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.
In the space of a decade, travel has changed. Outboard motors went from a rarity to a commonplace. Today even the poorest family has at least a small outboard motor to speed the journeys up and down river. The power is seductive.Villagers clearly envy those with more powerful motors.
Still, there are limits. The river is shallow, so that only relatively low horsepower motors are any good. Because of this, traditional boats hold sway. It may be that the farmers can’t afford to buy commercially made boats, which could handle higher-powered motors. But it is more likely that the villagers like the boats they have. They have made them with their own hands, or know the person who has, and they are not ready
to give up that sense of intimacy.
Their embrace of new technology is partial. So it is with the chain saw, another complicated symbol of modernity. From many angles, the chain saw is a marvelous tool. The task of felling a tree, which once took hours, now takes minutes. In the village, the elder Jagau son, Jonathan, owns a chain saw, and he sells his services to his fellow villagers, who come into cash by selling pepper or gaining remittances from children or relatives who hold jobs in Kuching, the nearest city, three hours away.
It is against Dayak tradition to sell wood from communal land to outsiders, so that Jonathan only cuts trees when people need the wood.He doesn’t give them raw logs either. In another case of creative improvisation, he uses his chain saw to carve logs into rough planks of wood. He is literally a one-man sawmill thanks to his German-made chain saw.
This sense of scale informs the villagers’ hopes for new technologies. For many years, they have asked the government to bring electricity to their village, and telephone lines too. Jonathan’s father, who goes by the single name Jagau, is the village headman. He says that a new road, to be built along the river, should bring with it power and phone lines. Electricity will be welcomed by making lights and television a daily event, but he is less sure of the telephone’s value.
Standing in his pepper garden one day recently, Jagau, dressed only in a loincloth, prunes a tree with his machete, then catches a breath. I ask him whether he will have a phone inside his house.He looks at me as if I am crazy.”Who would I call?” he asks. Before I can answer, he says the entire village will only need a single phone.
With a swift thrust of his muscular arm, he points to a place in the center of his village, where he imagines the phone will go.