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Technology Only Works If People Use It

Introducing appropriate technology to an old culture includes careful listening, says engineering prof Brian Thomas

In a recent podcast, “80% of the World Doesn’t Need Cutting Edge AI,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed fellow Baylor engineering professor Brian Thomas. Thomas, the founder of Engineers with a Mission, is a “practitioner of appropriate technology,” that is, introducing technologies to improve the quality of life that are appropriate to traditional cultures. He offered Marks an example from Sudan [2:00 – 3:34]:

Marks: How can technology be appropriate or inappropriate for a developing country?

Thomas: Technology is appropriate or inappropriate to the extent to which it can be used in the culture in which it is intended to be used. And by “used,” I don’t just mean “operate.” I mean repair, maintain, afford… Is it economically appropriate? Is it culturally appropriate? Does it offend people? Is it appropriate to the religious and cultural norms in which it is embedded? And some of those cultural norms are not so subtle, like the tendency of a culture to perform maintenance and perform repairs. Or do they just let things go until they break? …

I like to tell this story in class about a non-profit organization in Sudan which saw these women bending over to wash their clothes in the river and they thought, wouldn’t it be nice if they had some kind of washing stand, so they could stand upright and wash their clothes. So they built some kind of concrete structure with piped water so women could stand around and wash their clothes without having to bend over. And it was a big success. Everybody loved it. And so they decided, well, let’s replicate it in other parts of the country. And they went to some other parts of the country to do the same thing and they weren’t used. Or, what would happen is, one woman would come up and wash her clothes and when she was finished, the next one would. But it was designed to be a multi-person facility.

They did some research and they finally found out the reason. In the first area, where this was successful, was a Christian area and the women had no problem getting together. In fact, they enjoyed the social interaction of talking while they were working. But the second area was a Muslim area and there were cultural inhibitions about washing your clothes in front of other people, especially perhaps your underwear.

Marks: I would have a problem with that…

Thomas: And so that’s why only one woman would use it at a time. So what they did was, they built smaller laundry stands and spaced them around, ten or fifteen feet apart so they could still have conversations but there was a measure of privacy.

Marks: So the introduction of a technology can’t be done in isolation. It must take into account the cultural and religious background.

Thomas: We cannot assume that because it works in our culture, it will work in another culture. In fact, that’s a guarantee for failure. There are lots of grain grinding mills around subSaharan Africa that are no longer used because they have broken down from lack of maintenance and lack of repair. Maybe in the United States, they would be repaired and would be maintained so we can continue to use them as a labor-saving device. Well, the money for that was not available.

More on how the world is adapting to new technologies:

Can the newest technology liberate the poorest communities In Haiti, it bypasses many development pitfalls


Haiti calling … reaching out, touching the world Baylor computer engineering prof Brian Thomas has been helping Haitians establish businesses to recharge cell phones, using solar panels

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Technology Only Works If People Use It