I was flicking through the tv recently and came across a Bangladeshi science-fiction drama. This made me laugh out loud, partly because it was brilliantly cheap and the costumes looked like something from a Duran Duran video, but also because the idea of Bangladeshi science fiction itself is a bit absurd.
Bangladesh does of course have big modern buildings, and investment from trans-national corporations, and offices with computers, internet and everything, but I’ve also been to villages where my digital watch is the most advanced thing there, and my digital watch is broken. I didn’t watch all of the show, but I could imagine them going off and encountering an alien planet where ‘oooohhh, look Rajesh, they have electricity 24 hours a day. This species is far advanced from our own. Where is their sewage network? It must be under the ground! Ooooohhhhh, super technology jah?’
It’s this juxtaposition of a world totally dependent on the latest international technology inhabiting the same geographical space as a world that doesn’t even have electricity that I find so staggering, constantly.
My friend Kobir personifies this, because he lives in a half-brick shack on the outskirts of a village, in the middle of a field with 9 brothers and sisters, and they have no electricity, no running water, no glass in the windows, very little money, basically nothing. And yet Kobir maintains three websites. He goes to his local madrassa in the morning, and now three times a week comes in to Sylhet to learn about web-design, doing complicated operations with HTML, Java, Flash, certainly more than I can do. And he’s only 13.
This has come about through the commitment and generosity of Luke, a VSO volunteer who used to live by Kobir’s village and first taught Kobir English, and then gradually introduced Kobir to the benefits of technology. Luke has gone back to England now, but left Kobir his old laptop and a Windows mobile phone, so Kobir can access the internet whilst sitting in the darkness of his two room hut in the heart of rural Bangladesh and an ancient way of life. He charges everything up at his brother’s small shop, and off he goes.
Numerous studies are beginning to show direct correlations between the number of mobile phones in a country and its rate of economic and social development. The costs of communicating are cheap here, and people are glued to their mobiles either for talking, or for getting on line with them as well. I’ve had a text reminding me that today free Polio vaccinations were available across the country for my children. (I’ve also, hilariously, had a text from my network provider stating “Dear Subscriber, a rumour is being spread that receiving calls from certain numbers causes mobiles to explode. We would like to reassure you, this is just a rumour.” Only in Bangladesh).
Whilst any new technology brings with it a lot of otherwise unknown stresses and strains, the beauty of the explosion of information technology, or more precisely, the technology that enables a user to access information, is that it primarily empowers users by offering them opportunities. It doesn’t create change, but it allows the possibility for change, the possibility to escape a way of life that otherwise someone might be locked in to. And it allows the user to do this for themselves, not just to rely purely on the intervention of some foreign input.
Of course, any change from one state to another requires a catalyst, and in Kobir’s case this was Luke, and in a wider sense the investment of foreign companies to bring and market their products. But the fact that the market is so huge shows it’s successful. It’s not forcing Kobir to abandon his life; he still goes to his local madrassa and learns a traditional education. But technology has given him, and millions of others around the world, the opportunity to have a different education, if they choose it. And therefore if Kobir continues to work incredibly hard, as he doing now, and maybe leave his village and move to England to further his web-design ambitions, he could come and teach people in England about his life in rural Bangladesh, and broaden their knowledge.
And this certainly isn’t science fiction – all around the world people are communicating more, further, and more freely, and that is a positive reality.