Kevin Kelly on “The Myth Of Leapfrogging”

In a [long, thoughtful article](http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2006/03/the_myth_of_lea.php), [Kevin Kelly](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Kelly) argues that there is little evidence that societies can “leapfrog” in the sense that most eco-development folk mean it:

>[…] the billions of people in the world currently living with little advance technology can skip the industrial generation of technology and zoom immediately to the good stuff. Rather than suffer trough the smoky pollution of industrial factories, begin with the best we have right now. The billions in the developing world could jump directly and immediately from the pre-technological era right into the nirvana of six-sigma manufacturing processes, light robotic assembly, and the mind-numbing choice of personalized everything.

While examples of getting a newer generation of gadgets instead of starting at the start are everywhere in developing countries, we want it to be more significant:

>[…] It’s not solar battery rechargers that count, but the absence of a huge electrical grid. It’s not cheap commercial jet fares, but the escape of having to building a long-haul highway system. It is not the latest SM mobile phoneset, but the ability to leave millions of mile of telephone wires unstrung. To reckon leapfrogging as significant, it must be seen as a way to skip a complete generation of infrastructure.

The kind of leapfrogging we see with Mongolians shifting from horses to diesel trucks or in the development of Dubai in the last few decades, on the other hand, leaves many eco-dev types horrified. Most of us want leapfrogging to mean “the acquisition of the virtues of a digital livelihood without having to suffer through the vices of an industrial livelihood.”

The great, oft-cited examples of leapfrogging are the number of countries which have massive cell-phone use with minimal landline penetration. The trick though is that the landlines have continued to grow in those countries, although at a slower rate. Perhaps because the Internet is confined to “good old copper (or optic) wires, so the real vanguards of society leap past cell phones to get dial-up modems or DSL.”

I won’t summarise Kelly’s whole argument, but his concluding claim is that…

>there is no hi-tech without low tech, and no leapfrogging over low tech. We may find times when a new technology races forward, and the velocity of the new outpaces the velocity of the old, but even then we won’t see the myth of leapfrogging.

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