The world I live in is steeped in technology. I don’t consider myself a true early adopter, but even still, in the last few months I’ve used modern technology to diagnose an issue with my car, find a mountain biking trail, have clothing sent to my home, exchange money, navigate to new destinations and more—much of which happened on a computer the size of a wallet. The latest version of Apples mobile operating system comes standard with a tool to control smart homes.
Because these modern tools have become standard operating procedure in my life, it can be easy to fall into the mindset that technology is the ultimate problem-solver. If there’s friction, surely some smart software or combination of software and hardware can smooth things out, right?
A case study
The New York Times an article called Transit Cards to Replace Cash on Kenyan Minibuses Are a Hard Sell1, which is a fascinating study in the subject of technology-as-solution. The short story is that the Kenyan government is looking for ways to fight systemic corruption.
The government hopes that putting services online will fight corruption, a notorious scourge. Every interaction with officialdom, from applying for a passport to being pulled over for making a U-turn, is easily lubricated with a smile, a handshake and “kitu kidogo,” Swahili for “a little something.” Put things online, make them automated, make them anonymous, and you eliminate the kitu kidogo.
Google has made a significant investment in helping solve cash-related problems with taxis:
Google…has been pushing the new technology: a little green transit card that will replace cash payments and track every transaction on the minibuses, making it much harder to bribe police officers and much easier for the government to capture millions of dollars in taxes. But despite Google’s substantial investment and the Kenyan government’s deadline for all matatus to go cashless by July 1…the vast majority of Kenya’s matatus [minibuses] still dealing in their preferred currency — grubby bills — as they zoom around Nairobi’s streets stuffed with passengers, flitting in and out of traffic like a bunch of fleas on methamphetamines.
Even though making the change to transit cards means a regular paycheck for drivers (reducing some of the incentive for reckless driving and over-packed vehicles, in theory), there’s still resistance:
“Kenya is a cash-based economy!” yelled one conductor the other day, when asked if his bus accepted BebaPay cards. A few dozen bus lines said they used the cards, but most matatu conductors scornfully waved it away. Other companies have unveiled competitor cards, but even fewer commuters seemed to be using those. The government, in a bow to the power of the matatu cartels, has extended the deadline for several months, saying it needs to rethink implementation.
As the New York Times story explains so well, mileage varies with technology as a cure-all. I’m reminded of a quote from Maciej Cegłowski in my last post2, “the connected world we’re building may resemble a computer system, but really it’s just the regular old world from before, with a bunch of microphones and keyboards and flat screens sticking out of it. And it has the same old problems.”
Technology certainly can’t change someone’s intrinsic morality or fix systemic economic flaws, but it is exciting to see creative solutions that will likely play a key role as the people behind them strive to improve societies.
Perhaps the most interesting, if not unsurprising, part of the article is what Google gets out of the deal: Gmail users.
Google provided the technology for free, with one condition: Everyone who wants a new BebaPay card (“beba” means “carry” in Swahili) must sign up for Gmail, the company’s free and ubiquitous email service. “That’s it,” Ms. Ooko said. “We get users.”
1. You can read the full New York Times article, “Transit Cards to Replace Cash on Kenyan Minibuses Are a Hard Sell,” here.2. You can read my previous post, Maciej Cegłowski on the Danger of Data,” here.