Archive for September, 2010

All Atwitter about Twitter

September 30, 2010

In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell bites into “the outsized enthusiasm for social media.” This is a worthwhile cause, to be sure. The article drips with contempt for anyone and everyone who seems overly eager to declare the miracles of technology. The claims of Twitter’s role in Moldova and Iran are put in their place. He quotes journalist Golnaz Esfandiari, “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” Go, Malcolm, go!  

But, this is actually old news. What’s new is Gladwell’s take. He denies two business-book authors’ claim that “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation.” It’s not motivation, but merely participation that is increased via social networks, according to Gladwell. Citing Facebook causes that have millions of friends but very low average donations, he writes, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

This is true, and right in line with the Jester’s motto: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. Yes, you can get more friends on Facebook making donations, than if you had to stuff envelopes and lick stamps, but what use is it, if their underlying desire and ability to donate is limited (as it inevitably is)?

The story he ends on is the story made famous by Clay Shirky, about a New York woman, Ivanna, who loses her fancy mobile phone in a taxi and has it stolen by a teenager, Sasha, who refuses to return it. Thanks to some Internet activism by Ivanna’s friend Evan, millions of people followed the story, some agitated, and the police were forced publicly to acknowledge that the phone was stolen and not just lost. They then nabbed Sasha and Ivanna got her phone back. Gladwell says whoop-dee-doo, and ends with sarcastic flourish the Jester wished he had: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” 

If Gladwell pushed just a little further, though, he’d have had even more ammunition to critique his targets. The real issue with these stories is not that they are minor accomplishments — Shirky’s other examples, which Malcolm leaves out, are actually quite powerful. The real problem is that as everyone else starts using these tools for the same purposes, we will again settle into an equilibrium where everyone competes for everyone else’s attention, and the winners of the new game will, with minor shuffling, be the same winners of the old game. How soon do you think it will be, before people tire of agitating on the behalf of rich people’s lost gadgets? And, how quickly we’ll all get exhausted when pinged for the next thousand causes we could be giving to.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but the competition for some things — donor dollars, attention, political power — is more of a zero-sum game than a game pie that can be grown indefinitely, by technology or otherwise. For maybe a few more months, or maybe a few more years, we’ll keep hearing about how Twitter and Facebook is a wondrous, global lost-and-found. But, when the dust settles, we’ll quickly start treating common Facebook requests like so much spam.

The amplification that social media is accomplishing is the speed at which we get excited about, and then grow weary of, fads.

(Incidentally, for further commentary on Gladwell’s article, see the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column. The Jester agrees most with fellow technology realist Evgeny Morozov’s note.)

Tech in the USA

September 23, 2010

There are many different ways to gain intuition into the likelihood that widespread dissemination of technology alone – whatever it is – will not have a dramatic impact on development of the world’s poorer countries. One way is to consider how technology does under ideal conditions, or something close to it. The Jester considers the United States of America.

Below, the Jester’s alter ego has taken a graph from the US Census Bureau, showing the rate of poverty in the United States since 1959 (bottom line), and has overlaid it with the inception dates of several major technologies and technology companies.

The golden age of technology in America?

As you can see, the poverty rate declined in America until the early 1970s, but has effectively held steady since then (and absolute numbers in poverty have increased). Since the 1970s, America also underwent a boom in information and communication technologies. If technology innovation and usage were the key to addressing poverty, then we’d expect that the technology revolution of the last couple of decades would have put some dent in poverty. But, it hasn’t. This fact should cause any non-fool to question, at the least, whether the invention and widespread use of ICTs is really something we can rely on to fight poverty.

Now, if this is the story during the golden age of innovation in the world’s most technologically advanced country, what are we to expect for developing countries, which are typically much worse off in terms of literacy, basic education, and physical and institutional infrastructure, to take advantage of ICTs?

The Jester acknowledges that there are a number of conceptual flaws with this flamboyant demonstration — he’s not a fool for nothing! But, let’s consider exactly what the objections might be…

Objection 1: How do you know that the poverty rate wouldn’t have been even worse, if the US didn’t have all that technology?

Sure, this is possible, but what an implication! Are you saying that without all this incredible technology, the poverty rate would actually have increased? What does that say about America? And, what does it say for other countries and future periods which might not be such vibrant technology generators? Do we always need to innovate so furiously just to stay above water? Do we need to keep buying gadgets so that people don’t go destitute?!

Objection 2: Maybe technology will have more of an effect in poor countries.

Yes, that’s also what people thought about TV as an educational device, tractors for better agriculture, and fancy medical devices for rural healthcare. Technology requires a human substrate of well-intentioned competence to work (so that it can amplify it), but that’s exactly what is often deficient in poor countries, and it’s particularly true for information tools, because they require decent education to manipulate. The human substrate needs work first!

Objection 3: Well, that’s just because Americans haven’t made eliminating poverty a priority.

The Jester couldn’t agree more! Recall his mantra: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. It’s exactly because Americans aren’t really seriously about eliminating poverty, that poverty persists. Technology doesn’t have much positive intent there to amplify. If that intent were ever to turn around, America could probably halve poverty in record time. If the world were really serious about ending poverty, those 5 billion mobile phone accounts would really help! But, the human intent is what that matters, and it’s not currently there. Nor will the technology by itself change intent.

(*) The Jester thanks Omar Wasow for urging him to post the graph above.