A few years ago, not long after I moved to Cambodia, I was talking with a friend about how I received my Internet service. Since I was living down a dusty road in the middle of a rice paddy, not too far outside of Siem Reap, the expectation was that modernity was not within easy reach. When I explained that in actuality I had a high-speed fiber connection that ran straight to the house, his reaction was, “I’m not sure how I feel about that.” I was a little taken aback. I understood, but I certainly didn’t sympathize with, his concerns. He is a pretty open-minded guy, but somehow he couldn’t let go of his colonial attitudes.
The Internet has become one of the great levelers in the modern age. Sure it is full of scams, silliness and “high sugar, low nutrient” entertainment, but, like it or not, it is also the way modern humans share information and get news. With a fairly minimal investment, remote communities and individuals are empowered with the same information as everyone else around the world. Sure, the Internet is an “interrupter” that changes people, communities, and countries in unpredictable ways, but the same can be said of just about any revolutionary idea or technology.
The wheel, the printing press, and the light bulb have all been great interrupters of society. The compass, the internal combustion engine, and modern plumbing have been too. It is widely accepted that educating and empowering people is a good idea, but it does have consequences; not all of them are good. It may make the world a better place on a macro level, but on a micro level, educated people are more likely to leave the family unit and irrevocably change communities and societies in unpredictable ways.
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Just because things can be disruptors, does that give anyone the right to arrogantly act as colonial overlords who use their colonial attitudes to pick and choose who gets what technology? “No telephone for you!” “Nope, no penicillin or Polio vaccine for them.” Again, I understand the concerns, but the belief that anyone but the end users should pick and choose who gets the benefit of, or has to deal with the consequences of, modern technology is absurd. That just isn’t how the world works.
Yes, it may shatter our notions of what life is like in a remote Buddhist temple when a monk’s cell phone rings, or when a hill tribe wedding includes a few bouts of blaring Western karaoke but using those things are choices for locals to make, not ours. That we might not like it says far more about us and our leftover colonial attitudes than it does them.