The customer-adoring McDonalds “love(s) to see you smile;” technology companies do, too. And they’re setting out to expand their customers’ smiles – in fast-food style – by way of the drive-through.
“You have drive-by McDonald’s, and we have drive-by Wi-Fi,” said Amir Alexander Hassan, founder of United Villages, a Massachusetts-based company and a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
United Villages is one of several technology providers jumping on board the ever-expanding technology train (in what the NY Times is calling the “digital pony express”* to bring wireless web content to developing nations. The mission of United Village is “to provide two billion people living in rural areas of developing countries with an email address, a phone number, and Web access using our patent-pending First Mile Solutions" and our DakNet Prepaid Services.”
The BBC reported on the less-than ordinary wi-fi system:
“In rural India and parts of Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay, the vehicles (buses equipped with wi-fi) offer web content to computers with no internet connection. The buses and a fleet of motorcycles update their pages in cities before visiting the hard-to-reach communities. As well as offering popular pages, the United Villages project also allows users to request specific information.” A small box, with an antenna, onboard the buses and motorcycles communicates with the rural computers.”
United Villages describe the process:
“Using pre-paid cards, locals in remote villages write emails or record phone messages and save their words at computer kiosks installed in schools and community halls—and this is where United Villages comes in. Using what United Villages calls DakNet, buses fitted out with short-range Wi-Fi antennas pass through villages, automatically picking up stored emails and voice messages as they go. Once a bus reaches a city with Internet connectivity, it relays the emails and messages to their appointed destinations via the web.”
Hassan and his company is after more than just smiles, of course, as revenue is key. So, for a fee (up to $2.20 per use) customers get their “slice of the web” – a piece of the technology pie.
Certainly it’s exciting to see technology expanding, but should this be the primary concern in developing nations, especially when hundreds of thousands are without food, water, and shelter – in the Sudan, to name just one example? Perhaps the companies pushing the technology initiatives should be pushing first for health in the developing countries. As the gap between the rich and poor only continues to increase globally, food and water for millions of people should be touted as “the next big thing” rather than wireless networking technology.
Supporters of wi-fi technology emphasize that the internet can actually lead to improving people’s lives. Bill Thompson, technology critic and essayist, agrees with the “many examples of ways in which net access can help people living in poverty, from getting access to weather forecasts to enable fishing boats to avoid storms, through to monitoring prices to decide when to harvest a crop.”
While these internet uses present many positive potentials, it’s interesting to notice what the majority of the people in the rural villages are actually using the internet for.
“There’s only 0.003% of the web that rural India cares about, (Hassan) told the BBC News. They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes.”
In this case, and in countless other nations where western TV shows and movies are widely viewed, is the increase and spread of technology leading more to the increase of western/Hollywood values and interests, rather than to the improvement people’s lives? Yes, internet capabilities bring new hope and excitement to these villages, but perhaps more reason for concern – especially in the U.S. in seeing what our society is so easily spreading to others.
We’ve certainly seen the effects of Fast Food Nation.
The effects of American values, being imposed and spread through technology, is a story still in progress.
*See: Rural Cambodia,Though Far Off the Grid, Is Finding Its Way Online" featured in NY Times print edition, Jan 26, 2004.