Is technology “dumbing down” people? That’s probably a question for societies where it is ubiquitous and obsessive, not for places like Tanzania – an East African nation low on the human development index, where access to technology is limited.
The question hardly matters. It only offers a glimpse into a different world.
Ninety percent of Tanzania’s population of about 48 million people live on less than $3 a day. Fourteen percent subsist on less than a dollar, getting only one meal a day. And child mortality, low-life expectancy, high malnutrition and lack of basic facilities are every day realities.
“In developing societies, people have more limited access to technology. They are more conscious of what they want to use [technology] for and how it augments their lives, and it’s often cultural as well as practical,” said Edward Charles Anderson, Senior ICT Policy Specialist with the World Bank’s Transport and ICT global practice in Tanzania.
Yet Tanzania boasts at least 40 million mobile subscriptions, not counting multiple subscriptions. “Even though they live on $3 a day, they seem to prize a mobile phone and the things they can do with it,” he said in an interview. “But we have to recognize they are fairly simple phones. So we are talking about technology through SMS services … and things like this.”
The cheapest smartphone sells for about $25, which is roughly around 55 Tanzanian shillings. But in the absence of infrastructure, electricity and basic facilities, these devices are a necessity.
The lack of traditional financial infrastructure, for example, has placed Tanzania, much like East Africa in general, on the cutting edge of mobile payments. As the country leapfrogged to mobile platforms, it became the “largest money market in the world with the most number of users.”
“The lack of functional financial [services], for example, means that having mobile money has had a huge impact for good in East Africa – credit cards and checkbooks don’t work here,” said Anderson. So it’s kind of a vital tool whereas maybe it’s more like a gimmick in somewhere like Silicon Valley right now.”
Mobile money gives Tanzanians in rural areas the opportunity to buy consumer goods like televisions and solar panels – “needs that change people’s lives whether it is seen as a luxury good or a core necessity,” said Anderson.
And where there are no roads or access to knowledge and information, or tools and research facilities, access to the Internet and communication tools becomes “very powerful.”
“I see access to information as being really important for keeping in touch with family members,” he said. “… We see very creative uses of WhatsApp, but I don’t think it’s dumbing them down.”
Meanwhile in the US
It’s a different story. A recent Marist Poll undertaken for WGBH Boston, asked 622 U.S. adults whether or not technology makes them smarter or dumber. The survey was done for the Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) debate series Point Taken.
Up to 71 percent said they believed technology is making people less human, and 54 percent said it makes them less connected to their families. Nearly 49 percent reported that technology makes people dumber, while 46 percent said it makes people smarter. The results varied depending on the demographic.
“Technology is a catalyst and enabler to do things differently,” commented Anderson. “It augments many of our capabilities. It has a positive impact [and it] ultimately comes down to how we apply it.”
But he said proper context and a human perspective are needed to determine how technology is to be applied to meet goals. Otherwise, it will be a distraction.
“We sometimes isolate or idolize it too much rather than really integrate it into what we are trying to achieve,” he added.
In that, Tanzania might have it right.