Around 1910 a series of meetings was convened by the United States military to decide whether to fund the development of aircraft for use in warfare. At the time almost noone in a uniform believed aeroplanes had much military value. These people had built their careers surrounded by horses, battleships, canon and bayonets. Planes couldn't carry bombs, there weren't many places for them to land safely, they couldn't go far, and they couldn't carry significant cargo, let alone troops. It wasn't even possible to arm them with a gun, because the propeller got in the way. Put simply, the people in that room couldn't see the world that was coming.
We are just passing a similar moment. As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, the number of people in the world trapped in poverty remains mind-blowing. Yet a dramatic development is happening beneath the surface that means that within 10 years, the organising capabilities of the South will be entirely different than they are today. The tool for change costs a tiny fraction of the price of an aircraft – it is the mobile phone.
Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University’s Earth Institute gets straight to the point: "The mobile phone is the single most transformative tool for development." Organisations such as the World Bank agree - the transformation is already impacting the design and implementation of development programs.
It's something I'm seeing first-hand at Akvo.org, where we have the backing of the Dutch government to create completely new ways to showcase exactly where development aid is being spent. We're working to equip development projects with their own internet and mobile phone feeds, so people can fund projects more quickly, follow progress and share knowledge. The result is that people can lift themselves out of poverty, fast.
Rather like cars, which are portable and easily demonstrated to others once the infrastructure (roads) is in place, mobile phones are something that once you've seen one you tend to want one. Everyone who already has a mobile can't really imagine throwing it away - it's just so useful. And the more other people have them, the more useful yours becomes.
But it's important to realise that something else is coming that changes what the phone means - and how useful it will be.
Feeding the internet
Most people underestimate the change going on today because they see the phone as something distinct from, and completely unconnected to, the personal computer. For the developed world, phones dominated administration long before the advent of the computer, and the two have stayed pretty independent through the thirty years since desktop computers really started to enter the workplace. Even when mobile phones arrived in, say, Europe, they became a personal, private tool that was the epitome of independence.
There was never a question that what was discussed over the phone would become a matter of record - it didn't enter a database, or become part of an organisation's historical archives. But what's happening right now changes all this. Phones are becoming the tool of the status update - what people say through phones is starting to become part of a global archive. This is a really big deal. Gathering large numbers of short text updates, photos and video clips through mobiles, all in some way tagged with a location, or to an individual, or to a date, which can then be viewed on desktop computers or phones elsewhere, is what is powering the explosion in the use of 'social media' - tools like Facebook and Twitter, and now in developing countries services like Ushahidi, Frontline SMS and, I hope, Akvo.
On April 14th, the Library of Congress announced it would acquire the entire Twitter archive - all public Tweets ever sent, since March 2006, which is apparently billions of 140 character updates. Just like the aeroplane one hundred years earlier, the years 2010 to 2020 will set the pattern for the role phones and their ability to generate and share story feeds will play. They could flourish as tools of terror and repression or they can transform health and education, help get money into the hands of people who need it, and share development progress openly, in ways that break down corruption and empower communities. I sure know which I want it to be.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.org. He is based in London.