Though I have not done any statistical research on it, I think the odds are overwhelming that I recently established a first-ever world accomplishment: I read through John Keats’ famous sequence of odes, on a Kindle book reader, in Praca de Rosario, a small plaza in the little Brazilian town of Piracaia.
With a population of abut 25,000, Piracaia is roughly the same size as Whitehorse but the similarities end there.
Where Whitehorse is geographically isolated, but highly urbanized, technologically advanced, and, in its own odd way, culturally cosmopolitan, Piracaia, though at only a three-hour remove by road from Sao Paulo (South America’s biggest city) is a very rural place.
You still see horse-drawn carts on the streets and cowboys on horses. You can walk a long, long way around town before you find a wireless hotspot.
I can speak to the truth of the latter, because I had tried it myself, on that afternoon when I ended up in the shade of the Praca de Rosario’s foliage. I had been walking around the downtown area with my iPod for an hour or so, counting the wireless access points I could find.
This is not to imply Piracaia, which is fairly typical of smaller Brazilian communities, is entirely bereft of contact with what we usually (and, I think, mistakenly) call the “information age.”
Though many of the local rooftops still feature television antennas of the type that disappeared from the North American skyline several decades ago, more and more of them are sporting satellite dishes.
Furthermore, almost everybody you see going by – even the cowboy on horseback –
has a cellphone to his or her ear, or in his or her pocket.
Because basic cellphones are cheap to buy, and prepaid access plans are plentiful and economical, cellphones were commonplace in Brazil long before they were popular in North America. However, smartphones have not caught on nearly as quickly here because they come with payment plans that most habitually frugal and deal-seeking Brazilians are unwilling to undertake.
The thicket of cellular service towers that sits atop the hill that dominates downtown Piracia is GSM-based, and capable of high-speed digital service, but in the course of the past 10 days or so, I have seen no evidence of people using smartphones. They talk and text, pretty much as people do in the rural communities of the Yukon, where high-speed cellular service is not available at all.
Though high-speed cellular service is available almost ubiquitously, and Wi-Fi service is available (free or otherwise) in most hotels in respectably-sized towns, mobile computing capacity is drastically underemployed in Brazil – even in comparison to the bandwidth-price-choked Yukon – for two reasons: the cybersophistication of organized crime in Brazil, and the near-criminal price of mobile computing devices in the country.
The first of these problems is probably the one most difficult, and most unlikely to be solved, except over the long haul.
Though Brazil’s economy continues to burgeon, and more and more lucrative jobs come open in computing and communications technologies, the organized crime gangs of Brazil still have the cash and the social cache to attract some of the best information technology talent available in the country.
That situation is unlikely to change as long as local political corruption, and the incurably insane, crime-enabling anti-drug laws of the U.S. remain in place.
Unsupervised access to Wi-Fi networks, of the type we see at airports all across North America, is not tenable in Brazil. The crime gangs are only too ready and eager to exploit that kind of anonymous access to carry out “spam” dumps or other forms of gainful Internet-related bad behaviour.
For the same reason, you cannot anonymously buy and use a prepaid cellphone like you can in North America. Again, the crime gangs had way too many uses for that kind of service, so it quickly became unavailable.
The other problem – the obscene overpricing of mobile computing devices – should, in theory, be more tractable to solution. But, again, the odds for a quick cure are not good.
After shopping through a number of computer and cellphone sales shops in Sao Paulo, I quickly saw that the prices are pretty much the same everywhere and about twice what we spend to buy the same device in Canada.
Though Apple has now established a manufacturing operation for iPads in Brazil itself, this has not, so far, had any effect on the price of the product – a mind-bending equivalent of C$1,600 for the typical “new iPad” release.
Even the market-not-leading Blackberry Bold will set you back the equivalent of C$800.
Given the vast demographic and economic differences between the two countries, it is pretty much impossible to say what this means to the “average” Brazilian consumer.
There is a fair-sized upper-middle class which potentially could (and probably does) shell out the money to buy such toys, but they clearly lie outside of the buying horizon of even fairly well-heeled Brazilians.
In my most recent visit to Sao Paulo, I saw only one tablet computer. That was in the hands of a fellow in the posh environment of the Museum of Arts of Sao Paulo. It was not an iPad, but some kind of Android knock-off.
There is nothing new about Brazil being behind the times in terms of the price of advanced electronics, that condition has been habitual and endemic to all South American countries, since the computer revolution began.
But there is serious difference in the order of magnitude of seriousness in its being behind the times in terms of mobile computing.
Computer-based Internet, though it had a hugely significant person-to-person component, has largely been financed by the business-to-business functionality it made possible.
The world of small-mobile Internet communication is radically more consumption-oriented. If you fall behind on developing the literacy and market understanding in this new market, you are much more likely to miss out on its positive (and, in fairness, negative) economic and social impact.
It is perhaps ironic that both the tiny, far-flung Yukon and huge, world-important Brazil share similar problems adapting to the new world of mobile computing, though for quite different reasons: the Yukon because our phone company wants to bill us to death for bandwidth, Brazil because the computer manufacture companies want to price everybody to death for the mobile machinery.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.