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Leapfrogging into the Future, by the Barefoot VC

Stashed in: The Future

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Leapfrogging into the Future

Posted: 30 Dec 2015 05:00 PM PST

We live in strange times, and sometimes it seems that the world is spinning backwards. Donald Trump is a leading presidential contender and the North Pole saw December temperatures rise above freezing without any sunlight.   As every year comes to an end, I marvel at all of the unexpected twists and turns of the year.


One of my favorite parts of my job is interacting with brilliant people around the world –while speaking, emailing or via my blog. In a year of fascinating conversations, a few stood out. One such conversation was with a doctor from Burma. He approached me after I spoke about the potential of bitcoin and blockchain (at Summit Series’ Summit at Sea). He was intrigued by what this distributed infrastructure could mean for his work in Burma. We discussed how Burma is now the first “smartphone only” country in the world.


When speaking about the blockchain to many people in the United States, I get a puzzled look on why the technology matters. In other parts of the world, often considered “developing” – there are no explanations needed. Use a mobile phone to transfer money? Why not? There are no alternatives, no conditioned behavior of going to a bank branch – or carrying a piece of plastic to walk/drive to an ATM to get cash to store in a physical wallet. In many of these places, inflation and currency controls are a reality, and it’s often dangerous to carry around the cash they need on a daily basis. And furthermore, why shouldn’t the transactions be cross-border and interoperable, and not dependent on a specific mobile operator? And why should these transactions cost the poor more than they cost the wealthy?


I last went to Burma in 2007. I hitchhiked around the country (the safest I’ve encountered) given the lack of public transport. I didn’t take out my phone – still a feature phone, this was the year the iPhone was released – as I was told I may be followed and arrested if the government thought I was a journalist. I had been drawn to the country after reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, a novel that spans 115 years in Burma’s history starting in 1885, when the country was a major trading hub, a coveted British territory and a province of India. During my trip, I spoke to an older Indian couple in Mandalay who ran an antique shop that had gathered inches of dust due to lack of activity. They talked of making the decision to come to Burma instead of the United States, given the business potential they saw in Burma. At the time we met, years after that decision, they had to apply for a permit to leave their city. The sadness in their eyes communicated regret and hopelessness. They would never have dreamed of owning a smartphone, or ever again having connectivity to the world outside of their neighborhood. The college student I hired to take me around the ancient temples of Bagan had a mobile phone that he paid well over $1000 for – and knew it was likely being tracked by the government (hmm, that’s another post). Now, almost ten years later, sub $25 smartphones are broadly available there, and mobile operators in the Burmese market are focused only on smartphone applications for the networks – not even SMS messaging.

I imagine what a huge difference it must be to go from no way to connect, directly to smartphone. 


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