Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man Why Smartphones Work Better in Soweto

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man Why Smartphones Work Better in Soweto

Article excerpt

A friend of mine insists that when Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho first opened in Britain, the emotional impact of the most famous murder in cinematic history was slightly diminished. As Norman Bates's knife came into frame, British audiences of 1960 were still recovering from the shock of a scene they had witnessed a few minutes earlier when they were shown a hotel room that had its own shower.

I can still just remember a time when it was normal to walk along a hotel corridor to take a bath or use the loo. And the folk memory of these regional variations still lingers. I don't think anyone in Britain still packs loo rolls to take to the continent, but people did. Americans, who first travelled to Europe in large numbers at a time when the transatlantic plumbing divide was widest, still believe all French people stink (a US satirical website claims Lance Armstrong was disqualified from the Tour de France after local investigators detected the presence of the banned substances soap, deodorant and toothpaste).

To a visiting Brit of the 1960s, California seemed like science fiction.

Now, Japan aside, the capacity of a country to amaze us with its technology seems to have gone. In fact there is now a strange kind of reverse process at work. Technological infrastructure is often unexpectedly better in poorer countries than in rich ones. The mobile coverage in Soweto is far better than in Covent Garden. Vodafone in Portugal is much better than in the UK. And the speed of internet access in a hotel or cafe is impossible to predict: it can be lousy in Silicon Valley and brilliant on a Greek island.

Partly this can be explained by the leapfrog effect: that the countries who upgrade their infrastructure last are the ones who do it best. Brits also have a problem in that we don't build wooden houses - 3G mobile signals are hopeless at penetrating stone or brick. …

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