The October Thing #7 – Rich World, Poor World – September 10, 2011

Rich World, Poor World

The richest 1/1000 of the U.S. population have much more in common with the richest 1/1000 in Germany or Japan than with the rest of us. They know it; the children of the rich rarely go to war, for example. The dream of a united world-culture has now come true—for them. Saudi princes hobnob with Texas billionaires, British royalty (remember Diana?) and electronic wizards everywhere. Yet in strange ways, the poor are also developing a world-culture—through cell phones. Although the poorest do not have cell phones, they have access to them and are using them to earn money, to communicate, to entertain, to generate protest, to make bankless financial transactions, to pinpoint artillery fire, to pray, and countless other functions. It is the cell phone, not the computer, that is creating the virtual world, simply because it costs a hundredth as much as a computer. The poor could never afford to travel very far, but they now reach across the miles easily. “Long distance” is becoming an obsolete idea.

The question is: can the cell phone be somehow used to provide the billions of poor people with basic necessities—food, shelter, clean air and water, health care, education, etc? There are some hints that perhaps it can. Less food spoils these days since phones tell us about coming rain, dust storms, etc. Can cell phones help protect the planet? Yes, park rangers are doing a much better job now using cell phones. Of course, criminals of all sorts can also use cell phones, but they are caught more quickly and violence rates are down in most countries. Can the cell phone ever raise the poor to middle-class? Perhaps not, but combined with revolutions in transportation (the topic of the future paper) and other economic sectors, there’s hope.

Of course, if we look at long-term trends there are some unsettling possibilities. Whereas the 1/1000 rich are fairly active and health-conscious, as the poor become middle-class, we find sharply increasing rates of screen-watching and obesity. Television and electronic games/internet are absorbing a larger and larger share of middle class time without producing any new wealth.

Now combine these trends with what you know about diasporas, agriculture, Arab Spring, viruses, etc, and see if you can build a bigger picture, discern patterns, find new trends.