You Heard It Here First! — ?4D

September 17, 2015

The Jester had a terrific summer tagging along with his alter ego on a book tour, during which he was met with throngs of readers falling at his feet in adulation. (Editor’s note: The second half of the previous sentence is not true.) The tour provided the Jester with good fodder for at least a few posts.

But before he ventures into those meaty topics, the Jester wants to kick off a new ICT4D contest! Readers are invited to participate in the comments section below and on social media using the #?4D hashtag.

The game is simple: Be the first to coin a new 4D abbreviation!

Here are, of course, well-worn examples…

  • ICT4D — information and communication technologies for development (originator shrouded in mists of history)
  • M4D — mobiles for development (does anyone claim the First Mover Prize on this?)
  • HCI4D — human-computer interaction for development (or this?)

And some that have been mentioned, but haven’t yet taken off…

  • T4D — tablets for development (Yours Truly claims First Mover Prize, Nov. 16, 2011)
  • 3DP4D — 3D printing for development (First Mover Prize goes to Kalani Kirk Hausman, Mar. 13, 2013)
  • D4D — drones for development (First Mover Prize goes to Joanna Wiśniewska, July 21, 2014)
  • IOT4D — Internet of things for development (First Mover Prize goes to Jon Gosier, Mar. 25, 2015; Bonus Prize for coining yet another unwieldy abbreviation – IOT4I – impact)
  • W4D — wearables for development (First Mover Prize goes to TMS Ruge, Mar. 31, 2015; Bonus Prize for simultaneous swipe at ICT4D)

Surprised that these already existed? So was the Jester.

First Mover Prizes are awarded to those people who have the dubious honor of being the first to mention a new line of ?4D activity and using the abbreviation (not just the expanded phrase). (For those interested in methodological issues, the first movers above were determined by a scientifically validated process involving Google, keywords, and exhaustive visual inspection of the results; where an exhaustive visual inspection required more than ten seconds, a quick skim was substituted. Those with evidence of earlier mentions than those cited above are invited to note them in the comments section below. Please include appropriate links.)

The rules are as follows…

  • The 4D suffix must appear at the end of the abbreviation.
  • The “D” must stand for “development” in the context of global socio-economic development or something that smells like it.
  • The “4” must be written as a number.
  • The mention must be searchable via Google. Needless to say, anything that doesn’t appear on Google never happened. (Note that by commenting or tweeting, you will soon after satisfy this condition.)
  • It must have something to do with something broadly arguable as ICT.
  • Abbreviations used in other contexts, but which are new in an ICT or development context are allowable.
  • It does not matter whether the technology exists, works, has impact, or has any hope of having impact. After all, none of those things have ever stopped us.
  • Prize winners will have their prizes rescinded if a claimant with an earlier date of mention appears.
  • The contest will continue as long as the Jester deems appropriate.
  • Employees of the Jester, the contest’s participating sponsors, and members of the immediate family of any such persons are not eligible to participate and win.
  • No purchase necessary.

The Jester hopes that the contest will forestall attempts by various individuals and organizations to waste resources on a 4D effort they can claim to have initiated, as for example, this organization seems intent on doing with wearables. Perhaps by seeing the sheer silliness of a long list of baffling abbreviations, some will be discouraged from adding to the alphabet soup. Not that anything actually discourages ?4D efforts, but the Jester can always hope!

So, to kick things off, a contribution from the Jester:

  • BH4D — biohacking for development (for more about biohacking, see this crazy interview – let’s embed people with RFID tags so that they can we can detect human trafficking!)

And if you tweet your entries, don’t forget to use the #?4D hashtag!

Why We’ll Keep Reinventing the Wheel in M4D and Otherwise

May 5, 2015

The Jester was recently consulted by consultants to provide input on a large upcoming mobile-for-development (M4D) project. At one point, it emerged that the client wanted to solve one of those problems that yours truly believes is “development-complete.”

And, what is development-completeness, you may ask? For this, the Jester must make a digression into technical computer science. One of the few areas of computer science that is actually a science (as opposed to hacking or engineering) is the theory of computation. Its practitioners prove mathematical theorems about different levels of problem complexity. For example, some problems like sorting a list, can be performed in a reasonable amount of time (with a non-quantum digital computer) relative to the length of the list. Other problems, like the canonical “traveling salesman problem” — in which the goal is to find the shortest possible route to visit a set of cities — are believed to take dramatically longer to solve as the number items in the list increases. What exactly is a “reasonable” or a “dramatically longer” amount of time? That’s one of the things that computational theorists explore, and in this case, they are quite confident (though not yet certain) that there is a hard line separating sorting from optimal route planning. In addition, on the more complex side of that line, there is a subclass of problems which have the following interesting quality: If you could solve any one of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time, you could solve all of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time. That class of problems is called NP-complete (where NP stands for “nondeterministic polynomial time,” in contrast to the polynomial time it takes to solve reasonable problems). Yes — until he was demoted, the Jester’s previous occupation was court Geek.

Thus, computer scientists have an admittedly poor inside joke in which whenever they encounter a situation in which in order to solve one problem, you’d have to be able to solve a set X of other problems, whose solving would obviate the need to solve the original problem, they call the original problem X-complete. So, if a problem is development-complete, it means that if you could solve that problem, you could solve all of international development itself. End of digression.

So, what in this case, raised the Jester’s development-complete alarm? In this case, it was that the consultants’ client wanted to end what is formally called “too many pilots,” or “reinventing the wheel,” or “total lack of coordination” among those who work on M4D projects. Ah, yes. The recurring problem of people ignoring history and each other in international development! Can’t we just spend a few million bucks and end this problem once and for all?!?!

Before the Jester goes into why this problem is development-complete, it’s worth considering its root cause. It’s very simple, actually: There is no single entity in charge of global development. There is no world government either dictatorially or democratically deciding what development projects will be undertaken or not. The “or not” part is essential, because in order to avoid too-many-pilots and reiventions-of-the-wheel, someone must stop those pesky other people (and they are always other people) who start unneeded pilots and reinvent wheels. But “or not” can only be imposed by an entity who can coerce compliance, and of course, there is no such entity on a global scale.

Without a world government, anyone who can afford an air ticket can fly to a random urban slum or rural village and start messing about. And importantly, they can do so without ever having studied or even having heard of any other development projects. It’s quite possible, for example, for someone to start a new cookstove project without ever having heard that the history of international development is strewn with failed cookstove projects.

Imagine if tomorrow, through some miracle, every M4D actor joined a single consortium, aligned with a single M4D standard, built on the same technology platform, agreed to a single set of interventions that is known to work, etc. Hip hip hooray! But unity would be shortlived. The day after tomorrow, you can be sure that some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will enter the fray and ignore the consortium because (1) he has never heard of it; (2) he once visited a poor village and realized he could be their savior; (3) he wants to build his own humanitarian empire; (4) he can in any case do it better than everyone else; (5) he has his own money and no one can prevent him from spending it how he likes; and (6) he may or may not actually have any humanitarian intentions at all.

Actually, this is pretty much what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with (Which, incidentally, further demonstrates how technology amplifies underlying human forces.) In designing his rhetoric, he has chosen to completely ignore the fact that providing poor villages with the Internet through telecenters really didn’t do much for them except in instances where there were significant, accompanying investments to nurture local human capacity. (In reality, he may just not care at all as long as those folks all get hooked on Facebook, too.)

There are only two ways to solve this problem of total lack of coordination. One is the aforementioned world government. The other is spontaneous total world coordination — by which the Jester means that all seven billion of us agree to a set of rules about how to engage in development and enforce it ourselves. You may laugh and say, “These are the pipe dreams of children or of a crazed monomaniacal dictator!” and you’d be right. But, let’s just suppose we could achieve either of these things in any meaningful way. If so, we might as well focus on development itself, instead of worrying about the minor problem of too many uncoordinated pilots.

Hence, development-complete. QED

P.S. The commentary above does not appear in the Jester’s alter ego’s forthcoming book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Nevertheless, the book is worth pre-ordering if only for the photograph of its extremely handsome author on the jacket flap.

A Technologist in Peopleland

March 24, 2015

Out of the mouth of graduate students come the most difficult questions. The Jester was recently asked not once, but several times, “So, what are you going to work on?” What these folks were asking was, “If you don’t think technology offers direct solutions to social problems, but you’re a computer scientist at a School of Information… what are you going to work on?”

That is a question the Jester has wrestled with, and… he’s still wrestling! No victor has yet emerged.

Evgeny Morozov, a jester’s jester and author of To Save the World, Click Here, points out the problem in a recent ruminative essay. In it, he suggests that mainstream technology criticism – including his own – is losing steam. He argues that tech critics “either stick with the empirical project of documenting various sides of American decay” or, they “show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with reality.” Either way, though, what we’re missing is a compelling vision of their own.

Touché and ouch! But, that is really the problem.

For the Jester, the heart of the challenge is this: The Jester grew up in Technologyland, was educated in Technologyland, and is employed by the court of Technologyland. So, what everyone expects of him is Technologyland expertise (if not propaganda). But, the very application of that expertise leads to a Peopleland conclusion: that while technology can amplify human intent and capacity, the critical bits – intent and capacity – are manufactured in Peopleland.

There are various responses a citizen of Technologyland can make to the Peopleland conclusion, the most obvious being for Technologists to collaborate with the right People so as to amplify their impact. But, a less forgiving read of the amplification theory would suggest that in a world already so abundant in Technologyland products (a world which, incidentally, also happily pays for them), why not move to Peopleland and put all of one’s efforts there?

The Jester would love to do this, but one challenge is that without Peopleland citizenship, at best the Jester can visit for a while before his visa expires. It’s possible for Technologists to collaborate with People, but understandably, people in Peopleland don’t care what a Technologist says about their problems any more than Americans care what Russians say about U.S. problems.

So, what to do? For now, the Jester’s solution is to apply for long-term residency in Peopleland. In order to make it through the system, he is collaborating with People, learning more about Peopleland, and engaging in Peopleland projects. (He’s also channeled his alter ego to write about what this means exactly in Part 2 of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, available here on Amazon, here on Barnes & Noble, and starting May 26, not quite here where you can look up your favorite local bookstore; full disclosure: the Jester shares neurons with the author.) He’s also trying the tactic of starting Peopleland projects within Technologyland itself. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do in the interdisciplinary milieu the Jester prefers – but who knows how long before the Technologyland natives grow suspicious?!

The Jester is back… sort of!

December 16, 2014

One problem with having a non-comic-book alter ego is that one doesn’t also have superpowers to genuinely multitask. (Genuine multitasking is when one does N things at once and each gets done as quickly and as well as if one were fully focused on just it. This is unlike pretend multitaking where one thinks one is doing N things at once, but none of them well.) That is to say, the Jester can explain his long absence by noting that for over a year, his schizophrenic other has been feverishly working to finish a book. The Jester is happy to report that the manuscript has been submitted, and the Jester has gotten the use of his brain back!

Alas, it takes some time for the neural cobwebs to clear, so in lieu of a proper post, the Jester will serve his doppelganger’s marketing manager’s bidding and proceed with several shameless plugs.

To begin, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology will be released May 26, 2015 in the United States. (The title is one the Jester wishes he had come up with himself — thanks go to fellow jester Tom Paulson at Humanosphere.) Unfortunate souls in other countries will have to ask US-based friends to ship them their copies. It’s possible to pre-order copies of the book through the monopolistic, tech-enabled, couch-potato-breeding, mom-and-pop-shop-killing Amazon, but the Jester strongly urges potential readers to pre-order the book at their friendly local bookstore, where not only will readers be greeted with the warm smile of bibliophilic staff, there is a greater opportunity to contribute to the count of various book-sales-tallying services. Non-Americans are encouraged to make a trip to the United States specifically to purchase the book at one of the country’s fine retail establishments. Yes, it is that good!

The Jester’s virtual twin has also recently just published a book review of Bill Easterly’s recent tome, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. The review is available free at the open-access journal, Information Technologies and International Development. (Full disclosure: The Jester shares gray matter with co-editor-in-chief of the journal. As the Jester warned, this post is just one long shameless plug!)

Finally, just this morning, the Jester’s spirit was channeled at the Atlantic online, where an article picks up where the Jester last left off… It not only takes on, but also Time Magazine journalist Lev Grossman, for going too easy on Zuckerberg. Here are some teasers: “Much of the public sphere on both the political left and right [is] unable to resist the grand ambitions of Silicon Valley late capitalists,” and “Freedom is the basis by which corporations seduce unsuspecting consumers so long as it isn’t causing them biological harm.” The Jester would have written those words if he had had his wits about him! Posts and Ripostes

September 2, 2013

Over at the TIER mailing list, the Jester’s last post was part of a swarm of fast-flying posts and ripostes about Now that the outbreak appears to have died down, it seems a good time for a post-mortem.

The Jester’s main point was that made almost no effort to explain how the indiscriminate spread of the Internet everywhere was a good thing. (Zuckerberg’s whitepaper alludes only to that bastion of expert, unbiased knowledge known as a McKinsey report.) In this, it was a striking step back even from the days of telecenters, whose proponents made direct attempts to aid agriculture and healthcare. Zuckerberg’s endlessly repeated premise is that the Internet is so important that he and his merry band of hardware companies will spread it farther and wider for the sake of “driving humanity forward.”

The Jester then implied that’s rhetoric was based in part on a misguided consumerist concept that deserves to be questioned much more often: That “giving people what they want” is necessarily a good thing; that’s what the machine masters of the Matrix do. So should we praise Zuckerberg for seeking to expand his attention-sucking, productivity-reducing machine across the planet? Quoth the Jester, nevermore.

“Kurtis” graciously rose to his newly appointed role as Fool for the Day to argue that he had personally seen positive uses of Facebook in Papua New Guinea and believes that Facebook is good overall. (The full conversation on mailing list is available here.)

Facebook is filling some fundamental communication need for people. It really is. The people in Papua aren’t playing farmville (though they might if they had bandwidth), they’re communicating over a closed facebook group representing the teachers. Media is shared on that page, sorta like a mailing list (as they don’t have emails). They also connect to their friends and family in other communities and abroad, as many teachers are shipped in. I am told it is a *critical* service; teachers, doctors and others would leave the community if they were not able to talk with spouses on the central islands.


I would wager though, that if you asked teachers, they’d say internet access makes their jobs easier. That’s good enough for me, and probably a net positive overall too.

The Jester concedes that this is a valid perspective – it’s not one that the Jester agrees with, but neither can the Jester prove otherwise. We will probably never have indisputable objective evidence about Facebook’s overall social value, but we probably can agree that there is disagreement. In fact, several people from developing countries (though all well-educated and with the leisure time to monitor ICT4D chit-chat), chimed in with conflicting views.

Assane (from West Africa?) expressed dissatisfaction:

I feel very frustrated when I enter to those internet cafe’s (in Senegal where I am from) and see all those young kids spending more than 2 hours with the “machine” using facebook, visiting p*** sites, watching photos etc…

The problem is not to bring Internet to the people, the problem is what they are going to do with it to have a better quality of life. I would rather vote for a program (with a sustainability plan) to help school kids learn how to “usefully” use the Internet!

Pablo (from the non-rural part of a developing country) focused on insufficient content and cost-benefit:

I think FB does not care only on rural and communications only, so it is fair to address the ‘content’ question (i.e. what will be done with this infrastructure?) and also the urban problems associated with the so desired ‘development’.  In other words assess the cost-benefit of this program in broader terms.

Donald from Indonesia argued that Facebook was an important force in building up the Internet:

Facebook (moral, corporate, credit aside) has been an enormous force of change in spreading internet (and broadband, with the help of youtube)…

Let’s just credit facebook for its ability to bring about the mobile internet revolution in indonesia and (hopefully) continue to drive the buildup of the data infrastructure. And let others build more socially responsible / beneficial applications of it.

“Ibrahim” (from Pakistan?):

Every solution requires variable amounts of Multi-directional information flow and i guess there is no other silver bullet. Putting your knowledge to test with the existing knowledge (www) spurs innovation which in effect promises better solutions to the daunting challenges faced by humanity. In my opinion connectivity is one of the most effective, if not the only, solution to these problems.

Having said that, no one denies that every giant has its primary profitability motives but this does not necessarily implies that these motives can’t coincide with the greater good of the people.

Two people struck a conciliatory tone. Keshav from India emphasizes the importance of having learn from the past:

Even the best-intentioned action, when carried out without adequate care, can lead to indifferent or negative results. We need to ensure that this initiative learns from the successes of the past.. and avoids making the same mistakes as many others.

And “Paul” (who said only that he was from…, in a private e-mail suggested an alternate analogy:

facebook is more like mcdonalds. it’s great that it exists because it fills a real human need more cheaply and conveniently than almost any other option. but it’s addictive, the side effects of overuse are not very attractive, and the vendor has an incentive to get you in there as often as they can.

in america nobody needs to starve to death because there are dollar meals. but fast food basically creates a lot of fat people. fast food is widely considered to be an industry that needs reform, not promotion as a social good.

The Jester agrees that this is a far superior analogy. However, the same argument can be made with just about any product or service with debatable merit. It’s not clear, for example, that it would be praiseworthy to make unconditional cash transfers universal, for example, even though there will certainly be cases of positive use, and almost everyone would say they benefited?

So, to summarize, anti-indiscriminate-Facebook-spreading sentiments focus on (1) its negative effects (many of which the Jester believes the company actively encourages); and (2) other factors which are necessary to make Facebook a positive force.

Pro-Facebook arguments focus on (1) the existence of positive uses of Facebook (which the Jester does not deny); and (2) the importance of universal infrastructure even before it is clear what to do with it. (2) is an interesting perspective, and it deserves to be taken seriously, but the case against it is complex. For now, the Jester will summarize and leave the discussion for another time. The two issues are whether the Internet/Facebook is among the primary aspirations of the people of a country as a whole, or just that of a tech-excited elite; and, whether it makes sense to focus on universal Internet first simply because it can do good things, even if the foundations for its positive use are not in place. As the Jester’s alter ego has written elsewhere, “can” is not “is.”

To put this long post out of its misery, the Jester will answer a question raised by Ibrahim, who is appointed Fool for the Day for his happy innocence within the ICT bubble…

[The Jester says that] “there are many, many other more morally credit-worthy ways than the indiscriminate spreading of [Facebook.]” Jester can you please enlighten us with some?

Again, there are many possibilities. But if the Jester had gazillions of dollars, he would build on his currently meager support for favorite efforts like…

  • Shanti Bhavan, an Indian boarding school that takes children of very poor dalit families and nurtures them into smart, capable, well-adjusted, socially aware young adults. (The last time the Jester visited, the school had no Internet, but there was a computer lab for teaching a computer class. The first batch of graduates are now working as accountants, software engineers, and teachers at organizations like Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, and the Indian Army.)
  • Ashesi University, Ghana’s first private liberal arts college whose founder has a clear vision for how to impact Africa: Patrick Awuah is a former Microsoft employee who mercifully decided not to use his technical skills to build a gadget to save the world, but instead to do what Silicon Valley companies really don’t like doing: investing in people’s education.
  • PRADAN, a north Indian NGO that helps rural communities form effective self-help groups and guides them to realize their livelihood-related aspirations.

And, for ICT lovers…

  • Digital Green, an international non-profit that uses digital tools and unique organizational processes to amplify the impact of organizations like PRADAN. The Jester previously wrote about DG.

The Jester thanks the court for an interesting conversation! and Why Facebook Is the Matrix

August 28, 2013

The Jester thanks Ashwani Sharma for requesting jesterly opinion on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement. Last week, Zuckerberg announced vague plans for, a collaborative effort involving Samsung, Ericsson, Qualcomm, et al., and of course, Facebook, to bring better Internet connectivity to the “next 5 billion” people… that is to say, the 5 billion people who still aren’t slaves to Facebook.

It will come as no surprise that the Jester finds this effort pointless from the perspective of international development and ineffective even for reaching its own stated goals. (The Jester laughed at the conspicuous absence of telecom operators in the consortium, who, more than anyone else, control bandwidth in the target geographies. Presumably, they were not interested in further eroding their profit margins for the sake of customers who have the least disposable income. Note to Zuckerberg: There’s a reason why free-market solutions for the bottom billion don’t work.)

What’s surprising, though, is that the response of the media has been appropriately tepid, even critical. The New York Times (in what otherwise reads like a corporate press release) quotes Bill Gates making a general comment about universal access efforts: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Chris O’Brien at The Los Angeles Times astutely notes that “fails to recognize the complexity of reasons that people don’t use the Internet.” And then there’s Gawker’s Sam Biddle, who shows off that surprisingly rare commodity in an age of instant information: critical thinking. He calls the effort “faux humanitarian” and a “long con.”

Perhaps the world is becoming a little jaded by Internet giants claiming to save the world with the same toys they unleash on smartphone-addled developed-world users. Hurray says the Jester – it’s about time! (The Jester likes to imagine that there are clandestine anti-tech-hype cells forming all around the world, trafficking in tattered paper copies of old Jester posts lovingly transcribed at dusty Internet cafés where the printers are broken. The Jester daydreams that those cells are having some impact, but more likely, it’s just people coming to their senses. And even more likely, it’s just journalists going through a cycle of negative sensationalism about the tech industry. Whatever the case, the sun is shining in Jesterland!)

With the critique out there, the Jester has less to say. Less, but not zero. (Does the Jester ever have zero to say? Unfortunately for readers, no.)

What’s amazing about is just how thoroughly empty it is of any attempt to connect Internet access to something tangibly good in the lives of the next 5 billion. At least in the nostalgia-inducing days of telecenters, people tried. Proponents explained how specific projects would deliver agricultural advice to farmers or would improve healthcare through telemedicine. They had detailed plans and prototypes. Zuckerberg doesn’t even bother…

  • “The Internet is such an important thing for driving humanity forward.” in The New York Times
  • “Making the internet available to every person on earth is a goal too large and too important for any one company, group, or government to solve alone.”
  • “The internet […] is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.” Zuckerberg’s whitepaper

So, according to Zuckerberg, the Internet is important, and it’s important. And, by the way, did you hear that the Internet is important? Even compared to telecenters, the Jester has seen very few claims that Facebook leads to better healthcare, improved education, greater income, or anything like that. Even misguided cheerleaders of the “Facebook revolution” in the Arab Spring have fallen silent now that Egypt teeters between failed state and military dictatorship.

The most that can be said of Facebook is that users appear to want it. There’s no doubt that the billion+ people with Internet access do in fact spend unfathomable amounts of time on Facebook. But usage doesn’t always mean positive social value, as we know from the tobacco industry. Calls for universal Internet access tend to hang on the neo-liberal consumerist rationalization that is the bane of so much that is wrong with the world today: Namely, that by giving more people something that they want – or by making it cheaply available in the free market – the world necessarily becomes a better place.

This was articulated recently on an ICT4D mailing list by someone the Jester will call “Kurtis.” Kurtis – whom the Jester dubs Fool for the Day – writes, “at least [] is a project that’s trying to give people things that they want instead of telling people what they should want (e.g., crop prices).”

At least. Well, it’s hard to argue against giving people what they want, but the Jester will take on this thankless task.

Of course, giving people what they do not want should not be the goal of development. That much seems obvious.

But it’s also the case that giving people what they want shouldn’t be the goal of development, either.

Giving people what they want is just another word for charity. It stunts local capacity; it creates dependent relationships; it strengthens corrupt power. Giving people what they want is to jack them into the Matrix, where lost in a semi-pleasurable, mind-numbing digital dream, they don’t mind squandering their productive energies to feed their machine masters. And in case no one has noticed, Facebook is the Matrix! It’s exactly an artificially intelligent Internet overlord that lulls users into a semi-conscious reverie of bourgeois fantasies while it harvests their energies to feed itself. It is reported that among American smartphone users, the average Facebook user is on Facebook for 30 minutes a day. 30 minutes a day! To put that into perspective, the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 American Time Use Survey shows that on average, Americans spend 32 minutes “caring for and helping household members,” 38 minutes on “educational activities,” and 18 minutes on “participating in sports, exercise, and recreation.” (And, even in the Internet age, Americans still spend two and a half hours a day with that other major opium of the masses, television.)

“But wait!” shouts the attentive reader. “If you neither give people what they want nor give them what they don’t want, what else is left to do?” Well, the attentive reader also seems an unimaginative reader. There are so many other things we could do other than give or trade in stuff. If giving people fish is suboptimal, so is giving people Internet access. We could instead teach a class where good teachers are scarce. (Zuckerberg can be commended for doing this himself.) We could instead help strengthen healthcare systems. We could instead march in the streets together against injustice. We could dance the funky chicken.

Indeed, there are many other ways to frame the goal of development other than as “giving people what they want.” The Jester’s personal favorite is that the main goal in development is to help people become better versions of themselves. But that’s a topic for another court session.

So what should those of us who aren’t Silicon Valley gazillionaires do? Alas, there is little recourse for most of us to reign in the power of the Matrix Facebook, as it seeks world domination in a way that previous evil empires hadn’t even dreamed of. In the current global zeitgeist, the ethic of “let corporations do whatever they want unless they are breaking actual @#$% laws” is just too powerful. But as people concerned with international development, we can still avoid getting on this and other Internet-access bandwagons. Publicly funded organizations can avoid the apparently immense temptation to partner with grandiose but substanceless technology projects , especially when there are plenty of other genuinely meaningful projects to engage with. Bloggers can post their own critiques of Internet-access-disguised-as-philanthropy. And practitioners can strengthen their resolve to resist the attraction of save-the-world-quick schemes. In a universe where the virtual world is ruled by the multi-tentacled spawn of Silicon Valley, it is all the more important that some of us spend years in the real world organizing under-voiced communities into effective political and economic actors.

In short… take the red pill!

[A follow-up to this post is here:]

Kooks and MOOCs

April 5, 2013

[The kind folks at Educational Technology Debate have posted a more sober, unjesterly version of this article.]

The other day, someone the Jester will call “Shabnam” mailed him the following question: Do you have any thoughts, for or against MOOCs? Thank you, Shabnam, for waking the Jester from a long slumber. As he shakes off cobwebs, the Jester can almost hear the squeaking of his creaky bones.

MOOCs – massively open online courses are all the rage these days! If it’s not MIT and Harvard deigning to grace the world with EdX, it’s Stanford celebrity professors exposing themselves on Udacity. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and others are going crazy over the Khan Academy. Perhaps most bizarre is the story of University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, being ousted and then invited back within a couple of weeks. It seems some trustees were impatient with the pace at which she was initiating MOOC-ish offerings at the university.

Before the Jester jests about the impact of MOOCs, it will help to categorize MOOCs into three categories. The first type of MOOC is the MOOC as educational material. The Jester dubs them MOOC’EMs. These are MOOCs that consist almost solely of educational content placed online. They make no serious attempt to take attendance, administer proctored tests, provide call-in numbers for human tutors, give certified grades, or otherwise do anything that goes beyond providing just the educational material. (By “serious attempt,” the Jester does not mean issuing of printable certificates upon clicking the “Finish” button.) The content may be fancy – interactive simulations, educational games, adaptive problem sets, videos of uproariously entertaining professors giving lectures, etc. – but if no attempt is made to do anything other than provide this educational content, it is a MOOC’EM. One characteristic of the MOOC’EM is that proponents like to highlight how many gazillions of users have enrolled for the courses, while in fact, the actual number of people who have actually completed a course can be counted on one thumb. (By “completed,” the Jester does mean having randomly clicked on all the multiple-choice tests, the way he once passed an online driver’s education course.)

The second type of MOOC is the MOOC+ (pronounced MOOC-plus). As cleverly implied by the name, the MOOC+ is a MOOC’EM plus some elements. Those elements attempt to provide some aspects of the regular school experience beyond mere educational content. There may be real-time online chat with tutors. There may be some way to take proctored exams. There may be an office that issues certified transcripts of students who have taken courses. In any case, MOOC+s are an attempt to be more like a real school, with the content delivered as a MOOC, but other components, such as grading, or help from a real person (heaven forbid!), provided in a way that requires human administration. MOOC+s vary greatly in exactly what they offer, but most like to emphasize that they do more than just offer content online. They know that MOOC’EMs aren’t enough, so they’ll talk about the warm, fuzzy side of their work, such as how they have paid proctors remotely view recorded videos of online test takers to make sure they aren’t cheating. (The Jester is not making this up!)

The third type of MOOC is not really a MOOC at all. It is an OC – online course. These are real courses that are organized, taught, graded, and certified by real educators, but which just happen to use online channels to engage with students. They include regular distance-learning courses, and are rarely either “massive” or “open” in the sense that the material is offered free to the entire galaxy. One way to tell that a MOOC is an OC is that it will usually charge a hefty fee for a class – after all, someone has to pay for the teachers, the graders, the administrators, and the infrastructure.

The brilliance of the Jester’s classification into MOOC’EMs, MOOC+s, and OCs is that it simplifies the analysis. To wit, MOOC’EMs are useless; OCs are as good as the institution behind them; and MOOC+s will tend over time to become MOOC’EMs or OCs.

As always, it helps to keep in mind the Jester’s mantra: technology amplifies human intent and capacity. In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.

MOOC’EMs will certainly not solve any real problems in education. Why not? Because real problems in education require serious human effort, and MOOC’EMs, by definition, do not provide that. MOOC’EMs are just collections of educational material sitting online, and educational material sitting online is no better than educational material sitting in a textbook. As the Jester has implied in other guises, the real problems of education are not problems of educational content, but of student motivation. And student motivation is a problem that content alone, however entertaining and gamified cannot easily solve. (The Jester promises a future post on games and how they won’t save the world, either.)

Wait, Mr. Jester, what about that rare student who has a lot of self-motivation? Yes, it’s true that the rare student who has the curious combination of…

  • good access to the Internet, but not access to good textbooks,
  • good Internet skills, but an inability to find good educational content online apart from MOOCs, and
  • good motivation, but no motivation to scavenge the plentiful educational content already available on the Internet in non-MOOC form,

might very well benefit from MOOCs. But, that student is so rare that she (the Jester has verified that she is a she) can also be counted on one thumb.

At the other end, there are OCs. According to the Jester’s Law of Amplification, an OC amplifies the pedagogical intent and capacity of the institution running it. And, there is always an institution running an OC, because OCs are real schools first, online gimmicks second. OCs will certainly allow schools to reach a larger set of students, and the clever bits of technology used to run them are likely to lower some costs so that someone in the system will benefit from greater revenue or lower prices. Cost is the OC’s best selling point, but the cost reduction will be scalar – each student will cost some non-trivial amount that will likely not shrink below an order of magnitude of regular tuition.

Also, OCs will never quite be as good as the real thing. At physical schools, warm bodies can engage in lively face-to-face discussion; feel the responsibility to attendance and assignments that physical classes impose; get a boost from the camaraderie of shared struggle; create long-lasting friendships that become valuable social networks; etc. As a result, there will always be a place for the physical school – and here, the Jester will predict that however popular MOOCs become, and however many experiments there may be to replace real schools with MOOCs, physical schools will not only survive, they will (continue to) prevail. At the very least, the world’s elites will always pay good money to hoard the best social capital for themselves.

And then there are MOOC+s. MOOC+s are where the most interesting action will be, but they are inherently unstable. They will tend to slide down to MOOC’EMs or climb up to OCs over time. MOOC+s will have to charge someone for the plus that they provide. And whomever gets stuck with the bill will demand the two critical parts of formal education which are, of course, real learning by students and certifiable sorting of students. So over the long run, MOOC+s will either get paid to deliver the full package, or forego pay and the plus components that bump them above MOOC’EMs. (Half-clever readers will imagine that ad revenue is a viable possibility; yes, and let’s also poster our physical classrooms with junk food ads to generate revenue for public schools.)

The best test of MOOCs (or of any educational concept, for that matter) is to see where their strongest proponents send their children. The Jester wagers that anyone making good income off of MOOCs will send their own kids to the best physical school they can afford (or otherwise ensure that qualified adults are deeply involved). At best, MOOCs will serve as a supplement.

Ultimately, the Jester expects that MOOCs will come and mostly go, like television-for-education came and mostly went. In a few years, there will be some other techno-fad driving today’s MOOC fans into a tizzy. Meanwhile, the world of the future might have a few more people learning online, but very quickly a new equilibrium will be reached, and things won’t be all that different from today: students from underprivileged backgrounds will continue to lose the educational race; parents with means will ensure the best (non-MOOC) education for their kids; and most students won’t learn that much more or less than they learn today.

…unless, of course, we make the hard social and political decisions to pay for excellent adult guidance in education for everyone, by which the Jester does NOT mean buying every charter-school student a laptop loaded with Khan Academy videos and educational video games.

Actual Headline: “Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat”

October 2, 2012

In the previous post, the Jester mentioned, purely hypothetically, “a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking.” Just weeks later, life imitates blog. The New York Times reports, in all seriousness, that Swiss researchers are working on a device that sends SMS text messages to farmers when their cows are in heat. Despite its serious reportage, the article mocks the Jester by leaving him with little room for comedic improvement. Nevertheless, some excerpts below from the article with Jesterly annotation.

  • “The results are combined, using algorithms, and if the cow is in heat an SMS is sent to the farmer.” (Whoa, algorithms! This quote from a computer scientist is sure to seduce non-technical technology lovers.)
  • “Our recognition rate is about 90 percent.” (Pretty good, unless you’re a cow in the 10%. For example…)
  • Occasionally, the device would send a false signal that a cow was in heat, he said. Other times, it failed to detect when one of the cows was in an amorous mood. (The Jester wonders how this works with artificial insemination.)
  • The device, known as a heat detector, raises concerns among animal rights advocates, not so much because of its intrusiveness in the private parts of the cow — its use involves inserting a thermometer with a tiny transmitter and antenna in the cow’s genitals — but because of what it says about the stressful lives of Swiss cows. (The article also mentions some interesting tidbits about the animal-rights awareness of the Swiss, by the way.)
  • It also prompts skepticism among dairy farmers, who are startled by its cost, which is expected to be at least $1,400 per unit. (No doubt, someone will start working on a low-cost version for the developing world any moment now.)
  • “It happens fairly frequently that you miss the right moment.” (Common problem in international development.)
  • “With greater productivity there is a drop in reproductive activity.” (Heretofore unknown problem in international development!)
  • “The first attempts were not trouble free,” he said. “The problem was with the sensors. They were not sturdy enough.” (Ruggedness! Cow context differs from human context.)
  • “Cost is important” … “It’s a cost-benefit question.” (Calling all ICT4D-ers! Opportunity for BOP innovation to impact the Global North!)

Rest in Peace, Verghese Kurien

September 12, 2012

The news this week in India is full of tributes to Verghese Kurien, the father of the “white revolution” there. Thanks to his life’s work of helping form milk cooperatives throughout the country, dairy farmers thrived, and India went from milk deficiency to production titan over the last several decades.

Kurien’s death on September 9 even caused the Amul girl to shed tears — she’s the cartoon mascot of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation who anyone who’s bought butter in India knows well.

The Jester believes the story of Amul is exactly the kind that the development community needs to tell more of: helping those at the roots of the global economic tree self-organize so as to improve their bargaining power with respect to those who control the trunk. It’s notable that in awarding him the World Food Prize, the committee cited “his recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes coordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies” (NYT Sept. 10, 2012). The Jester can almost hear the sound of one hand slapping… the collective palms of the WFP officials striking their foreheads when they realized it’s not just chemicals, new seeds, and artificially inseminated cows! You need effective management and distribution strategies! Whoa, what an idea! Did you hear that, Rich Philanthropists and Multilateral Policy Makers?

Apparently, Kurien didn’t stop at milk: In the 1980s, he began working to expand vegetable oil cooperatives. If there were a Kurien for every smallholder farm product, “international development” might very well go the way of “groovy” and “far out” in the American lexicon.

“Thanks, Jester, for stating the obvious,” the old-hat reader might say. “But why is this topic of interest to the Jester?”

What caught the Jester’s eye was a little sentence buried in an obituary by the New York Times (thanks to Melissa Ho for sending). It said, “Mr. Kurien returned from doing graduate work in mechanical engineering… and began working at a government research creamery.” That’s right — Kurien studied mechanical engineering!

Looking back from 2012, it’s incredible that Kurien didn’t feel the crushing internal pressure “to put his technical skills to use for society” as the Jester all-too-often hears from idealistic technology graduates (who are obviously not reading the Jester’s archives!).

It’s amazing that he didn’t decide to design a fancy-but-affordable contraption to milk cows more efficiently (cow-milking machines designed in the developed world are not sensitive to the subcontinent’s local context — there are lots of buffalos in Mother India, don’t you know? And, buffalos from different states respond to different languages, to say nothing of the varying dialects from district to district.).

And it’s absolutely, positively stunning that he didn’t invent a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking, thus saving dairy farmers the arduous task of squinting to see if an udder is full. (Then again, Kurien had the great advantage of having been exposed to the challenges of dairy farmers well before time division multiple access communication protocols.)

Yes, that’s right — it is actually possible to apply the problem-solving skills that one hones through a good engineering education towards helping people organize, own, and manage their own production capacity, as opposed to helping design fancy gadgets that streamline production capacity that otherwise barely exists.

This week, the Jester’s hat flies at half mast. Verghese Kurien — the Jester wishes that you are resting in a deep, profoundly well-deserved peace.

Kony 2012, Part 122 – Beyond Death

April 6, 2012

April 5, 2022

Yesterday, Invisible Children, the non-profit that became an overnight YouTube sensation a decade ago for its Kony 2012 campaign released another video about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Titled Kony 2012: Part 122 – Beyond Death, the video has, as of this morning, registered 7 hits on YouTube. [Editors note: 8, after refreshing]. While the video series has lost much of its viewership over the decade since it began, it continues its reign as the longest-running VVMCGC, or “Viral Video Marketing Campaign for a Good Cause.”

The campaign has continued its tireless efforts, even though Joseph Kony was killed in 2014. His death was widely reported in 2014, and the details have been recently revealed by then-President Rick Santorum’s e-memoir, God’s 70 Million Write-In Votes. Santorum had authorized a secret mission by U.S. Special Forces to execute Kony, under pressure from celebrity lobbyists and in an ironic continuation of the dubious policies of his predecessor.

Kony, it turned out, had quietly relocated to a small compound in Rwanda, together with his dwindling LRA. When the Special Forces struck, the LRA consisted of 15 child soldiers, among which were several six-year olds freshly abducted by Kony. All were killed in the mission, and Americans cheered at yet another successful series of executions on foreign soil conducted without the slow bureaucracy of a jury trial.

Meanwhile, Invisible Children must now contend with stiff VVMCGC competition among other organizations. The non-profit can be credited with the spawning of a new industry: 2014 marked the rise of the CYO – Chief YouTube Officer. CYOs were initially criticized for commanding seven-figure salaries and spending as much as 98% of the budgets of their organizations, but supporters justify them on the basis of the funding they bring in. Greg Mortenson, founder of CAI, noted, “Heck, they’re worth every penny – thanks to our CYO, we’ve managed to buy more copies of Three Cups of Tea to give away than ever before. And, it’s all legit, too!”

Voices on Woofer, the Hypernet service that allows people to blast 10-character messages directly into the brains of 7 billion people, seem not to mind. Soap opera heart-throb Justin Bieber woofed “#Kony2012!” Senator Oprah Winfrey barked “#Part122!” And, four-year-old star of the reality TV show Sex for Kids,Rihanna Jolie arfed, “#Beyond!”

Invisible Children continues its efforts to counteract the message of their first video in 2012: In a press release on their Woofsite, they say, “We want to clarify that our intent was not to spark the U.S. occupation of D.R.C. We were really just going for awareness, which is the first step towards meaningful action. We think we’ve finally gotten it right in Part 122, and we hope that meaningful action will follow during our April 20, 2022 event when we ask everyone in the world to run through the streets in their underwear, carrying signs that say that Kony should be brought to justice. Posthumously, if necessary.”

A few old-school commentators have met the video with a debate about the factual accuracy and societal value of the Kony 2012 series. Does Part 122 answer the questions of its predecessors? (Most seem to agree: not quite yet.) Is Kony really dead? (He was last seen by several people in Memphis, Tennessee.) Is slacktivism really of any value? (A new group calling itself “White Saviors” has worn the criticism into a badge of pride: “Whiteness is a state of mind, not of skin color. We welcome anyone who subscribes to an unlimited data service to join us in woofing about violent conflict and extreme poverty.”) Is decision-making by marketing really the best way to allocate public resources? (One handsome blogger’s analysis from a decade ago seems relevant even today.)

The rest of the world, however, has moved on. The honor of the most popular VVMCGC in 2022, with over 6 billion hits on YouTube, goes to the One Chip Per Child Foundation, which has released a heartwarming video of a child simultaneously self-medicating and self-educating itself thanks to an embedded neural chip that takes over its nervous and endocrine systems. Congress has since passed a bill formally affirming the importance of neural chips for international development.