Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two tech lessons from Apple, ICT4D & theological e-readers

Apple made technology headlines recently with two significant stories.  First, the widely-anticipated iPhone 6, the latest model in Apple's hugely popular series of smartphones, goes on sale this week. Pre-sales are at record-setting levels. Second, Apple announced a new product, the Apple Watch, which will extend their suit of integrated mobile computing devices into a new form - the wristwatch.  Apple's not the first to develop such a product, but it was still met with great excitement.

Two significant technology stories also happened in the UMC recently.  The first of these was the Game Changers Summit, an ICT4D (information and communication technology for development) conference sponsored by The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and Episcopal Relief and Development.  The conference was a showcase for ways in which technology is transforming lives in developing countries, and the coverage of the event at the above link is well worth reading.

The second story was the announcement of the continuation and expansion of GBHEM and GBOD's e-readers for theological education program.  As this blog previously reported, the program pilot provided theology students at United Methodist-affiliated Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia with the opportunity to read class materials on solar-charged e-readers.  The program renewal will also extend to sixteen United Methodist theology schools in Africa and four United Methodist theology schools in the Philippines.

What can we learn from juxtaposing Apple's tech stories with the UMC's?  The comparison can teach us two important things about the use of technology globally in comparison to how the United States uses technology.

1. It's about having the right technology, not the newest technology.

Part of what made Apple aficionados so excited about the release of the iPhone 6 is that it's new.  Yes, it has improvements and better features, but newness in technology is a fetish for Americans.  Technology is like fashion for Americans - nobody wants to be caught with last year's model; it makes you look behind the times.

Yet in many parts of the world, having the newest technology is just not possible, for reasons of cost, distribution, and lack of infrastructure to support it.  That doesn't mean, however, that technology can't change people's lives and in much more significant ways than upgrading from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6.  Several of the stories from ICT4D talked about ways in which regular mobile phones and text messages were being used to implement public health projects.  No 4G or mobile streaming were necessary; indeed, that infrastructure is not widespread in Africa.  Text messaging is, though, and that made it the right solution for communicating to large numbers of people.  The same is true of the e-reader project.  While e-readers are newer than mobile phones, they're not as new or flashy as tablets, but they are cheaper and get better battery life, which is important for the project.  These solutions to problems relied on technologies that have been around for years, but they were the right technologies.  It didn't matter whether or not they were the newest technology.

2. High tech and low tech can coexist.

Traditional watches have fallen in popularity in the US with the rise of cell phones, especially smart phones.  Who wants to have such an old-fashioned, single-use piece of equipment when one can use a high-tech, multi-function device instead?  The Apple Watch aims to change how people think about watches by upgrading the traditional watch to also be high-tech and multi-function.  Moreover, the Apple Watch will undoubtedly integrate with all other Apple products, as that is one of Apple's prime selling points - all your various Apple technology devices will all work seamlessly together.

The ICT4D stories from the Game Changers Summit and the e-readers project, though, happen in settings where seamless integration of various technology devices is not a concern, since many of these settings don't have multiple high-tech devices to integrate.  Some settings don't even have things Americans would consider basic to technology, like a reliable power supply or internet access.  That doesn't mean, however, that technology can't be used in such settings.  Low tech in some regards does not imply low tech in all regards, and high tech in some regards does not require high tech in all regards.  Electric supply may be an issue in parts of Africa, but solar chargers allow e-readers and some ICT4D technology to function just fine without a power grid.

Technology is revolutionizing how people live all around the world.  Nevertheless, how technology does that and what technologies are doing that differ.  Apple announcements may set Westerners all astir, but it doesn't take an Apple confab to change lives elsewhere.

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