Borneo-lightning flashes across the dense forest, and buckets of rain wash away the day’s heaviness. Night falls on this Dayak village, perched on a hill above the Kayan River.
Inside the home of the leader of the village, two dozen people sit down on the concrete floor for an evening meal. Once a week, these subsistence farmers gather for food, conversation and a few cups of rice wine. They usually eat by candlelight, because their village lacks electricity. It does not, however, lack innovators.
On this evening, the villagers wish to see their food and the faces of friends. Candles aren’t enough. Two men struggle with a bulky battery, attaching two connections to a long, thin fluorescent lamp that hangs from a post in the middle of the room.
The light won’t work. One man brings out a hammer and a pliers and taps and tugs at the connections. He reattaches the wires once, twice, then a third time. This last time, the light comes on. The people smile and pounce on their food.
A world away from e-commerce, databases and cellphones, these villagers grow rice and pepper in much the same way as their ancestors did 400 years ago.Yet they wish to adapt technology to their particular circumstances in much the same spirit as many Americans. Technological innovation, in other words, isn’t found only in university labs or corporate design centers, but in the rainforests of Borneo, the bush of northern Australia or the grasslands of southern Africa.
This claim invites skepticism, of course, so let me explain. I am not saying that primitive technologies are the equal of modern ones. Quite the opposite. Peasants want new technologies, but on their own terms. They want to mold these technologies to the patterns of their lives. How they do so offers important lessons about innovation.
This is not an armchair column. I have visited the same Borneo village four times in the past four years, partly to observe how Dayaks-people of the Pacific region who were the first recorded settlers on Borneo-absorb and adapt new technologies.
Consider the arrival of the outboard motor in the villages along the Kayan.Many river villages in Borneo can be reached only by boat. The family I know best here-the Jagaus-bring their children to school by boat. The boats are long and low, made from local wood, usually by the owner himself. Before the motors came, men steered the boats with long poles, relying on the river currents for speed.