Picture this. You live in a society that uses electric power. One day, your house senses you’ve used too much energy, and that your allocated stock is running low. It sends you a warning. You respond immediately, and walk to the front of your house to receive a code, which you then punch into the box that sensed your excess. Its beeping stops, and you again have an excess of electrical power to use for whatever purpose you like, until the box once more senses you’ve used too much.
Sounds pretty good, right? If someone told me a society like that already existed, I’d guess its location as somewhere in Europe: Germany? Finland? Norway? Somewhere sleek, technological, minimal and wealthy – right?
Definitely not in one of Asia’s poorest countries, that’s for sure. But that’s exactly where this innovation is.
I’ve written before about how you buy electricity here in Timor – pre-paid voucher codes punched into an alarm-like box on the side of your house – but really thought about the process for the first time this morning. I realised, as I tapped in my code, that it’s only because I’m in Timor that I’m not revering this method of buying electricity: that, for all my assertions about how life in Timor isn’t quite the World Vision poverty commercial you’d think, I’m just as guilty as any other malae of assuming Timor to be more backwards than just about anywhere else.
But what’s backwards about avoiding paper bills, three-month waits, passive-aggressive reminder messages between housemates and shared bills split down to the cent? (If every member of every sharehouse in Australia had a penny for every “you owe $21.73” message sent or received, I reckon we’d amass enough to buy Western Power).
I remember a conversation I had near International Women’s Day with a Timorese friend, who expressed surprise and guilty relief over how similar Australia’s and Timor’s statistics for gender-based violence were. Not relief over the fact that it happens in either country – this friend and I agreed readily that even one incident was one too many. “It was just nice to know what we weren’t the only bad ones for once, you know?” my friend said. I understood, because I’m guilty of that kind of thinking: assuming that Timor, as Australia’s poverty-stricken little brother, couldn’t possibly be any better than us at anything.
Timor has its problems – absolutely. And I’m not trying to de-facto boost it up by trashing Australia unnecessarily. Australia, objectively, has had some of the best education outcomes in the world, for example – even when you factor in our continued neglect of Indigenous Australians. But our willful forgetting of history? Dumb and cruel. Our self-conscious refusal to touch when we say hello? Frosty and awkward. The fact we’ll willingly pay $5 for a bunch of tiny asparagus spears flown in from Peru because we can’t wait anther fortnight to get fatties from Bindoon and we don’t know how to grow them ourselves? Short-sighted and lazy.
And the way we buy electricity? Clumsy, prolonged, and to be honest – just not very fun! A squealing house as a wake-up call is still worth how entertaining it is to run to the power shop and plug in the voucher.