One less app for the rich, few more for the poor

Ehtesham Shahid
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While we breeze past most big airports these days, quick retrieval of luggage still remains a major irritant.

In order to calm down a restless co-passenger, during one such wait recently, I whispered into his ear: “don’t worry, you will find an app for this soon”.

Unimpressed by my intervention, he quipped: “if apps could make all the difference the world would be a far better place to live.”

Despite his lack of interest in the subject, I am reasonably certain that some smart cookie would have got his head around such a thing in some part of the globe already.

Whenever that happens, it will definitely soothe the nerves of a lot of travelers and indeed further enhance the efficiency of air travel.


For luxury, or needy?

Here’s the more relevant question though: Do we really need more and more apps such as these?

It seems, far too many technological advancements today are geared toward enhancing luxury and not enough to tackle real problems facing the really needy.

While one cannot take moral positions on something that’s for general good, even if it benefits the same group of people, it is also time sensitize innovators to look beyond their backyard.

No matter how much we love our pets, for instance, a dog walking app should not take precedence over a life-saving drug, especially when 800-million people worldwide suffer from hunger.

While one cannot take moral positions on something that’s for general good, even if it benefits the same group of people, it is also time sensitize innovators to look beyond their backyard

Ehtesham Shahid

Experts largely admit that very little innovation has taken place in agriculture. And those that happen don’t necessarily go in the right direction.

So while agriculture’s share of global GDP has shrunk to just 3 percent – one-third of its contribution just decades ago – we seem obsessed with 3D printing and genetic modification of food, when millions of daily wage workers go without work.

Disruptive technologies may be game-changers for agriculture in the coming decades but at the moment the world needs to feed the hungry with food grown by unemployed farmers.

Today we have apps that distinguish authentic Louis Vuitton bag from a well-made fake one. You can date a millionaire using an app and even monitor a private island.

We seem more willing to add to this list instead of going down the value chain and help the underprivileged. Some would say we need both but that’s the fence-sitters argument anyway.

Not entirely ignored

Indeed, there are apps that make charity easier. There are apps through which you can help refugees, even fund treatment of those who can’t afford to pay basic medical bills. There is an app that helps you perform “good deeds” and earn “karma points”.

But most of them are like going green – to look good. It is easier said than done though considering apps for the poor are unlikely to be commercially viable in today’s business environment.

Businesses – even governments – would be reluctant to invest in them as long as there are options of guaranteed returns.

Then comes the question of availability of resources. A soil testing kit can really help a poor farmer but can s/he afford it, without institutional support? Does s/he get access to the same technology and afford gadgets and connectivity as we get in cities?

Unequal world

No matter how much Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly talks about the rich subsidizing technology for the “have later” category, the fact is this isn’t a level-playing field, especially when you look at it in terms of the digital divide. And it isn’t getting any better.

When Arianna Huffington talks about bringing humanity to technology – and rightly so – she primarily means technology swamped urban dwellers who need to take a break from their gadgets.

When she calls for a Third Women’s Revolution, she refers to office-goers with preventable stress-related healthcare issues rather than women who toil in the farms.

Innovation is indeed throwing up unique solutions at us today. But is it benefitting the really needy? Shouldn’t we think before downloading another app for luxury?
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His tweets @e2sham and can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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