KISS is more than just one of the great bands of the last half century (if you disregard the ‘Unmasked’ era), it’s an acronym introduced to me by a grade school teacher which – unlike most of what I learned in school – has stuck with me through the years.  It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Whether it’s in areas of communication, design or organization, the KISS philosophy is sage advice.

I’m fortunate enough to have internet access in my apartment here in the Philippines and I had high hopes for networking my WiFi-enabled cell phone and my laptop to share the connection.  But I soon found that this was anything but simple.   To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak, I was entering a world of pain.

A world of pain

A world of pain

In the spirit of KISS I’ll spare the tech talk but mention that making a Skype call from a WiFi phone over an ad hoc network required understanding of such things as ipconfig /all, DTMF and Fring.  It wasn’t a trivial endeavor but I eventually had my Alexander Graham Bell moment.

With all this technological horsepower at my disposal I had to somehow exploit it beyond just a basic phone call.  That’s when I ran across Qik, a service which allows you to broadcast live cellphone video to a website for the purpose of what some call ‘lifecasting.’  It’s something of a voluntary Truman Show scenario and makes the huge presumption that the minutiae of your daily life is of interest to anyone beyond yourself.  I started to run across all kinds of similar companies with similarly dubious services which rely on the edge of technological capabilities.  After hours of research I had to tear myself away from Google… and embark upon my least favorite chore; hand washing.

It was then that I started to wonder why so much time and capital gets invested in marginally useful – and increasingly complex – innovations while the majority of the world lacks affordable access to simple, everyday conveniences.  Even when attention is given to serving developing markets, the solutions are often costly, complex and focused on silicon or software (witness One Laptop per Child).

Only after living for a period of time in the developing world did I fully appreciate the challenges it presents.  The time consumed by hand washing clothing for even a small family is a half day’s work.  In countries like the Philippines, less than half the population owns a refrigerator.  In Tajikistan I ran across a substantial number of websites which just don’t function at all when you’re connecting at speeds of roughly twice that of dial-up.  ”Lifecasting” is not really on the list of priorities.

Smith's MIT lab (courtesy Christian Science Monitor)

Smith's MIT lab (courtesy Christian Science Monitor)

I’ve lately been fascinated by the work of Amy Smith of MIT who is a pioneer in the “appropriate technology” movement aimed at addressing the unique needs of developing world populations.  Her work has led to innovations such as a screenless flour mill eliminating the need for costly, hard-to-replace screens and an oil drum incinerator which makes charcoal from corn cobs.  In her “7 Rules of Low-Cost Design” she advocates spending a week living on $2 a day to better understand the local needs.  It’s an entirely different thing living in local conditions on a local budget than it is to visit as an affluent tourist.

So, shutting down my laptop and networked cell phone, I fill the sink with room temperature tap water and carefully choose the clothes I can afford to hang wet for the next day or two.  In the span of a few minutes I transition from 21st century mobile warrior to 1950′s era American housewife.

If just a fraction of the venture capital allocated to pushing to the absolute limits of technology was instead invested in creating simple, low-cost solutions to enhance the lifestyle and productivity of those in the developing world, the economic payoff could be infinitely greater.  Perhaps the big question is, payoff to whom?  These kinds of initiatives won’t put billions in the hands of a few.  But they could drastically improve the lifestyle and living conditions of millions of people around the world.  Entrepreneurship is the engine of progress and, pointed in the right direction, can have a profound social impact.

Instead of working so hard to create a need or solve problems which don’t exist (lifecasting?), let’s address the basic needs of the global population first.  To the capitalist I say you’re empowering millions to become more productive and ultimately increase output and consumption.  To the social activist I say you’re leveraging the wealth of the developed world to level the playing field.  Who would disagree?

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