ONE of my missions is to get more people to appreciate the wonders of uncool technology.

This is not because I am profoundly uncool personally, but also because I worry that we fixate on  whiz-bang technology at the expense of less flashy stuff that can make a profound difference in people's lives.

To give you a tale of two extremes : Exciting helium balloons and unremarkable smartphones with the look and feel of 1990s flip phones.

The Information, a technology news publication, wrote last month about Loon, a nearly decade-old project from Google's parent company to beam Internet signals to remote places using high-altitude balloons that act like floating towers.

The idea is thrilling, but the balloons might not be working very well.

The Information found Loon had spent a bunch of money including some on costs it hadn't expected., like regularly replacing balloons - something that more conventional Internet delivery options don't require.

The Information gave examples of places where Loon balloons have been useful, including Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed cell towers.

My colleague Abdi Latif Dahur has written that critics of a Loon project in Kenya said it was a solution in search of a problem, as most Kenyans already had Internet access through more conventional technologies.

He and the Information article implicitly asked a profound question : Is flashy technology better and more financially viable than cheaper, simpler solutions" It's a good question, right?

If fancy technology isn't inherently better and may be worse, what's the alternative?

I wrote last year about two uncool technologies that have profoundly helped  increase the number of people connected to the Internet in poorer countries :

Smartphones with a simple software and bare-bones parts that cost as little as $20, and inexpensive equipment like solar-powered poles to hold Internet wiring and carry signals to hard-to-reach spots in the world.

[It also helps to have billionaires like Mukesh Ambani of India who are willing to pour money and political persuasion into building networks.]

A solar-powered telecommunications pole in the ground is boring to look at but is the result of some sophisticated technology, sensible business planning and savvy politicking. Those are the unflashy forces that have made a far bigger difference for less money than helium balloons.

Facebook's failed Internet-ferrying drone project and efforts to beam Wi-Fi from satellites.

That's not to say that flashy never works, nor that people and companies shouldn't dream big. We need that, too.

But efforts to widen Internet access using satellites and helium balloons suck up attention and money that might be more effectively lavished on seemingly boring infrastructure like laying more thick coils of cables.

There's a tendency to obsess on grand fixes that may not fix anything. Apps that try [and fail] to  ''modernize'' an election get more attention than a simple information site that gives voters what they need fast.

And while some health systems are splurging on creepy, possibly ineffective software to predict patients' coronavirus related  health risks, unfussy virus exposure apps can help people stay safe now.

We need to pay more attention to the uncool and the incremental. I wish there were MacArthur ''genius'' grants for thinking small.

The World Students Society thanks author Shira Ovide.


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