How Technology Is Changing Our World:Key To Successful Innovation Is Simplicity


“Get Out Of Bed!” How Technology Is Changing Our World

By Philip Shaw M.Sc.

With Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque PhD

I have a friend named Gordon Jarvis.  We go way back.  In fact he once had the distinction of building bicycles at the local Canadian tire store.  Years past and now he is in charge of data communications for the largest telecommunication satellite company in the world.  Whether it’s a call from Singapore, Amsterdam or Dhaka, he takes responsibility for the world’s insatiable thirst for cheap fast immediate communication.

20 years ago when he was building bikes Enamul, Gordon and I used to hang around together.  At the time Gordon was taking Electrical Technology in College.  So Enamul asks, “How about cell phones in Bangladesh?  Nobody can get a land line”.  Gordon looked at him with a sparkle in his eye, obviously seeing the potential ahead.  He retorted something to the extent, they’d need cell towers everywhere, maybe in the future.  Little did Gordon know then, 20 years later he’d be handling data communications at points in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Rewind to 2003 on my last visit to Bangladesh.  While Enamul and I are driving to his office, his cell phone is ringing constantly.  Three years before that, Enamul and I stopped at a Dhaka shop to phone another friend who had his cell phone on a rickshaw plying the busy streets of Dhaka two kilometers behind us.  As we discuss East West issues, its pretty clear to me communication technology is one of the great equalizers.

It might seem trite commenting on communication technologies in a column over the Internet between to far off friends.  However, it is fascinating to me.  For instance we all know how the advent of computer technology has changed things in the west.  Everything is immediate.  People get frustrated if its not so.  In fact our younger generations have got used to a technology, which has become ubiquitous to our being.

When writing this piece Enamul and I use communication technology big time.  We chat, video chat when available, email and yes even communicate by cell phone sometimes.  However, its become very clear to me through the years Bangladesh and much of the so called “third world” is so far ahead of me when it comes to communication technology.

Case in point was a few years ago when Enamul told me he “SMS” a member of his family.  I remember reading that and not knowing what he meant.  So I looked it up and he meant “instant message.”  In Canada at least on my budget that’s too expensive so I’d never done it.  He couldn’t quite believe it, but I convinced him my rates were higher.  Canada being a big country with hardly any people is a big part of the reason.

It went further than that.  In 2003 I went to the Dhaka Computer Show.  With Bangladeshi computer makers putting together machines with parts from India, Malaysia and Bangladesh it seemed there were a lot more choices there.  Five years later I still believe that.  The question is can all this new communication technology in countries like Bangladesh accelerate the alleviation of poverty?

From my western perch, I’d certainly think so, but it has been five years since I’ve been to Dhaka.  However, when my friend Gordon Jarvis calls and tells me he’s got a satellite hub in Dhaka, which he is responsible for, that sets my imagination wild.  Surely, Enamul in his part of this piece can answer some of these queries.

Let me give you another example.  Last Tuesday I was scheduled to speak in Hanover Ontario.  On route I was blasted by a late winter snow blizzard, which greatly limited my ability to see to drive.  In fact many times I thought about stopping.  However, I had a GPS navigation unit dialed into Hanover.  It gave me the ability to know when the road was turning so in poor visibility I could maintain my own safety.  I eventually made it to Hanover but the meeting was cancelled anyway.  At least I had coffee with my friend Gordon.

Rewind to 2003.  Enamul and I were on the “Rocket”, the over night ferry from Dhaka to Khulna Bangladesh.  At one point nearing Khulna we were engulfed by fog, so thick I could hardly see the front of the ship.  The Captain had stopped because he couldn’t see.  However, now I’m sure he has the same navigation technology I had, steering the ship and eventually saving lives.

We have so much time in this column to talk about how technology in the form of bombs and firearms is changing our world.  Clearly though, there is another page, a positive one for technology and the people of the world.  By shining that light going forward hopefully the darkness of poverty and illiteracy will become less so.  That is, until the next great technological leap forward.

Key to successful innovations is simplicity.
A.K. Enamul Haque PhD

A long time ago, Biman Bangladesh (the National Airlines of Bangladesh) had a nice slogan “your home in the air”.  I always liked it – it sounded very good, very warm.  For many Bangladeshis traveling abroad is still a nightmare because for the 56-60% literate people, English is still largely an alien language for all of us.  So, going abroad is a bit dangerous for many of us and if it is for the first time, people often remain in a state of shock.  I remember in 1985, when I was going to Canada, the Canadian Embassy sent me a booklet explaining the Canadian culture, lifestyle and important information.  I read it very carefully and then my father gave me a book (I can’t remember the title now) about traveling abroad.  I had to prepare for all of these because I was not at all familiar with the trip.  Against this, the Biman’s ad “your home in the air” meant a lot to many people.

However, as the world got smaller, we started to live in a global village and truly speaking the “village” became a reality only after the advent of mobile technology.  It has done wonders to the millions of people in Bangladesh.  People use it for all kinds of activities and I realized that Phil was not fully aware of it.  Maybe that was because Canadian land phones were smarter and so people never felt the need to switch to mobile phones!  Here in Bangladesh, land phones were painful, waiting time for getting a phone was nearly 10 years!!!!  You can’t even imagine this! It was so bad that a market for second-hand phone lines existed in Bangladesh – meaning that you could sell your phone line to others.  In 1993, I remember the “phone hub” business grew in Dhaka meaning that if your neighbor had a phone then you could easily “rent” a line from him using a phone hub. It was illegal and the government telephone company was busy searching for such “criminals” instead of looking after the needs of the people.

I must say that we are not out of reach of these public companies because of mobile phone technologies.  10 years ago people in Bangladesh could never think of calling abroad – there were all kinds of weird phone connections available from BTTB – local phone lines, ISD phone lines, FAX phone line, NWD phone lines, etc. etc.  The argument was people would not pay for phone calls.  Never ever did the government company think about providing services to the people, which needs them.  Now, even a village woman can use a mobile phone and call her husband in the UK, Canada, the UAE or other countries and tell him how she is at any time.  This is when I realized that we are now living in a global village.

However, have you ever thought how the millions of people who do not know how to read and write in English use mobile phone?  I guess you would say, is it possible at all for an illiterate person to use mobile effectively?  Can he or she memorize the numbers?

Here is a very interesting tip that surprised me. Several years ago I was visiting a family who helped me during my studentship at Chittigong University.  I found his wife is quite sick and she is under medication.  While visiting her, I asked her how she can take the medicines. [She cannot read or write].  She told me that she never made a mistake in taking medicine.  I asked how it was possible.  She opened the little box of medicine and showed that each tablets are of different sizes, shapes and colors and so she can remember them well.  I saluted the medicine companies for their ingenuity to use size, color and shapes to make the medicines recognizable by illiterate people!

I feel that some of you believe that it is much easier to recognize numbers of the phone buttons because people at least can recognize the symbols.  You are right if you have thought so.  However, the question is can they use phone memory to dial numbers?  This is a very common feature on mobile phones.  We use it so much that now days nobody can remember numbers! It’s all in the “memory”.

The other day, I gave a mobile to my driver so that I could communicate with him.  It is now a common tool for our drivers and even for housemaids in Bangladesh.  It has really made our life different.  So when I asked him how can I give him my numbers (you cannot even imagine, a lot of Bangladeshis have more than one mobile phone) as well as the numbers of my wife, he gave his mobile phone to me and asked me to store them in it.  While doing it, I thought, “how could he read the English names?”  In reply he told me that he couldn’t read English names! Then I said how could I store it then?  His simple reply was use numbers!  Meaning store each numbers like speed dialing numbers!  Wow!  What a great idea!  He cannot read English alphabets but can read number or at least recognize them in order and so storing them under the numbers is easier for him.  Ingenious!  The mobile phone is a very complex technology and yet they are designed well for people of all ages, all races and all levels of education.  As a result, even a kid can use it.  The can learn it fast too!

Here is a lesson for all of us or people like Gordon Jarvis – when we design the technology it has to be very simple to use.  It must be able to serve the needs of the people and if these two are there, technology can travel very fast. I think innovators of the world must take care of this if they want to succeed.