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The Myth of Leapfrogging

Kevin Kelly and I have had an ongoing discussion about whether leapfrogging was, in fact, a real phenomenon; the Leapfrog 101 post actually grew out of the early parts of that conversation. Kevin argues that leapfrogging doesn't actually happen, and that societies can't simply skip over older technologies. Most of us at WorldChanging would argue the opposite.

Kevin wrote to tell me that he has finally laid out his argument in detail, and (unsurprisingly) it's a truly thought-provoking essay. I don't agree with his conclusions, but I'm really going to have to work to make a good case for leapfrogging in response. In the meantime, The Myth of Leapfrogging is well worth your time to read, and especially to think about.

Comments (5)

Kevin's main thrust appears to be that infrastructure is needed to support services, and that newer technologies have come about from taking advantage of the infrastructures laid down for older technologies. Thus, the proliferation of mobiles in places like China has led to a belated realisation that the increased demand for greater communication bandwidth requires a corresponding proliferation of landlines, and so a technology has not been skipped.

However, I think that landlines should be viewed as a *separate* technology to wireless mobiles rather than just an 'older' one, for it provides a different service (high bandwidth internet connectivity as opposed to real time personal communication)

It would interesting to look into the leapfrogging in the technology of the landlines themselves: are they copper or optical? Do they support ASDL 2?

Are local wireless networks appearing? (I recall a talk by someone involved in providing PC parts to remote Himalayan villages in Nepal wherein he described the local school teacher setting up an IR link to the village on the opposite side of the valley)

Things might be a bit clearer if a high bandwidth, high coverage wireless technology became available (eg lasers on high altitude platforms). Would landlines still proliferate then?

I do think that Kevin's point about infrastructure touches on one aspect to leapfrogging that hasn't been discussed (AFAIK), and ought to be considered. That is that it may lead to a gap in understanding, which may place the beneficiaries at the mercy of the providers. It has happened in the past (eg cargo cults)

Flannel Flower:

what were cargo cults?

Is leapfrogging-yes-or-no a substantive discussion or a discussion over labels?

Kevin raises some good points but I don't think his thesis holds up as well as he'd probably like. This becomes especially plain when he cites the thought experiment of terraforming Mars towards the end of his essay.

It conjures up in my mind this silly image of millions of slaves in space suits attempting to drag flagstones across the Martian plains and canyons to build a highway. This kind of thing just isn't done anymore--look at how Three Gorges was built in comparison to the Aswan High Dam.

Why do I say this? Because, while he's right that older infrastructure is still just as necessary (Some of it is simply irreplacable and unavoidable. Lots of roads are needed to get around easily. Electricity transmission lines still help a lot even with decentralized power generation.), he forgets that how that infrastructure gets built is also changing qualitatively and quantitatively.

Railways, roadways, powerlines and fiber optic are still desparately needed in the developing world but, how we build those things has changed enormously in the last hundred years. The first transcontinental railway in the United States was built in a very, very different way than the railway lines being made today. Tunneling technology (Arguably one of the most expensive and difficult of infrastructure technologies.), almost inperceptibly, has been getting faster, cheaper and more automated.

Going back to his terraforming example, and extrapolating improvements in infrastructure assembly technologies into the science fictional realm, eventually terraforming planets might be as easy as scattering some nanoscopic robots into the atmosphere and soil of a planet and waiting a few decades.

That's where I think things are ultimately headed. I'd bet 5 bucks on it.

Pace Arko:

Another thing just occurred to me. I don't Kevin's attempts to compare the metaphor of human brain evolution (Which is Darwinian.) to the metaphor of engineering and design evolution (Which is Lamarkian and thus faster.) holds up.

Tony Fisk:

Flannel Flower:
A discussion of cargo cults is to be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_Cult. It was a side effect of melanesian tribes coming into contact with western civilisation and its trappings. Especially its trappings. They liked the goods, but had no idea how they came to be, and became dependent on 'white men' for their supply. Believing these goods ultimately came from the gods, cargo cults sought to cut out the middle man and supplicate the gods directly. Not very effective.

While I don't agree with Kevin's stance, I do think he makes a good point about the need to consider the infrastructure required to support 'leapfrogging' technologies locally. I don't think his counter examples invalidate leapfrogging as a concept (as I said, demand for landlines is for a different service, so linking them with the demand for mobile phones is not strictly valid), but they do suggest that we look a little more closely at what leapfrogging requires to make it effective.


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