Tech in the USA

There are many different ways to gain intuition into the likelihood that widespread dissemination of technology alone – whatever it is – will not have a dramatic impact on development of the world’s poorer countries. One way is to consider how technology does under ideal conditions, or something close to it. The Jester considers the United States of America.

Below, the Jester’s alter ego has taken a graph from the US Census Bureau, showing the rate of poverty in the United States since 1959 (bottom line), and has overlaid it with the inception dates of several major technologies and technology companies.

The golden age of technology in America?

As you can see, the poverty rate declined in America until the early 1970s, but has effectively held steady since then (and absolute numbers in poverty have increased). Since the 1970s, America also underwent a boom in information and communication technologies. If technology innovation and usage were the key to addressing poverty, then we’d expect that the technology revolution of the last couple of decades would have put some dent in poverty. But, it hasn’t. This fact should cause any non-fool to question, at the least, whether the invention and widespread use of ICTs is really something we can rely on to fight poverty.

Now, if this is the story during the golden age of innovation in the world’s most technologically advanced country, what are we to expect for developing countries, which are typically much worse off in terms of literacy, basic education, and physical and institutional infrastructure, to take advantage of ICTs?

The Jester acknowledges that there are a number of conceptual flaws with this flamboyant demonstration — he’s not a fool for nothing! But, let’s consider exactly what the objections might be…

Objection 1: How do you know that the poverty rate wouldn’t have been even worse, if the US didn’t have all that technology?

Sure, this is possible, but what an implication! Are you saying that without all this incredible technology, the poverty rate would actually have increased? What does that say about America? And, what does it say for other countries and future periods which might not be such vibrant technology generators? Do we always need to innovate so furiously just to stay above water? Do we need to keep buying gadgets so that people don’t go destitute?!

Objection 2: Maybe technology will have more of an effect in poor countries.

Yes, that’s also what people thought about TV as an educational device, tractors for better agriculture, and fancy medical devices for rural healthcare. Technology requires a human substrate of well-intentioned competence to work (so that it can amplify it), but that’s exactly what is often deficient in poor countries, and it’s particularly true for information tools, because they require decent education to manipulate. The human substrate needs work first!

Objection 3: Well, that’s just because Americans haven’t made eliminating poverty a priority.

The Jester couldn’t agree more! Recall his mantra: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. It’s exactly because Americans aren’t really seriously about eliminating poverty, that poverty persists. Technology doesn’t have much positive intent there to amplify. If that intent were ever to turn around, America could probably halve poverty in record time. If the world were really serious about ending poverty, those 5 billion mobile phone accounts would really help! But, the human intent is what that matters, and it’s not currently there. Nor will the technology by itself change intent.

(*) The Jester thanks Omar Wasow for urging him to post the graph above.

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