The Intersection of Culture, Business & Technology Pt. 2: Leapfrogging in Rising Asia

Modernity Delivered by Drone

I’ve been fascinated lately with rate of change and what it means for cultural innovation.  Tech innovation happens quickly and it’s an impossible-to-stop tsunami, engulfing the entire world and everything in it. Cultural Innovation though, is non-obvious and slow.  If technology is fluid and malleable, culture is glacial in its movement. 

Our current rate of decentralization and innovation means that the present looks nothing like the coming future.   Perhaps uniquely in places like rural China.

“A frog, certain that nowhere can be as good as the environment he knows, is astonished when a turtle tells him about the sea.” – Zhuangzi

Jiayang Fan, a reporter for The New Yorker,  blew my mind with the story of Jingdong, a mega e-commerce company transforming China; everything and everyone in it.  It first appeared in print as Delivering Modernity and later appeared online as How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.

Jiayang understood that this global-phenomenon is first and foremost a story; the story of a world being utterly transformed.  How will we operate in this future? In this epic we meet Xia, born in 1979 to a virtually pre-industrial part of China; Cenmang, “A village of a hundred or so households nestled at the foot of the Wuling Mountains, in the far west of Hunan Province.”

“In 2009, he bought his first smartphone. Not many of his friends knew much about the Internet in those days, but Xia’s eyes were opened: “Everything that was going on in China could be squeezed onto that screen.”

What Xia is talking about is the idea of Leapfrogging.  You’ve played the game. Your friend is bent at the hip and you, running at 50% pace or so, plant your hands on the shoulders of your friend and use them as propulsion to leap over her.  You’ve used your friend to get from behind her to in front of her without ever going through or around her. You’ve leapfrogged.

Across the developing world, in the major hubs of Sub-Saharan Africa, the far Western point of China and the rural remnants of the Levant, human beings are leapfrogging into the future.  They are planting their hands firmly on the shoulders of the smartphone and a wifi signal.

“To him, it didn’t seem strange that people should still be digging wells for water even as they set up Wi-Fi in their homes. Only the very richest inhabitants, perhaps fifty people, owned cars. Almost everyone had a TV, but no more than half the villagers had a refrigerator because people mostly ate vegetables that they grew themselves and chickens that they kept running around in their yards until the moment they were needed for the pot. A tiny minority had computers. Everyone had a cell phone.”

“In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up by the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next.” – Jiayang Fan

Bolstered by the awesome Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba

In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”- Jack Ma

In the technological world we’ve built, it isn’t an exaggeration to say the idea of technology leapfrogging has created an infinite amount of extrapolations and possibilities. 

In China, shock and awe in the tech space doesn’t exist.  Rapid change and innovation that seems like science fiction is par for the course; it’s expected because leapfrogging has made it so.

Jingdong, the e-commerce giant and the third largest internet company by revenue, has expanded it’s drone delivery outpost into the wild lands where Xia was raised.

“The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the “toy plane.” But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: “Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything”

Sometimes I read a paragraph that breaks my brain and I have to get up and walk around the room before I can continue.  What you just read above should shock you, inspire you, intimidate you if you’re in ‘Western’ tech and give you pause if you think you have a single sweet clue what the future will look like.  The bold above is my own. Look at the first phrase in bold. WEEKS! They were surprised FOR A FEW WEEKS. Now follow to the end. This is the mentality of the New World. There isn’t time to be surprised about anything in particular because anything in particular so frequently disappoints not so long after.  Why? Because the technological rate of change, decentralization and leapfrogging. The new becomes the old relative to our understanding of what new is. In China, everything, at every time, is new. 

For the young Chinese who are now flocking to e-commerce companies, the transition represents an explosion of the middle-class; bringing about a steady decline in the nation’s GINI coefficient (a measure of wealth distribution; basically, how big is the middle-class?).  Many who work for soon-to-be e-commerce emperors like Jack Ma and Liu Qiangdong are training on drone flight simulators, preparing for flight delivery programs to all corners of the country.  Jiayang’s interaction with one of the young drone pilots drives the idea of leapfrogging home.

“This is harder than driving a car,” I said, attempting to deflect embarrassment with humor. But no one laughed, and it emerged that none of these drone-pilot trainees had ever been behind the wheel of a car.” -Jiayang Fan

For so many across the world, history took an eternity, but the future took an instant.

What are the cultural and socio-economic implications of leapfrogging in a decentralized future?  How does it change your idea of who the real tech adopters are and who are the laggards? When developing world youth understand technological change implicitly, what does that mean for the future of wealth?

#culture #business #technology