Not such a brave new world

How new technology comes wrapped in hyperbole but seldom does what it says on the box

Are you ready to upgrade your computer with the new Microsoft operating system? Vista is everything its predecessors were not. Or maybe you're looking forward to the iPhone. The new gadget, which combines a touch-screen mobile phone with an iPod and provides email, web browsing and helpful maps, will change your life. Just imagine the things you can do with it. You could simultaneously listen to music, chat up a date, surf the web and take pictures while navigating through a rainforest. What more could you ask for?

New technology, I find, always comes wrapped in hyperbole; but it seldom delivers what it says on the packaging. This is particularly true when sold to the world's poor. From pesticides to dams, genetic engineering to computers, almost every technology has been sold to people in the underprivileged world on the promise that it will make them rich. Now we are being told in breathless terms that mobile phones will enable the farmers of Africa to connect in hitherto un imagined ways and thus enable them to break out of the poverty cycle. If only.

The World Bank and United Nations Development Programme are the leading salesmen of "revolutionary" technology. The UNDP, for example, claims that its "tool kit" of computers and mobile phone can be used to provide potable water, improve the conditions of women, provide rural people with access to health, and even promote democracy. The World Bank believes that the mobile phone can provide developing countries with access to vast amounts of knowledge from the industrialised world. So poor farmers and businessmen can get access to international markets, financial information and critical data on such things as nutrition, fertilisers and the weather. All rather grand, but how does it work in practice?

When Lloyd Waller, a computer consultant, looked at the impact of computers and mobile phones on tourism in Jamaica, he found there was no connection between claims and outcomes. Weller spent five years studying the government's Cybercentre Project, established to help small-scale entrepreneurs. The project was set up with the help of a UNDP scheme on "ICT for livelihood expansion, through microenterprise development". It involved providing owners of small hotels with the latest computers and mobile phones and teaching them how to use the web to promote their businesses, take bookings and enhance their communication.

Waller's thesis, submitted to the University of Waikato, provides enlightening reading. The new technology had no positive impact on the livelihood of the dozens of entrepreneurs he studied. It did not lead to the generation of new products or services, or open up markets. But it had a string of negative impacts. It increased the debt burdens of the entrepreneurs; and discouraged the development of simple, local solutions.

I am not surprised. If your little hotel caters for a handful of guests every year, and you conduct your relationship with them on first-name terms, you don't really need a computer booking system. "Microenterprise" in Jamaica, as elsewhere in the developing world, turns out to be really micro. A couple running a busy pension, Waller discovered, just do not have time to respond routinely to emails, constantly make changes to their website or muck about with printers, scanners and mobile-phone cameras. There is too much to do in their daily routines. Besides, you have to sit down to work on a computer, whereas Jamaican business folk prefer to stand, or even walk, while working. Most found accessing the web on their mobile too cumbersome. Almost everyone complained that their workload had increased since the arrival of new technology.

This is not to say that the poor do not know how to use technology to their advantage. Where there's a need, there is always a viable, cheap solution. The small entrepreneurs discovered that they can do much better than purchase their mobiles from telecom operators and get tied up with crippling contracts. They could go underground. In Jamaica, a thriving market exists in stolen mobiles. Phones are systematically stolen in Miami and sold on cheaply. Enter the bright computer-science graduates of colleges such as the Caribbean Institute of Technology, known locally as "computa people". These lads can strip a mobile of its complexities and reconfigure it to suit the needs of the small entrepreneurs. So, by pressing one button, the old couple running the pension can communicate with their clients in real time, check their online bookings, or place an order for tonight's menu.

Gadgets that try to do too many things end up complicating our lives. Don't promise the earth, and keep it cheap and simple, I say. Otherwise, some of us will be forced to subvert the enterprise and seek an underground solution.