Everyday matters: In praise of the simple and elegant

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 11 - 17, 2016.


“In character, in manner, in style, in all the things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. ” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, British poet


On a recent trip to India, I revisited Pallipuram, an idyllic fishing village on Vypeen Island in Kochi, Kerala. The gentle fisher folk were friendly (like most Indians) and exuded a charm that could only come from genuine contentment as they went about their daily lives. And their lives are nothing if not hard.

When I had first visited the village in 1994, the contentment was not there. The village was poor, even by Third World standards. Their only assets were rickety 74ft wooden boats that they used to trawl the Arabian Sea in search of sardines, that cheap plentiful fish that feeds millions of hungry South Asians.

Some days, the fishermen’s luck was good and their excursion would yield a catch of 10,000lb or more and net about US$900 for the 14 crew members to share. Other days, their nets would come up empty, or nearly so, barely enough to pay for diesel fuel. It was a hard life made harder by local seafood wholesalers.

With the fierce tropical sun beating down when they dock, these fishermen knew their catch would not last long — and the wholesalers knew that too! There was no time to travel from port to port collecting competing offers from rival wholesalers, so the fishermen had no choice but to accept the dealers’ meagre offers and hope for a bigger catch the next day.

But in 2003, something changed in Pallipuram. The village fishermen scraped together nearly a month’s income and bought a tool their fathers and grandfathers could only have dreamt of — a cell phone. Now their lives and work have improved dramatically.

Today, as they trail their nets far in the Arabian Sea, their simple yet hardy Nokia 1100 hanging in its protective plastic case rings periodically with calls from wholesalers in a dozen nearby ports. “How is the catch today?” they want to know. “When will you be bringing it in? And have you received any other offers?”

Now, these fishermen are able to entertain offers from several wholesalers, playing one against the other in the classic mode of free markets everywhere. Only after agreeing on the best price available do the fishermen select the port to which they will deliver their catch.

The fishermen’s income has more than tripled over the last decade, bringing them a series of luxuries once unheard-of among India’s rural poor — electricity, television, schooling for their children.

A small change — access to information — was what changed Pallipuram’s fortunes for the better and there is no better story I know to showcase the power of the simple and the elegant when used well.

The average urban Malaysian might take developments such as the cell phone for granted but its impact in rural areas, especially in developing countries, is remarkable. Since the first handheld mobile call was made in April 1973, the cell phone has affected the lives of many in many different ways.

On the social and economic fronts, university studies in India have shown that Indian districts with high rates of cell phone usage climb faster and further out of poverty, creating, in turn, more wealth and demand for better food, houses, store-bought clothes, healthcare and education. Technology on the move!

But for as long as I can remember, technology and I share an awestruck relationship. As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my consciousness goes back to a time when the simple handheld calculator was the latest in high technology. It provided sine and cosine values in a split second and net present value computations too! Then in the early 1980s came the facsimile machine that was the latest in high-tech communication. My office had one then. I never understood how to use it and I still dislike fax machines today.

Then in the late 1980s came mobile phones. The first one I laid eyes on was big — bigger and heavier — than some state-of-the art toasters we have today. But the basic Nokia 1100, introduced in 2003, changed it all. Nokia made it so affordable that in its lifetime, more than 250 million of those simple machines were sold in some of the poorest countries. Those numbers make it the best-selling consumer electronics device in the world.

The Nokia 1100 has long been discontinued but in its day, this ruthlessly simplified phone offered options few present urbanites would appreciate. For example, the 1100 could store multiple contact lists — essential in a phone shared by many users in a village. It even allowed the user to enter a price limit for a particular call — another feature that supported communal use. It also had interchangeable covers and soft, dust-proof keys and a 400-hour stand-by time.

There was also a built-in flashlight, radio and alarm clock — valuable accessories where electrical service was unreliable. And the 1100 was available with screen displays in more than 80 languages or with visual symbols to serve the illiterate user.

The Nokia 1100 was a triumph of insight and  creativity. Nokia’s engineers managed to see the world through the eyes of a fisherman or a farmer,  recognised and empathised with the daily hassles (or “pain points” as Blue Ocean strategists would say) they faced and designed a product that would dramatically reduce these, thus transforming the lives of millions around the world.

True, there are better mobile phones now that are more entertaining. Present smartphone technology allows us to not only speak or send text messages to each other but also to play games, watch videos, even use the internet 24/7. Some say they have taken over face-to-face communication.

It is sad but not unusual any more to see a family of six at the dinner table enjoying their phones and not the food. No interesting conversations, no social intercourse and, of course, no compliments to the chef. Technology brings cultural changes in its wake, both welcome and unwelcome.

In Pallipuram today, fishermen still rely on cell phones to connect when on the open sea but they have moved on to the more modern models now. People respond and adapt to the simplifications that come with superior technology but we sometimes lose a little bit of what makes us human when we embrace technology too closely.

For instance, I miss the once familiar ring of the postman’s bicycle bell when he delivered mail to the house. The joy of tearing open a crisp envelop is no more. The long anticipation of a response to our carefully handwritten letter is a thing of the past. Our letters have been superseded by email and whatsapp messages that get almost instantaneously replies. We even send holiday and birthday greetings and well wishes through them — making impersonal those gentle gestures that are meant to be intimate and personal.

But having said that, I hope it is not too late to wish my readers Selamat Hari Raya in this auspicious month of Shawal. I have been told that we are the only nation that celebrates the Eidul Fitri for an entire month but that is a story for another day. Maaf zahir dan batin.

Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company