story of humankind.

Yuji Develle

Yuji Develle

An inspired political technologist with a management consultant’s workflow, his gift lies in creating ecosystems where people and ideas can move from a whiff of inspiration to a firestorm of actionable opportunities. He is a strategist and networker, building the Wonk Bridge vision with its ever-growing community. His clear and evidence-based writing on deeply seeded social and political issues will help you unlock a new perspective.