- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

AJIJIC, Mexico. — In America, you get used to technology. Most things work. Every few weeks something new appears: satellite radio, a faster computer chip, a discovery in genetics. It gets to be just background noise. Outside the developed world, things look different.

Mexico is an interesting example, or at least convenient, because that's where I am. Things we take for granted at home are just arriving, and they are spotty.

In Manzanillo, a port city on the west coast with a population of about 125,000, there are at least three cyber-cafes, all doing a brisk business. The technical institute on the outskirts has a room full of computers for students to use. Automated teller machines are common, and they work.

A new shopping mall has the same bar-code readers that Safeway has in the United States. Cell phones are common, and yes, they work, too. Cable and satellite TV are taken for granted.

On the other hand, in a village maybe a half-hour away by city bus, there are no sewers, just channels in the streets, and many people live in dirt-floored houses. This isn't as bad as an American might think: People aren't dying of plague, food is plentiful, and I ate regularly in small restaurants without falling ill. But it's a different world.

From a business point of view, a considerable problem is not so much that the technology is mysterious or beyond Mexican capabilities, but that it hasn't been applied. For example, depending on where you are, you may have to take cash to the offices of utilities each month to pay them. It's an enormous nuisance when you have to pay five bills in person. They won't take checks. It wouldn't be hard to do things more efficiently. They just haven't.

Paying bills by Internet? I have brought up the idea to various small businesses and an electric utility. They thought the idea was interesting, like flying saucers. No, they had no plans to do it. Yet the investment would be minimal: Internet banking exists. It probably would cut costs as more people get computers.

Part of the reason, of course, is that not enough people have computers and Internet service.

When you add up all the missing pieces, the result is that doing things, especially business sorts of things, is a lot harder than it is in developed countries. Not all of the difficulty is technology-related; there is somewhat of a lack of initiative.

Acceptance of credit cards is spotty, mail isn't reliable. How much effect it has on the economy, I don't know, but it isn't negligible.

Things are much the same in other developing countries. It can be mind-boggling at times.

Last year I was in Bangkok and went with a Thai to a temple. The ceremony was ancient, with monks in saffron robes officiating before ornate Buddhas. I was kneeling on the floor near a monk, who spoke English and began talking to me. He was from India and working on a philosophy degree. As I left, he gave me his e-mail address.

The uneven distribution of technology around the globe is startling. We speak charitably of "developing countries," but a fair number aren't. The other night I was watching a special on tribesmen in New Guinea. They wore close to nothing, used stone axes and ate grubs. The idea of literacy was alien to them, and so was the idea of anything more than a few miles away.

Yet, not so far away, in Japan, engineers design supercomputers in global competition with companies such as IBM. Children in Arlington play games on computer chips. People live on the Web and chat across oceans. More than 30 years ago, man walked on the moon.

It is a strange world in which a stone ax represents the pinnacle of tool-making for one society and computerized positron-emission tomography does the same for another.

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