Cell phones have transformed rural Kenya, according to the BBC. Samizdata notes that it is a revolution that people are comparing to the switch between dictatorship and democracy or the discovery of fire.
We watched a deeply impressed BBC reporter, Paul Mason, being told by a black lady, who I rather think may have been one of the authors of this report that indeed, mobile phones are having an impact upon Africa comparable to the switch from dictatorship to democracy - she mentioned other technology as well, like fire, the wheel and the railways - and that the mobile phone industry provided a model for progress in other areas of African life, such as education and healthcare. Her message to the governments of Africa: get out of the way, at let the business people do these things, and the people pay for these things, themselves.
Well said. A diplomat recently asked me to share thoughts about whether things had gotten better or worse in the Philippines, in which he had lived some time ago. I answered that there was some improvement and in practically every case -- overseas workers, the cell phone revolution, the subdivision of the city into mall-centered communities which have reduced vehicular traffic -- in every case, progress was attributable to the private sector not to the government.
Arnold Kling, writing in Tech Central Station, recently described the world as divided into three societal states: "Primitive orders are small bands of hunter-gatherers, and they are of little concern here. Limited-access orders are societies that provide meaningful political and economic rights only to narrow elites. Open-access orders are capitalist democracies that give political and economic rights to most citizens." Countries like Kenya and the Philippines are "limited-access orders", which Kling described in the following way:
A limited-access order allocates power in a way that keeps organized, potentially-violent groups satisfied. Those outside of the governing coalition have no access to political power or economic opportunity, and it is in the interest of the elites to keep it that way. 1) Control of violence through elite privileges. 2) Limits on access to trade. 3) Relatively strong property right protection for elites and relatively weak property right protection for non-elites. To the extent a natural state is characterized by the rule of law, it is for elites. 4) Restrictions on entry into and exit from economic, political, religious, educational, and military organizations. ...
A key insight ... is that the rulers of a limited-access order must restrict the rights of the masses. If everyone has economic and political rights, then the rulers have nothing special to offer to pacify would-be usurpers. Potential political competitors can only be bought off if they receive rights that are exclusive. But giving exclusive rights to one group necessarily entails restricting the rights of other groups. To say to the rulers of a limited-access order, "We insist that you get rid of corruption" is to ask them to commit political suicide.
Anyone familiar with Third World politics will recognize this situation immediately. Both the Left and the Right in the Third World are fundamentally parties of the elite. They both maintain that government is the solution to the country's problems and their only argument is over who should control the bureaucracy. But in either case their societies are characterized by de facto monopolies, huge but ineffective social programs, vast patronage systems, bloated and useless militaries and the belief that more of the same is better for the country. The cell phone revolution described by Samizdata is characteristic of a set of developments that, although they do not overthrow existing elites, render them partially irrelevant. Technology obsolesces the monopolies controlled by the elites, creates new paths to wealth that still remain uncontrolled and reduce the power of their meager patronage. But can "limited access" societies ever make the permanent jump to "open access"? Sometimes. Kling goes on to describe the "doorstep conditions" for societies seeking to make the transition.
1. rule of law for elites
2. perpetual life for organizations
3. political control of the military
In a country where even elites depend on personal relationships for personal and economic security, the first "doorstep condition" is not met. Think of Russia today, where even members of the wealthy oligarchy can be summarily stripped of rights by the head of state. On the other hand, in Great Britain in the period just prior to the full advent of democracy, elites developed an expectation that due process of law would apply to them.
Perpetual life for organizations means that there exist corporations or other institutions that can be expected to outlive their key members. If there are no such organizations, then that means that every organization is held together by personal loyalty. Once people see an organization as living beyond its current leaders, they begin to support contractual relationships with that organization. When the government starts to provide a legal framework to protect contractual relationships, a key element of open-access orders is in place. NWW argue that in order for any organization within a state to have perpetual life, the state itself must have perpetual life. If all of a ruler's legal rulings are subject to nullification when the ruler dies, then that condition is not satisfied.
Political control of the military requires that there be no independent organizations with a capacity for large-scale violence. Lebanon, where Hezbollah is an independent military force, clearly does not enjoy political control of the military. On the other hand, if a single faction takes control of the military, that is not NWW's definition of political control of the military. Instead, such a regime is a military dictatorship.
Kling argues that some societies are ready to make the jump, but regretfully concludes that others (like Iraq), lack what it takes. But whoever may be ready, it's clear that creating the "doorstep conditions" would would be unwelcome to the movers and shakers in a Third World, limited access society. It is maintenance of inequality; the continued existence of "special treatment", private militias, personalized control over violence which provides the basis for the power of the few over the many. The high living Third World aristocrats that the American Left loves to revile would as soon give up their control of judges as the drug-rich revolutionaries they profess to love would surrender their instruments of "revolutionary" violence. Between these two sets of elites, neither of who can imagine a world without a vanguard and the masses -- though their terminology may differ -- the ordinary person must make a living as best he can. The cell phone story in Kenya represent a liberation moment that neither elite had intended to offer them. And they will endeavor to close it out. To some extent, blogs perform the same function as cell phones. They are little "first Amendment machines" in countries in which neither the latifundistas nor the "guerilleros" have any use for the real notion of freedom of speech. It's not surprising that some countries in Latin America are trying to regulate them. The cell phone in Kenya represents an earnest in freedom, not its full payment. It is a glimpse at a world forbidden, a reminder of what we were meant to be. Not the "masses" but men. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Dangerous words spoken by true revolutionaries.