For at least the last thousand years, fishermen trawling off the southern Indian state of Kerala have faced a perpetual question: which market will bring them the best price for their fish? The fishermen have a broad selection of ports where they can unload and sell their catch, but if too many boats pull into a port, the market, oversupplied with fish, won’t pay the fishermen enough even to cover their costs. This market failure has kept the fishermen of Kerala perpetually poor, eking out a subsistence-level wage, despite the rich harvest from the seas.
In 1997, as India began its sweeping ascent into industrialization, the newly-deregulated telecommunications industry blanketed the country with mobile transceiver towers. Some of these towers, strung along the Kerala shoreline, could project their signals up to 25 km out to sea, well within the range of the fishermen on their sturdy dhows.
Although mobile telephony isn’t expensive in India, relative to incomes, it’s extremely dear. A typical cheap mobile telephone – such as the Nokia 1100, the most popular consumer electronics device in history – costs the equivalent of several thousand dollars. One wealthy fisherman did purchase a mobile telephone, and brought it with him to sea. At some point, he communicated with the mainland: perhaps a family call. During the call, he learned of a market desperately in need of fish. He set his sails for that port, and made a tidy profit. The next day, he made a few calls into shore, and again learned where he might sell his catch for the highest price. A seeing man in the kingdom of the blind, this fisherman very quickly earned far more money than any of his competitors.
More than any other species, human beings copy the behaviors of our peers; a recent scientific study showed that young chimpanzees scored better than toddlers on cognitive tasks, but that toddlers proved far more adept at ‘aping’ the behavior of others. We are wired to observe, learn from and copy the behavior of others. The Kerala fisherman noted the success of this ‘king fisher,’ and, despite the staggering cost – equivalent to a month’s income – purchased their own mobiles. Within a few months, all of Kerala’s fishermen used mobiles to coordinate their sales into the Kerala fishmarkets. Each market had just the right amount of fish, selling at just the right price, to guarantee each fisherman a tidy profit. A thousand year-old problem had been solved – and the fishermen now earn so much more money that those very expensive mobile telephones recoup their costs in just two months!
A decade ago, half the world had never made a telephone call. Today, over half the world owns a mobile telephone. Study after study indicate that the vast swath of the world’s medium poor (those who earn anything from a few dollars to a few tens of dollars a day) dramatically improve their earning potential with a mobile telephone. Microfinance organizations, such as Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunnis, have established their own telecommunications companies, geared to serve the needs of the poor, knowing that connectivity is one of the keys to solving the perpetual problem of poverty. Meanwhile, across Africa and Asia, billions who had been left behind in drive to globalization, purchase a mobile knowing it to be their passport to economic advancement.
Why is connectivity so important to success? You may as well ask if a deaf-mute could participate in an auction. We need to be able to communicate to participate in The Human Network; as we better our ability to communicate, we reap the benefits of a deeper participation. All of this is old, old knowledge, buried deep within our cultures, our bodies and our brains, and it has suddenly accelerated and amplified, wiring us into The Human Network, connecting us directly to the rest of humanity.
We can alert the entire planet with a text message, create a market with just a word, scour the best minds on Earth in search of answers to our questions. All of this, unexpected by economists, sociologists or technologists, is now available to the majority of humanity, and – within just a few years – will have encompassed all but the billion most desperately poor individuals. As we pile onto The Human Network, exploring our newfound ability to communicate across every barrier nature and culture have placed in our path, we consistently increase our effectiveness, watching and copying our peers – just as the Kerala fishermen did.
We can chart our path to into this startling future by taking a good look at the present. Many of the forces shaping and benefits delivered by The Human Network have already appeared; some in embryonic form, some now fully grown. We can communicate, and share with one another; we can pool our shared knowledge resources to increase our intelligence, improving our ability to make good decisions; once smarter, we can band together – across nations, across cultures, across the world – to achieve our economic, social and political goals. All of this is already happening, and all of it will change everything in the human world.