The Hand that Flips the Power Switch…

The Jester gleefully welcomes a comment by Satyajit Nath[i] on a recent post. The following is an edited version of his comment (the full comment is here, below the original post):

SN> Sometimes, the focus of consciously applied technology can be to *diminish* the impact of crafty/ corrupt people who impoverish others and make the “victims” less than what they can be.

For example, the electronic train ticketing/reservation system in India simply eliminated the corruption rampant through reservation clerks, train conductors, and others. I remember 20-25 years ago when any long distance train travel meant interminable hours waiting in line at the station to book tickets, bribes doled out by those passengers who chose to/could afford them, and no travel/poor travel for those could/would not. And today, my brother-in-law just booked my confirmed train reservation from Mumbai to Hyderabad in 2 minutes at the local store! And what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.

Yes, behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations who understood the appropriate use of technology. But the main benefit of the technology was to eliminate the impact of a huge number of corrupt/crafty ones.

So, I would argue for a transcended definition for appropriate use of technology that includes (1) to magnify good human intent; (2) to diminish bad human intent.

Satyajit – thank you, thank you, thank you! You have given the Jester a day off from playing the fool, because you are doing it so well! In fact, the Jester confers upon you the title of Fool for the Day (or F4TD, to simultaneously honor the genius who came up with “ICT4D”).

The idea that technology diminishes bad human intent is one of the classic traps that snare many an ICT4D enthusiast, and the Indian Railway System is the perfect example of a good technology system whose mechanism is misinterpreted by techno-utopians.

The Jester starts with his favorite broken record: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. But, which humans’ intent and capacity? There are typically two relevant groups: (1) the people who produce the technology and/or operate it, and (2) the people who consume the technology or its output. Some combination of these groups’ intents and capacities are what technology magnifies.

In the case of railway computerization, the technology operator is the Railway Ministry, and the consumers are passengers. As our F4TD confirms, the intents of both the operator and the consumer were aligned with the positive goal: “behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations”; and, just as his brother desires to buy tickets easily, “what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.” Thus, the relevant groups are positively inclined, and the ministry had the ability to follow through. Technology amplifies that, so it’s no surprise that the outcome was mostly good.

What of corrupt railway employees? It’s true that much of the old style of corruption was eliminated, but this in no way contradicts the Jester’s claim. If two groups of people have opposing intent, the more powerful side can impose its intent on the other, especially if it has suitable technology. In war, the side with greater intent, ability, and superior technology, wins. In this case, the Railway Ministry, which to start with had the position of power over railway employees, was firmly intent on implementing a fair, efficient system. With that kind of power and political will, it’s again not surprising that corruption was diminished.

However, there are plenty of instances that appear similar on paper, but where the political will or the organizational capacity is lacking. If human intent is negative, or capacity near-zero, technology will not contribute positively. This is, alas, the situation with many of the governments that ICT4D hopes to fix with e-government.

The Jester remembers one political science professor who claimed to tell a story of ICT supporting democracy, but then ended up telling exactly the opposite story: A well-regarded NGO in Bangalore once convinced the municipal government of that city to install a computerized financial tracking system with public access. For a couple of months, the NGO found irregularities or injustices in the city budget and lobbied publicly to get things fixed, with good results. Triumph for ICT, right? Wrong. Soon after, the government shut down the system, and it has not come back up since. If the government doesn’t want to be monitored, it won’t be monitored. The hand that flips the power switch is the hand that rules the ICT. And, behind that hand, is again, human intent.

There is no end to these examples in e-government. India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is struggling to authenticate workers, so that they can be paid correctly. But, without an inherently strong bureaucracy, fingerprint readers and other technology are readily sabotaged by people in the payment chain, who’d rather not have their skimming of government funds detected. In failed and failing states outside of India, ICT often presents a way to get the word out about gross injustice; but no amount of protest or harangue online about the government changes leaders secure in their absolute power. And, in repressive regimes, Internet and mobile-phone networks are even bent to the will of a controlling government. Websites are actively censored; e-mails are subpoenaed to track “enemies” of state; and the government-sponsored press preaches its propaganda online. Without positive intent and institutional capacity in the government implementing the technology, e-government doesn’t work. At least, not for the public good. 

The Jester also notes that the corrupt intent of lower-level bureaucrats also requires something more than technology to stamp out completely. In the case of the railways, our F4TD may be aware that even today, in the case that a train is full on the publicly available online system, he can often go to certain travel agents and purchase a seat for an additional fee. Behind the scenes, however, these tickets have been sold under the table by those who have inside access to the computerized system, who undoubtedly receive a portion of the “fee.” The Jester himself has also gotten on ostensibly full trains that were already in motion (and therefore, beyond the online booking system), only to find empty first-class sleepers for which the price seemed a little high. (The Jester is no activist-saint; he happily paid and got a good night’s sleep.) Corrupt intent doesn’t go away with technology; it just works around it.

So, does technology “diminish bad human intent”? Not in and of itself. Technology only magnifies intent and capacity. If technology is operated by the just and competent, it certainly can help them — this is what we’re all after in ICT4D. But, it’s not the technology alone that does it. If technology is put in the hands of the powerless, it has nothing to magnify. If technology is wielded by those with negative intent, it only magnifies that. For these latter situations to be turned around, only a change in the underlying human intent or capacity will allow the technology to magnify things in the positive direction. Technology’s impact is multiplicative, not additive.


[i] Note to empathetic souls: The Jester knows Satyajit in person and has great respect for him. Satyajit, an otherwise accomplished person, has recently thrown himself body and soul into ICT4D. The Jester’s jabs are only friendly ribbing. Or, at least, the Jester hopes he will take it that way, despite the public spanking to follow.

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4 Responses to “The Hand that Flips the Power Switch…”

  1. Tweets that mention The Hand that Flips the Power Switch… « The ICT4D Jester -- Says:

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  2. Satyajit N Says:

    This F4TD enjoyed the Jester’s joust and such “cut throat” feedback from the Jester has consistently helped him in the past. Going back to the whiteboard to think further!

  3. Anand Manikutty Says:

    It looks Satyajit doesn’t have a comeback for this, so let me try to put the positive spin that this story deserves. Essentially, what technology can do is to provide greater power to those who want to fight corruption. If you have large enough number of people (N) who care about corruption and make a big deal about it, it would be hard for the small number of people (k) who run operations to go on being corrupt. This is true because, as is well known, k is less than N. JK 🙂

    This ties in as well to your comments on the role of government (in the post on the Bottom of the Pyramid paradigm). The Bottom of the Pyramid paradigm does not argue that there is no role for government as you seem to think. It simply presents a different view of how certain social goals may be achieved.

    There are various game-theoretic models for the problem of corruption. One way to think about it is that people may have incentives to defect/not cooperate in the short-term although it is not in their best interest in the long-term. Another way to think about it is that there may be incentives to cooperate if actors engage in recurring transactions even if they have disincentives to cooperate in the case of one-off transactions. Linked here is a paper ( that models this. You could have a small core of honest individuals, who who impose honest behavor on everyone else (Note that I have scrupulously avoided using the term “critical mass” because it has certain other connotations that I would like to avoid here). Technology can certainly help create this small core.

  4. Srinivas Y Says:

    That much of the old style corruption is eliminated through Railway computerization in India is a bit of an urban legend. Plz see this

    Not surprisingly, most people remain blissfully ignorant of the way Indian bureaucratic reforms “ration” the use of ICTs to promote good governance in, as Humphrey Appleby would best put it…”at the appropriate juncture, in due course, in the fullness of time”.

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