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When technology fails us…

This is an article I wrote about what happens when technology fails us that was published in this week’s edition of the East African Newspaper. You can read it here>. Below is the full unedited version:

There is a famous adage known as Murphy’s Law, which states, “Anything that can can go wrong will go wrong”. Murphy’s Law is used as either a purely sarcastic musing that things always go wrong, or, less frequently, a reflection of the mathematical idea that, given a sufficiently long time, an event which is possible (non-zero probability) will almost surely take place. Over the years, Murphy’s Law has constantly been quoted in reference to technology going invariably wrong, which seems to happen more and more frequently than we would like to.

In light of Murphy’s wisdom, its quite surprising how hopelessly and completely we all have  become dependent on technology for even some of the most basic and mundane tasks we undertake everyday. What I find even more perplexing is that Africa, which is considered to  be the world’s technology backwaters has also somehow managed to become inextricably hooked onto technology in all its myriad forms – from communications to entertainment, from financial services to education, from government to travel, and everything else in between. Amazingly it was only a few years ago that I had a heated argument with an expatriate development professional who asserted that what Africa needed was more farming and improved roads instead of mobile phones, computers and internet access in rural villages. I’m starting to think he may actually have been right, in some respects.

My concern about technology is not that its not important or does not add value in Africa. My concern is what happens when technology fails us? Just this weekend, my mobile network was down for around 3 hours in the area where I was working. I could not make phone calls or send text messages. I could not send mobile money to my mechanic who was working on my car. It turned out that my mobile network had a limited outage in Nairobi which affected a good number of subscribers. Ironically, I still had internet access on my mobile phone even as voice and text services we’re down. I shudder when I think about what such an outage would have done if someone was seriously unwell or in danger at the time and could not call to get help. I dread to imagine what would have happened to the trader who needed to send a mobile money payment to a supplier to urgently deliver crucial new stock to their shop on time. Or what about the scenario where a child’s school fees could not be wired at the bank which led them to being sent home because the bank’s inter-branch network was down. All these these scenarios point to circumstances when technology inevitably fails us, whether we like it or not.

Apart from the fact that technology failing us is very much a part of our lives, it does leave us with a lingering for some of the simpler and less advanced ways of the past. I do recall that before the mobile phone, people kept appointments and arrived on time instead of calling to let you know they we’re late, but still enroute. What about the days when you had to go to the specific branch of the bank where you had an account to make deposits and withdrawals before branchless banking was made possible through computer networking? Did we not manage our finances better in those days with limited access to our money instead of having it on our mobile phone, online and at the ATM? And we’re we not treated more personally at that branch before the advent of computer-based customer relationship management (CRM) which today is a multi-billion dollar technology sector? Certainly technology has made life a lot better in many ways and for all the right reasons in Africa and beyond, but when it fails us we definitely feel a sense of nostalgia for some of the the good old days! Murphy’s Law non-withstanding.

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