This improvement is not a lucky coincidence; it is cause and effect. Things have gotten better because there are more people, who in total have more good ideas that improve our overall lot. The economist Julian Simon was one of the first to make this optimistic argument, and he advanced it repeatedly and forcefully throughout his career. He wrote, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.”
We do have one quibble with Simon, however. He wrote that, “The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination.” We agree about the fuel but disagree about the brake. The main impediment to progress has been that, until quite recently, a sizable portion of the world’s people had no effective way to access the world’s stock of knowledge or to add to it.
In the industrialized West we have long been accustomed to having libraries, telephones, and computers at our disposal, but these have been unimaginable luxuries to the people of the developing world. That situation is rapidly changing. In 2000, for example, there were approximately seven hundred million mobile phone subscriptions in the world, fewer than 30 percent of which were in developing countries.
By 2012 there were more than six billion subscriptions, over 75 percent of which were in the developing world. The World Bank estimates that three-quarters of the people on the planet now have access to a mobile phone, and that in some countries mobile telephony is more widespread than electricity or clean water.
The first mobile phones bought and sold in the developing world were capable of little more than voice calls and text messages, yet even these simple devices could make a significant difference. Between 1997 and 2001 the economist Robert Jensen studied a set of coastal villages in Kerala, India, where fishing was the main industry.10 Jensen gathered data both before and after mobile phone service was introduced, and the changes he documented are remarkable. Fish prices stabilized immediately after phones were introduced, and even though these prices dropped on average, fishermen’s profits actually increased because they were able to eliminate the waste that occurred when they took their fish to markets that already had enough supply for the day. The overall economic well-being of both buyers and sellers improved, and Jensen was able to tie these gains directly to the phones themselves.
Now, of course, even the most basic phones sold in the developing world are more powerful than the ones used by Kerala’s fisherman over a decade ago. And cheap mobile devices keep improving. Technology analysis firm IDC forecasts that smartphones will outsell feature phones in the near future, and will make up about two-thirds of all sales by 2017.