In 1966, more than half of the people in the world lived in extreme poverty. I don’t mean public housing, food stamps, subsidized school lunch, free health clinic poverty. I mean the type of poverty in which there’s no electricity, no running water, no toilets and open sewers, and most children never see a doctor or the inside of a classroom. Back then, people living in extreme poverty had a daily diet of gruel; not rice and beans, mind you, but mushy, flavorless, boring gruel. Violence was rampant. Infant mortality was high and living to 65 was more the exception than the rule.
While it’s true that there were pockets of prosperity to be found in the Third World, for most people, if you didn’t live in Australia, Japan, North America or Europe, the odds were your life was not that different from a peasant living in the Middle Ages, except that maybe you had access to a TV or radio in the village square.
Cheap Technology Contributes to Declining Rates of Poverty
But things changed. In 1997, the number of those living in extreme poverty dropped to 42 percent of the people in China and India. By 2017, the number dropped again, this time to an amazing 12 percent in India and .07 percent in China. Now, this doesn’t mean that everybody in India and China rode around in Toyota Camrys and spent their evenings gazing at a 52-inch high-def TV, but it does mean that just about everybody went to school, saw a doctor and had some choice in what they ate for dinner. It might not seem like a lot, but when you consider that their great grandmothers could barely read a newspaper, it’s a big deal.
This progress didn’t happen by magic, and there’s a good argument to be made that it didn’t happen because of politics. My opinion is that it’s due in good part to the proliferation of cheap technology brought about by automation.
The Toothbrush as an Agent of Change
Small pieces of cheap technology can make a big difference. Take the toothbrush, for example. Not that long ago, a personal toothbrush was a luxury item for many. Today there are machines that make them automatically by the dozens, for pennies in material cost. Anybody can buy one and those who can’t many times can get one for free. Think what it must be like for a 7-year-old child in a classroom trying to learn how to read while in the throes of dental pain. There wouldn’t be a lot of learning happening.
Studies have shown that a leading indicator of good health in the long term is the practice of good dental hygiene on a daily basis. Giving a child a toothbrush and some toothpaste early in life makes a big difference. Children who brush their teeth regularly fare better. A toothbrush might seem like a trivial consumer good, but it is actually a high-impact technology that has lifted many people out of poverty.
Faster Credit Reporting Means Less Poverty
Another example of a small piece of automation that’s improved the lives of billions is credit reporting. Thirty years ago it took a few days to get the credit rating of a company, and getting the credit rating of a sovereign state could take longer. Today, getting a credit report takes seconds. Automated credit reporting accelerates financing, which not only makes it easier for a consumer to get a home mortgage or car loan, but also for sovereign states such as India to get large-scale, industrial goods such as bulldozers. More bulldozers translates into more roads; more roads lead to more commerce and more commerce leads to prosperity for more people. It’s a pattern that’s difficult to ignore. Just take a look at the economic growth that accompanied the expansion of the U.S. interstate highway system in the last century. In this century, the same growth pattern is underway as China grows its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) transportation infrastructure on a global scale.
The Cellphone: A Tool for Prosperity on a Global Scale
Which brings us to the cellphone. The first mobile phone cost $4,000. Today, you can buy a prepaid, throwaway one with service for around $50. Given the technical infrastructures required to build the phone and networking infrastructure necessary to provide service, selling a fully functional cellphone profitably at $50 is a near miracle. And, its impact goes way beyond a simple, “What time will you be home for dinner?” conversation. There’s a big difference between living in poverty and living in poverty yet having a cellphone. A cellphone puts a person on the grid even when living in a hut in a remote village in Niger. Having a cellphone means being able to solicit paying work. It means having access to simple bank services. It means being able to get medical care in an emergency. And, a cellphone can connect users with online learning resources that can enhance the educational experience for those living in parts of the world where access to secondary education is rare. It’s no wonder the Gates Foundation is focusing on programs that use cellphone technology to address issues in poverty stricken areas.
Not only has cheap technology reduced the cost of cellphones to nearly free, it also has reduced the cost of dental crowns through 3D printing technology and international trade through automated navigation systems for ocean-going vessels. Cheap technology also has brought about free online college courses and built-in writing assistants for email clients that have had the surprising effect of giving people better command of the written word.
The Fall of Global Death and Destruction
Our technological achievements allow us to grow more food, educate more people and reduce the level of violence to an all-time low. Remember, 20 million Russians were killed in World War II. That’s 5 million people a year over from the beginning of hostilities in June of 1941 until the war’s end in August of 1945. We’ve not seen slaughter in such numbers since that time. Yet, news of today’s conflicts is broadcasted on a global scale, so it can seem as though millions are dying everywhere. But the actual number of people killed in armed conflicts today comes nowhere close to the number casualties that were the result of the world wars of the last century.
As the Numbers Go Down, the Risks Become Greater
Things are getting better for more people and we technologists have been significant contributors to these improvements. Yet, new risks are on the horizon that could stifle the upward trends. One of the biggest potential dangers is a worldwide pandemic. While cheap air travel has removed the barriers of international travel for more people, it also has made it easier for a highly contagious disease such as Ebola to spread faster.
And then there’s always the risk of nuclear catastrophe. The number of nuclear weapons has decreased, but technology has made possible nuclear devices that are the size of a suitcase. Whereas it takes the resources of a sophisticated sovereign state to create and deliver missiles capable of a nuclear strike across continents, all that is required for a non-state belligerent to deliver a nuclear blow is a small device hidden in the trunk of a car driven across an unguarded frontier. It’s a remote possibility but a possibility nonetheless, and one that can have a catastrophic outcome of unimaginable dimensions. Fortunately, for better and worse, we in technology have created planetary surveillance systems that make it possible to guard against such an occurrence.
Considering the Big Picture
Technology grows in complexity every year, particularly for those of us in DevOps. The rate of innovation can be overwhelming. We’ve got to know more to do more. As such, many of us give most of our attention to the details that make the technology work. Sometimes we lose sight of the big picture. But, here’s something to consider: As weird as it may sound given current perceptions, there’s a good argument to be made that, given the increasing rate of technological innovation and the reduced costs of mainstream technology produced by such innovation, we might eradicate extreme poverty in our lifetime, if not the lifetime of our children. In the past such thinking was considered grandiose. But, as the $50 cellphone demonstrates, it’s a goal we can look forward to achieving.
Authors note: The source of the data on the reduced rates of poverty worldwide described in the opening of this article comes from the book, “Factfulness” (pages 52-53) by Hans Rosling , Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling.