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Monica Dispatch

Barcelona, City of Innovation: A Reflection on Our Times

"Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned, post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the Pacific Rim, parts of Latin America, and a few other spots, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction." -Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University of Toronto, as related by Robert D. Kaplan in "The Ends of the Earth"

    Look at this list and tell me which of these items you have:
  • Running water
  • gas
  • electrical appliances
  • radio
  • telephone
  • photography
  • films at the cinema
  • cars

    Now look at this list and tell me which of these items you have:
  • access to the Internet
  • cable television
  • pager
  • cellular telephone
  • minidisc player
  • DVD entertainment system
  • Nintendo, Sega or Playstation console
  • Palm Pilot
  • laptop or home computer
  • e-mail address
  • personal web page

My guess is that you're well-acquainted with most of the items on List One, while you know of, or already have, a few items on List Two. In Barcelona 70 years ago, the first list you read was the very HEIGHT of modern technology, even though now most people in industrialized nations take these things for granted. Seventy years from now, you'll read the second list of recent inventions, and you, too, will think it's out-of-date.

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I grabbed a bird's-eye view of beautiful Barcelona

In Barcelona in the 1920s, many things were changing: the city started to have electricity, telephone lines, new forms of transportation like trams and cars, and things like...Art Nouveau buildings!! Antoni Gaudi's architecture reflected the changing spirit of the times, and buildings like his Casa Mila, or "The Stone Quarry," were part of this new Catalan Renaissance movement. The "Modernisme" style grew from this renaissance -- it's Barcelona's gift to architecture.

Barcelona seems to be a center for dramatic new developments. This is where Isabel and Ferdinand greeted Christopher Columbus on his return, in 1492, from his voyage to the New World. Barcelona is also where, five hundred years later, an archer ignited the 1992 Opening Ceremonies Olympic Fire by launching a flaming arrow through a ring, which burst into flames -- highly original. Even the simple lampposts in the Plaza Real have an innovative shape, also designed by Gaudi and attractively displayed by Kavitha in my photo.

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for larger view
One of Gaudi's ornate lampposts in downtown Barcelona.

During my visit, I experienced culture shock from the difference between the conditions here and in Africa, just across the Strait of Gibraltar. Barcelona's population boom in the 1900s, fueled by America's cotton industry, led to poverty, overcrowding and social unrest, AS WELL AS new thinking, new innovation, and brand-new styles of architecture like Modernisme. When I visited the Casa Mila, I saw a reconstructed typical, middle class Barcelona apartment from the 1920s, including furnishings like a neat coat rack and appliances like an old-fashioned victrola. Gaudi's unique designs were preserved, including a display of the "stereofunicular method," a totally cool collection of ropes, weights and chains that he reflected into a mirror to see how his buildings should be constructed, instead of using math!

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for larger view
A coatrack from the 1920's!

The innovations in the '20s caused many changes for the people of the time, both positive and negative. It makes me think about the state of innovation today for all of us. Most people reading this website come from developed countries like Spain, but most of the people on the planet have no such access. In Africa, some of our friends have never even heard of the Internet! However, the explosion of computers, telecommunications, and the Internet have the ability to rapidly change people's lives, as much as telephones and cars changed people's lives in the 1920s.

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for larger view
An example of Gaudi's innovative

Can a Tuareg nomad or a traditional Berber mountain-dweller log on to the Internet as easily as a 10th-grade student in Madrid? What good are computers in a rural village without electricity? Will access to technological innovations only widen the existing gap between rich and poor? These are simple questions, but there aren't easy answers. Out of students like you on the African continent, only one in 5000 has Internet access (besides our friends at Grove Primary School, and others in South Africa).

Ring, Ring! Telephone Statistics

A hundred years after Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words, "Come here, Watson!" into his invention, one billion people had telephones. One newspaper ad claims it will only take 5 years to reach the next billion people. BUT, please remember that these numbers don't work in the context of "developing" nations. While many Americans, for example, have two phone numbers (or more), the grand majority of the world's inhabitants has NO PHONE WHATSOEVER. In fact, as UNICEF points out, in places like Mali, the world's poorest people lack adequate nutrition, clean water, sanitation, and health care, not to mention telephones. A recent estimate suggests that the world's 225 richest people have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion. One trillion dollars! That equals the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world's ENTIRE population.

However, that's all changing. Internet places, ISP's, and telecommunications networks pop up everywhere -- the net cafe from where I'm sending you this dispatch only opened two months ago. Also, investment in infrastructure, like the Senegalese phone network developed by France Telecom, leads to more investment, which might lead to a better infrastructure, a more stable economy, and less dependence on foreign aid. Or maybe it won't! While the Internet makes more information available to more people, it may also be separating people based on who has access to it. One of the best parts of you traveling with us is that you can see for yourself what the situation is in places like Guatemala, Peru, Zimbabwe, Mali and onwards. What does the future hold regarding technology for students in developing countries? What innovations will YOU have on your list of technology tools in the year 2020?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - It's All Greek to Me!
Jasmine - Just Ask Jazz": How To Find The God or Goddess In You!
Kavitha - The Story of the Odyssey
Monica - Displaying the Work of Antoni Gaudi
Making a Difference - We Still Need to Save the Whales

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