Sunday, December 05, 2004

The beginning of the end for Bhutan?

Even by BBC standards this report on the development of Bhutan is particularly poor. This is the start of the story (my emphasis): The widespread availability of technology is having a big impact on culture in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Bhutan has been hailed as the last Shangri-La. It is certainly a kingdom like no other, with a society guided by folklore and faith underpinned by a unique form of Buddhism.
For hundreds of years, this Himalayan land revelled in self-imposed isolation, at pains to keep its culture protected from the rapidly-developing world outside its borders.
But, step by step, Bhutan and its people have been waking up to life in the 21st Century and the change that inevitably comes with it.
Bhutan is not rushing headlong into technological development; it cannot afford to economically, for one thing, but there is also a real feeling that no attempt to bring Bhutan into the global village should be allowed to endanger its very unique local culture.


Note how Bhutan 'revelled' in isolation so much so that when it became more open, people bought satellite tv and have started to use the internet. Note also the strange notion that change is inevitable and is something that happens to people, rather than an effect of the actions of individuals.

Contrast this with a World Bank report which states: Bhutan has made great progress in improving the living standards of its presently estimated 828,000 people since it first set forth on a plan for modernization in the early 1960s. The report details the rise in life expectancy and fall in infant mortality since Bhutan began to open up and move away from a subsistence lifestyle.

It is also interesting that the journalist suggests these improvements in living conditions are less important than preserving a pre-modern culture, presumably for the benefit of Western tourists. It can’t be for the benefit of the indigenous population, because it seems they are embracing development.

The journalist can hardly contain his distaste for modernity: As if TV and video were not enough, the internet is also raising the spectre of destructive external forces.

He continues to struggle to hide his disappointment at the signs of progress and seeks solace in the fact that most of the population is still “simple”:
There is no immediate need to worry about the imminent collapse of Bhutan's society. Most Bhutanese still eke out a simple rural existence, but the government is determined to make technology a part of their future.
Microwave dishes and cellphone networks are enabling communication across the mountainous terrain, and solar panels are helping deliver electricity - all part of the drive into the modern age.
In future school children will grow up computer literate, their parents will use the internet to vote, and even grandparents will be treated in hospitals connected to the very latest health information databases. It is something the isolationist ancestors of this land could never have contemplated, but now the momentum seems unstoppable.


Technological and economic progress does involve creative destruction and loss of traditional cultures, but it would be wrong to attempt to stop this progress for three rough reasons:
1. The whole discussion assumes a collectivistic measure of society as some sort of world heritage site when in fact it is a collection of individuals. A different measure of culture sees change and progress as positive because it expands the options of individuals.
2. A lot of culture (perhaps less so in this case) is mix of influences from all over the world (see Tyler Cowen on this) and is not some sort of geographically indigenous product. Trying to preserve it at a given time is therefore to misunderstand how it orginated in the first place.
3. How are you going to do it without resorting to North Korean style enslavement? If the population of Bhutan were so happy in their past isolationist existence (this would be when they were revelling in it) why would they not reject most or all of this new technology? The answer (that they are being exploited and mislead by sinister capitalistic-imperialistic forces) reveals the hidden prejudices of people who make this sort of argument.

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