Last year, I traveled in the Philippines to a tribal region called Banaue to get to know the local experience of what it might be like to live on a rice terrace farm carved out of a mountain. These villages were only accessible by foot, and to go from one town to the next, you had to hike up one mountain and down the next to the next basin over.
The “hub” towns on the edges of the region had many of the modern-day conveniences that you might expect, including electricity, mostly modern plumbing, and even wifi, however spotty the service. But as for the rest, you were on your own. No cell reception. No Internet. One of the villages I visited was still pretty new to electricity, having received access just five years ago.
It’s a 1 or 2-day hike to get from one village to the next, and for the duration of your journey, you’re essentially inaccessible to anyone who might try to connect with you. If you live in one of those villages in the middle, you might spend the better part of your life without being able to simply fire off a text message whenever you want.
But here was the crazy part: Every single person I met — even the people who lived in these totally “off the grid” towns — still carried a smartphone.
From what I could tell, they were as addicted to them as the rest of us.
Even in the offline zones, I noticed people playing Candy Crush-like games in the off-time or browsing through photos just the way you’d expect. When in “online” mode — either in a hub city or at the top of certain mountains that longtime natives knew carried some cell service — it’d be back to texting and Facebook. While in Banaue, I somehow crashed the 95th birthday party for the oldest woman in town — a day complete with musical festivities and preparing large meals right in the street. Every moment was captured on cell phone cameras.
With everyone I met, I asked a lot of questions about their access to technology to better understand how they used it and why.
I learned that while Facebook and Messenger appeared to be ubiquitous, Instagram remained somewhat of a mystery. Google was generally understood as a way to find information, but I found it baffling that I had to explain Amazon (“an online store where you can basically buy anything and have it mailed to you”). There was a somewhat overly indexed awareness of services like Airbnb and TripAdvisor among local guides who did their best to use these tools to drum up business for their home stays or touring companies. But aside from that, I found no apparent correlation in what was known vs. unknown online. And yet somehow things like Disney movies and celebrity icons managed to permeate their way deeply into this culture.
I’m a problem solver by nature, and so when I’m placed in a new environment, I immediately begin looking for ways to make it better. And during my time in Banaue, I was continually exposed to problems that had a seemingly obvious (and pre-existing) solution.
- “I have a lot of tourists that speak Spanish, and I’d like to be able to communicate with them better but don’t know the language.” (“Have you heard of this app, Duolingo?”)
- “I make these beautiful handmade jewelry but I live on the top of this hill and when it’s not tourist season, it’s hard for me to make money.” (“Have you heard of Etsy?”)
- “I received a $100 U.S. bill from Americans but none of the banks around here will accept it because they can’t verify if it’s real or fake. How can I turn this into dollars I can use to buy things locally?” (“What about Venmo?”)
This happened so frequently that by the end of my trip, I ended up writing a note to hiking guide about how he could use a few of these services a bit better to help himself and friends. The best way for me to convey that information? On paper.
Leveling the Playing Field
Ever since this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about what really delineates “broad access” of any system or service.
It surprised me how, even in a world where these people also carried small computers in their pockets, they weren’t exposed to thee same litany of services that I know and use so often. Even ones that were literally designed to fix some of these exact problems.
It takes me the same amount of effort for me to type, “language learning app” into Google’s search bar as it does for someone on the other side of the world.
But clearly this isn’t enough to level the playing field and equalize access.
The challenge is knowing what to type.
By the way, this isn’t only a problem that you get when you travel to remote regions of the world. I’ve seen manifestations of this in my own backyard in New York City as well.
Over the past four years, I’ve been working with high school and college-aged students in NYC’s public school system through CUNY, as well as via a charter school where I sit on the board — Comp Sci High. Through these interactions, I’m constantly surprised by what remains unknown or stuck inside “the black box” when it comes to questions around technology, business, and career.
How would you know what a venture capitalist does unless you’ve been exposed to their work and their stories in your own life? How would you know how to approach a casual networking scenario unless you had the opportunity to learn from someone else? How would you know that it’s OK to apply for a job if you don’t meet all of the qualifications if you hadn’t first learned that this is a totally normal thing to do?
If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a new website is published on the Internet and nobody knows how to find it, is it still delivering value?
Just because something exists on the Internet (even if it’s free) doesn’t mean it is equally available and accessible to everyone. And this, in itself, is an invisible barrier to access.
So it begs the question: How broad is your access…really? And what can you do to stretch it even further?
Also published on Medium.