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Technology | Field Notes Productions

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Technology

22 Jun , 2011,
Willman
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I’m an old guy. I remember the first commercially successful video game – a 2-dimensional tennis game called Pong on which I used to destroy my friend Tim. My first computer was an Osborne, named after its creator, Adam Osborne. It was the world’s first commercially available portable computer, so heavy it was called a ‘luggable.’ It was developed before there even was a Microsoft – it ran the CP/M operating system.

Having used computers so early in their life cycle, I’ve never been afraid of technology. I used one of the first commercial spreadsheets called “Supercalc” on my Osborne to make it through my ‘Stats for Social Science Dummies’ course at Ohio State, and that taught me the value technology can provide.

But I have also seen the downside of technology. Kids more interested in video games than in going outside and playing with the real world. Adults who can’t have a family dinner without checking their Crackberries. Weapons systems that can kill hundreds while operators watch on a video screen while sipping coffee from thousands of miles away.

Technology has especially changed the media landscape. My colleagues in equal parts bemoan the demise of traditional forms of media distribution and rejoice over the freedom technology is bringing to our craft.

Today technology is touted as the answer to just about anything, from improving our kid’s grades to finding better crops to feed the world’s hungry.

In all the excitement of promoting all things technological though, most futurists tend to forget one thing – there remains a major divide in the world between the technology haves and the have-nots, and because of this divide any benefits accrued from technology are not evenly spread.

This was brought home to me most recently when stopping by the ATM. We survive here because of an international banking system that allows me to withdraw money from my account in the U.S. at a little machine in a windowed booth on Jalan Surya Sumantri in northwest Bandung. But despite all the major technology advances in the world, my ability to get cash only works when the network connecting my bank to the one in Indonesia is actually functioning. And that network isn’t doing so well.

Over the past few weeks, for every ATM visit where I can withdraw cash there are 5 or 6 that come up dry.

I was concerned that this might be a problem affecting only my bank, or even my ATM card, until I had dinner last weekend with a German friend. It turns out that she has had similar problems for weeks. Which means that the international banking network is failing in Indonesia.

This is not the only technology issue we face here. Cell phones are ubiquitous. I’ve written in the past of how lesser developed nations have been able to leap-frog technology, skipping land line phones almost entirely and moving right into the cellphone world. But most information comes not from cellphones, but from the internet, and that’s where the bottlenecks occur.

Internet access overall is spotty. The most recent figures I’ve seen put broadband penetration at about 12% of the country. To place that in perspective, a news story last year noted the United States is ranked just 20th in the world in broadband, saying it had “a mere 60%” of households with broadband. That’s five times as much as Indonesia.

Our driver sometimes spends the night here when he doesn’t want to brave the hour long motorcycle ride home. Often he will spend the night on the couch downstairs, where he can get a good signal from our wireless router, and surf the web. I’ll often find him asleep on the couch in the morning, phone in hand. At his home, where he lives with his parents, he doesn’t have internet. Our monthly payment just for high speed internet access equals one half of his monthly salary, so for him home internet is a luxury.

The ramifications for this country of course could be great. Indonesia continues its push to be taken seriously as a world economic power. But as the world becomes ever more reliant on technology to conduct business, if Indonesia cannot improve its technology infrastructure it will be left even further behind.

Indonesia is of course not alone with this problem. Last year I worked with radio stations in Malawi where reporters had to walk several kilometers from the station in order to get dial-up internet access. But Indonesia has a much larger economy, and its leaders say the nation will become a major regional economic power soon. How that will happen though without a robust technology infrastructure I just can’t imagine.

Technology of course is not the only issue troubling Indonesia, where roadways are falling apart, access to clean water is severely limited and reliant transportation systems are difficult, if not impossible, to find. But more and more of the world’s business is conducted on-line. Without a robust technology infrastructure, Indonesia and its 240 million people will continue to find itself in the have-not category.

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