This is not only because I am profoundly uncool personally, but also because I worry that we fixate on whiz-bang technology at the expense of less flashy stuff that can make a profound difference in people’s lives.
To give you a tale of two extremes: Exciting helium balloons and unremarkable smartphones with the look and feel of 1990s flip phones. The Information, a technology news publication, wrote this week about Loon, a nearly decade-old project from Google’s parent company to beam internet signals to remote places using high-altitude balloons that act like floating cellphone towers. The idea is thrilling. The balloons look like rad jellyfish. But, uh, they might not be working very well.
The Information found that Loon had spent a bunch of money including on costs it didn’t expect like regularly replacing balloons — something that more conventional internet delivery options don’t require. The Information pointed out some examples where Loon balloons have been useful, including when Hurricane Maria destroyed cell towers in Puerto Rico.
My colleague Abdi Latif Dahir has written that critics of a Loon project in Kenya said it was a solution in search of a problem, as most Kenyans already had internet access through more conventional cellphone towers and fiber optic cables.
He and the Information article implicitly asked a profound question: Is flashy technology better and more financially viable than cheaper, simpler solutions? It’s a good question, right? If fancy technology isn’t inherently better and may be worse, what’s the alternative? I wrote last year about two uncool technologies that have profoundly helped increase the number of people connected to the internet in poorer countries: Smartphones with simple software and bare-bones parts that cost as little as $20, and inexpensive equipment like solar-powered poles to hold internet wiring and carry signals to hard-to-reach spots in the world.
(It also helps to have billionaires like India’s Mukesh Ambani who are willing to pour money and political persuasion into building internet networks.) A solar-powered telecommunications pole in the ground is boring to look at but is the result of some sophisticated technology, sensible business planning and savvy politicking. Those are the unflashy forces that have made a far bigger difference for far less money than helium balloons, Facebook’s failed internet-ferrying drone project and efforts to beam internet service from satellites.
That’s not to say that flashy never works, nor that people and companies shouldn’t dream big. We need that, too. But efforts to widen internet access using satellites and helium balloons suck up attention and money that might be more effectively lavished on seemingly boring infrastructure like laying more thick coils of cables that carry our internet data.
There’s a tendency to obsess on grand fixes that may not fix anything. Apps that try (and fail) to “modernise” an election get more attention than a simple election information website that just gives voters what they need fast. And while some health systems are splurging on creepy, possibly ineffective software to predict patients’ coronavirus-related health risks, unfussy virus-exposure apps can help people stay safe now.
We need to pay more attention to the uncool and the incremental. I wish there were MacArthur “genius” grants for thinking small.
Shira Ovide writes the On Tech newsletter for NYT©2020
The New York Times