Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: Moore’s Law vs. the Law of the Jungle

India is saying farewell to the telegram. The final telegram message will go out on Monday, telegraphing the end of an era.

That office used to send out some 10,000 telegrams a day, and now barely does 100. It’s a similar story across most of India, the AP reports. The 45,000 telegram offices in India three decades ago have shrunk to just 75.

The Associated Press reports:

Just 30 years ago the telegram was king in India. But the service has lost $250 million in just the last seven years as national cellphone subscriptions hit 867 million in April, more than double the number of just four years ago.

“Most people who come in now are those who want to send a telegram for an official reason,” said Lata Harit, a telegraph officer at Delhi’s historic Kashmere Gate Telegraph Office. “It’s no longer about a birth in the family or a death. For that people rely on their telephones or cellphones.”

For many Indians, this is a little more than a nostalgic goodbye, much like the end of Kodak’s Kodachrome film here a few years ago. They might be a bit wistful, but no one is going to trade in their smart phone for a paper telegram. For others, particularly those across the rural landscape, there is no cell tower, there is no Internet connection – at least not yet. These are the folks caught between the old and the new worlds, and despite massive adoption of mobile technology, about 74 percent of the country is still without a cell phone.

Questions of what is the appropriate technology, by whom, for whom, abounds as the development world and the masters of the universe in Silicon Valley grow ever closer. Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur’s excellent article in Foreign Policy Magazine, Can Silicon Valley Save the World: Defeating global poverty is the latest startup trend. But is there really an app for that? details this friction and the push versus pull approaches to developing and marketing technology to the base of the pyramid.

Kenny and Sandefur provide more than a hint of skepticism about the flourishing tech romance between Silicon Valley’s titans and the broader development community. On the whole, the tech culture’s ease with failures and flops doesn’t necessarily jibe with the goals of the development community, they argue. The Achilles Heel often is the fact that mobile devices such as smart phones are designed with prosperous people in mind. Those products also can be tested in a thriving marketplace of disposable income, whereas developing markets lack that sort of powerful churn to consume, accept and/or reject those products en masse. They highlight the Soccket, the PlayPump, and One Laptop per Child – products that have have had their share of criticism as well as hype – as cases in point:

“Every start-up thinks it has the next billion-dollar idea until the market reveals otherwise. The same is true when start-ups wade into development philanthropy; there’s just no market to disabuse them of those notions. Of course, technology and innovation can play a huge role in improving the quality of life of poor people across the globe, but the surprising truth is that the right approach for harnessing that innovation hasn’t been incubated in freewheeling Palo Alto, but in the bowels of a supposedly hidebound government bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.”

Still, the authors look at a few promising efforts to change this dynamic, including the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) created by Raj Shah, executive director of USAID, which recently launched the $10 million fund. The fund isn’t just investing in hopeful tech-enabled ideas, but monitoring those investments closely to avoid doubling down on technology that fizzles. Its portfolio can be found here.

As the telegram exits the scene in India, if not the rest of the planet, it does so with a tech legacy that won’t be repeated. No app or device we’re using today could possibly best the 163-year run that the telegram had in India. And despite all the news it brought to the masses, neither the telegram – nor the mobile phone – increased people’s access to, say, sanitation. About half India’s 1.2 billion residents are mobile subscribers. Only 366 million people (about one-third of its population), however, have access to toilets, according to a 2010 U.N. report.

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