What are five billion people watching today? (800)

What do the rich and the poor have in common? That is, apart from the basic things like eating and having children? They watch television. Not the very very rich (or the very well educated)—they’re much too engaged in interesting work and social activities. Not the very very poor in refugee camps—unable to tap into an electrical supply. But, for about five billion of the world’s population in between, in the West and elsewhere, they watch television or use their DVD players or play with their mobile phones and similar devices. And increasingly, too. In the West, the young are leading the way with approaching eight hours’ use every day. Adults slightly less, but are catching up.

It’s the modern equivalent of the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. In those days, by laying on regular spectaculars of gladiatorial fights-to-the-death or of feeding Christians to the lions, the Roman authorities were able to prevent the potentially seething masses from rising up in anger at their lack of opportunities for a normal life. Today, in the barrios of Mexico City, or the favelas of Sao Paulo, or the hovels of Dakar there’s almost always an individual family television set hooked into the electrical supply—which illegality the authorities usually turn a blind eye to for fear of social unrest.

Furthermore, once newly urbanized refugees have a shelter from the rain and a cooking pot, they will save and scrape enough money to buy a television set above that of an adequately nutritious diet. As MIT researchers, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, discovered in their recent interviews with hundreds of the poor all round the world, the latter are all as one in that, once they can pay for, or are handed out, sufficient carbohydrate food to give them just enough calories to get by on a daily basis—but no more—then a television set is their next priority, even if it takes them months or even a year or two to afford. They’d love more interesting and nutritious food or all sorts of other consumer goods but they’re not at the top of their priority list.

This is not only astonishing as a social phenomenon, but it is also revolutionary in its economic consequences. It means that, for a large proportion of the world’s existing population (shall we say half?), they will be able to leapfrog over the motivation to work for, and the wherewithal to pay for, the cascade of consumer products that the Western poor did in the last 300 years of the industrial revolution as they proceeded, status-wise, from various states of wretched serfdom to middle-class-hood. And as, approximately, a billion of hard-working people in coastal China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are now recapitulating.

But for the remainder it’s different. The basic assumptions of Western politicians and international aid agencies that all the poor countries of the world need to ‘develop’ in the classical way described by economists no longer really applies. The capitalist model of innovating, saving, investing and producing ever yet more consumer goods no longer operates in quite the same way as before. Furthermore, the all too frequent statements by Western politicians that all the young people of the West must be educated to very high levels of expertise must also be examined much more critically. Not only do increasing numbers of young people in the West have no intention of working hard and experiencing the thrill of learning, but they know that they really have no need to. What with increasing automation, all the consumer products that most of the population will ever need, or have the time and energy to use, will increasingly be designed and produced by a minority.

The recent sudden ubiquity of the television set and the mobile phone and their vicarious displacement of the real world of interesting work and social satisfactions paints a world-wide picture for the next 50 to 100 years that is very different from the developmental assumptions and hopes of most orthodox economists and politicians. At first sight, there appears to be a sort of large soggy bottom and middle of the world’s population that is just about going to be kept reasonably restrained (except for occasional frustrated outbursts now and again, as in the Middle East and North Africa right now) as they acquire over the next two generations the Western habit not only of watching television for seven to eight hours a day but also of producing families which are of less than replacement size.

This is a pretty awful possibility but it’s considerably more realistic than the hopes given to us in the West by politicians as we stand poised on the edge of a double-dip recession that will at least sanitize the madness of the investment banks and commercial banks to which governments have given almost complete freedom to be irresponsible in the last 30 or so years.

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