I’ve spent the last decade living and working in cities as different as Beijing, London, Dubai, Yangon, San Francisco and Johannesburg. No matter where I was, one thing was clear to me: Technology manifests itself very differently in different places. Not just a little different but a lot different — more like, we’re-in-a-whole-new-timeline different.
As software began to eat the world, the world began to bite back. Because it turns out that the so-called “universal values” hard-coded into technology platforms built in California aren’t that universal after all.
The way societies adopt technology is not a one-way street. Technology swerves, hopscotches, mutates and every so often boomerangs back to its source, unrecognizable. Because its true impact on society — any society — has much more to do with the people than the technology itself.
I’ve seen this time and again in places that are thousands of miles from Silicon Valley. While living in newly-opened Myanmar in 2013, I saw how one policy decision — to release the country’s first affordable SIM cards via lottery — created a black market for Internet access. Throttling connectivity meant that only the rich and powerful could get online, creating the environment for anti-Muslim hate speech to explode, unchecked. Violent posts morphed into real world violence, ultimately displacing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.
Years earlier, I had the rare chance to tour North Korea. In between the fake classroom scenes and hawk-eyed chaperones, officials bragged about their advanced national intranet — a walled garden of high-quality tech knock-offs — while ordinary North Koreans smuggled in cell phones and pirated HBO shows on USB drives through the Chinese border. Their story wasn’t just about being “closed;” it was about humans striving to connect in a place that did everything possible to control and contain them, even when that meant taking enormous risks.
And sometimes it’s not the differences, but the similarities among us that can break your heart. Syrian refugees in overcrowded Greek camps told me that they only posted positive things on social media, so as to not disappoint their families back home. Of course, the net effect of this “only share the highlights” instinct (sound familiar?) was to create more false hope for families looking for a way out. That meant more desperate trips in rickety boats and more lives lost.
Stories like these were everywhere, but information about them was not.
In the US, tech outlets tend to focus on the domestic giants, missing how these companies influence global outcomes (by their presence or their absence). And even in thriving hubs like Nairobi and Bangkok, tech reporting is largely preoccupied with funding rounds, CEOs and unicorns. While billions of people suddenly had access to the world’s information — seeing their lives change virtually overnight — there was little questioning about what this all meant. Instead, more stories about Jack Dorsey’s fasting regime. (Sorry, Jack.)
This information gap is why I started Rest of World.
Our mission is to document what happens when technology and human experience collide in places that are often overlooked and underestimated. We’re here to connect the dots: Across languages and tech sectors, between common problems and shareable solutions.
Because we know the story of technology is as big as the world that’s using it. We hope you’ll discover what we already know: With nearly a million people coming online for the first time every day, there’s no telling where the next big idea will come from. Buckle up. 🤙🏻