On-Line Skating: A visit to Peru and the lessons of technology

As further evidence that being a columnist requires the same skill set as being a 5th-grader, this item could be titled “What I did on my summer vacation.”

What did I do? Get reminded that when it comes to technology, luxury is easy and basics are hard. The reminder came during a long-planned family vacation to Peru, designed to fit into that window of opportunity when the kids’ interests have expanded beyond “does the hotel have a pool?” but haven’t been consumed by learner’s permits and summer jobs.

I had visited Peru in my backpacking, post-college years, so was curious how it had changed. I’m happy to say I enjoyed it just as much this August as I did 23 years later.

Macchu Picchu, “the lost city of the Incas,” is still the most amazing set of ruins in the Western Hemisphere, and there’s nothing like staring at the sub-equatorial night sky and realizing you don’t know a single one of the constellations. (“Eyes of the Llama”? Right above the Southern Cross.)

But I noted one big difference between Peru 2004 and Peru 1981: Internet cafes. They are everywhere now, even in little towns that have goats in the central plaza and streets unpaved since Simon Bolivar passed through.

All I had to do was hunt for a sign with a hand-painted “@” or some equivalent (my favorite was “INTINET” in big red letters), and there would be a tiny store with a half-dozen beige boxes running Windows, hooked to a satellite dish out back.

Some seats would be filled with gringos, but generally the crowd was locals teens doing Yahoo instant-messaging or checking Web sites, and the occasional local businessman downloading government forms or doing other important (i.e., boring) stuff.

All that was needed was to find an unused chair and open Internet Explorer — I encountered no software that Bill Gates wouldn’t like — and next thing you know I was reading New Hampshire Business Review and checking Red Sox scores. When finished, the bored girl up front calculated my usage time and charged me somewhere around 60 cents an hour.

So what, you ask?

Folks, this is Peru we’re talking about, where modern life still has the ring of novelty.

Twice this summer I watched grain-threshing done in a way Moses would regard as old hat: Lay cut stalks on the ground so the donkey can trample them, then toss the result into the air and hope the wind carries off the chaff. Tech doesn’t get any lower than that.

How can we reconcile such Babylonian agriculture with routine Web surfing? Or, for that matter, with cell phones, which are also common in Peru. (One result of a government-controlled telephone monopoly is that if they want to put a cell tower somewhere, they put it there. Coverage in the Andes Mountains was much better than in Amherst.)

We can reconcile the paradox by realizing that it isn’t one. Just because technology arrived in a certain order here doesn’t mean it has to arrive in that order elsewhere.

Or, to recap today’s lesson: Tech luxury is easier than necessity. Net surfing is a luxury. Safe drinking water is a necessity. Peru has lots of the former but from the standpoint of Western intestines, none of the latter: Tourists even brush their teeth with bottled water.

Creating safe drinking water is a gargantuan task. You need pumping stations, pipes, treatment methods, billing systems and often a whole change in society’s attitude toward waste and cleanliness. Clean water may be a technology that you and I don’t even notice, but it’s too difficult for half the world to accomplish.

Creating Internet cafes, by contrast, is a snap.

This is a good thing to remember. Sexy doesn’t necessarily mean difficult. Gee-whiz doesn’t mean vital. Being dazzled shouldn’t always mean being impressed.

And I’m glad I don’t have to use a donkey to prepare dinner.

David Brooks writes about science and technology for the Telegraph of Nashua.

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