Archive for November, 2010


November 28, 2010

It’s not at all clear what the eventual fallout will be from the US State Department documents leaked to WikiLeaks. At this point, there are only minor things the Jester can really say:

  1. Boy, someone’s intent got magnified!
  2. WikiLeaks was both shrewd and cowardly to release the material first to the world’s major news outlets. This way, they don’t have to bear the brunt of any criticism, yet they can take credit for the scoop.
  3. The US Government might finally learn a lesson that most of us have mostly learned about e-mail: Be tactful, even in private, because you never you what will be forwarded.

As for the rest, it’s always hard to know how everyone will feel when they wake up in the morning, after a big secret is unintentionally let out. Will it clear the air and reset global diplomacy? Or, will it kill American diplomacy with a thousand cuts as everyone witholds the most sensitive information? And, this was perhaps 251,000 secrets.

Baseball Analogies

November 17, 2010

In his essay in the Boston Review’s recent forum on “Can Technology End Poverty?“, Archon Fung writes, “What matters is hits and runs rather than the batting average.” The Jester prefers juggling balls over pitching and batting, but let’s see where the analogy takes us.

In Fung’s use of the analogy, the idea is that development practitioners using technology are baseball players and what we want is to increase the likelihood of scoring runs. He says, “Toyama’s concern, then, is whether the batting average can be increased.” The Jester has it on good authority that this is actually not quite what Toyama had in mind (though it is certainly a secondary issue). In fact, there are several problems with this formulation.

First, it completely buys into a model where development practitioners are engaging in all the action and that poor people are just passive recipients. In fact, in Fung’s use of the analogy, the beneficiaries of development don’t even appear on the field as human beings. (They are certainly not the opponent team.) Any positive impact in development is measured in runs batted in.

Second, the analogy assumes a flavor of technological determinism: Some hits are good, some are bad. (“As long as someone invents an iPhone for every few Apple Newtons or Microsoft KINs, technology will continue to improve human welfare.”) There is no subtle consideration for the manifold and complex role of technology. In effect, Fung is saying that while not all technologies are necessarily good, some are necessarily good. This is different from what Toyama says, which is that technology is effectively neutral, but whether it’s used well or not is up to people. (Toyama’s article also reduces technology to a simple amplification, but if he had had more space, he would probably have gone into more detail about how complex human intent and capacity interact with technology to cause complex outcomes. Probably.)

Fung then continues that because we don’t know which technologies will have good or bad impact to begin with, we need to try lots of them. Of course, this again assumes a kind of technological determinism. He then states that a technology’s efficacy is the key factor to focus on. “What are the problems that telecenters or plastic laptops are supposed to solve, and how are they supposed to solve them?” The Jester finds this a convenient place to say, social problems aren’t solved by technology. They’re solved by people. Technology may amplify people’s capacity to solve a problem, assuming they are already inclined and able to solve the problem to begin with.

All of this technological determinism leads to Fung’s recommendation that we should focus on technological affirmative action: Design the technology so that it is progressive in nature. (A variation of this argument was raised by Pedro Ferreira in a response to an earlier Jester post.) This conception, however, is flawed because there is no such thing as a technology that is progressive in itself. Above, there was the claim that “technology is neutral.” This isn’t strictly true, as many scholars of technology are keen to point out; technology is not “value free.” For example, it’s difficult to use an effective vaccine for anything other than a positive purpose. And, it’s hard to imagine constructive uses of thumbscrews. True enough. But, even these uses ultimately only magnify what human intent and capacity are behind them. Their lopsided value is due to lopsided magnification, not from inherent intent built into the technology. The WHO estimates that 1.4 million children under five die of vaccine-preventable diseases. The technology exists; intent and capacity are deficient. Conversely, thumbscrews have lost their popularity, as global intent to torture appears to be declining (frequent infractions by various parties notwithstanding). Again, the technology exists; bad intent has lessened.

To summarize, even a progressively valued technology only results in progressive outcomes if the human intent behind it is progressive. What does this mean for ICT4D? First, an indiscriminate spreading of technology rarely accomplishes a progressive end in those places where you’d like to see progressive goals reached, because exactly in those places, progressive intent is lacking (if it weren’t lacking, you wouldn’t have great inequality to begin with; this point isn’t as black and white as stated; there is a grey gradient, but you get the idea). Second, the only way to achieve a progressive end with technology is for progressively minded people to put technology to progressive use. This is, in fact, what many ICT4D projects attempt, and to that extent, they make sense. The Jester simply wants to nudge more of that progressive intent to be free of the constraint that technology must be used to solve the underlying problem, as well as to focus more on building human capability. What doesn’t happen is a technology by itself, however great and positive-leaning the design, solving a social problem simply by large-scale dissemination.

The Jester argues for a completely different use of the baseball analogy: The question of ICT4D is about whether a better bat will result in the worst players hitting better, thereby closing the the gap between good and bad players. As to closing the gap, the Jester believes, basically not at all. As to improving the hitting ability of bad players, the Jester says, possibly, depending on how bad. If the players are malnourished, exhausted from a day’s labor, blind in one eye, and have never played baseball, it’s very unlikely; they’ll strike out no matter how good the bat. Between players who don’t have those severe problems, a better bat will help everyone, but it will help better players more. Of course, you could progressively give the worst players the best bats. That will help, but Ichiro will still outbat the Jester. (And, you can’t really keep the best bats out of the hands of the best hitters, anyway.)

Ultimately, all the focus on the bat seems a little weird. What you really want is to feed the malnourished players, and give intensive batting lessons to all the bad players. Not everyone will be Babe Ruth, but everyone will have a decent shot at the plate. The best affirmative action isn’t to waive considerations of merit as a gatekeeper, but to intensively nurture capacity in those who lack it well before the gate, so that everyone has a chance to be accepted.

What We’d Like to Hear from OLPC

November 12, 2010

For the next few posts, the Jester will address both public and private discussions ensuing the Boston Review’s forum essays on “Can Technology End Poverty?“.

Nicholas Negroponte’s response went up first. At first, the Jester was going to do a point-by-point repartee, but after the second paragraph, he realized it would take too long and sound too much like his Mad Lib post. So, instead, the Jester uses his ventriloquist skills and puts words into Negroponte’s mouth: What we’d like to hear from OLPC…

– – – – – – – – – –

Laptops Work… but Is That Education?
Nicholas Jesterponte

It’s great that such an important topic is being discussed with this lead article (and by such a handsome, intelligent guy to boot). It put to words some unease I had been having about things recently.

When I started One Laptop per Child (OLPC) in 2004, I said that owning a connected laptop would help eliminate poverty through education, especially for the 70 million children who have no access whatsoever to schools. It’s hard for me to let go of this belief.

But, what I have learned after several years of feedback from governments, educators, and critics, as well as our own experiences in several countries, is that the operative word here is “help.” You actually need a lot more than laptops to change the face of education in the world. You need dedicated teachers, good administrators, involved parents, and committed politicians. Any technology needs to be integrated into the curriculum, and you need to train teachers in their use. On an ongoing basis. Of course, you need great students, too, but I find all young children are remarkable in their capacity to learn.

Kentaro Toyama is coming from a place that I refused to acknowledge at first. In fact, the acronym, OLPC, shows where we were coming from back then. Any name of the form OXPY ought to ring alarm bells. Is the intent simply to provide every Y with technology X, or do we really want to see meaningful development outcomes? The name implies that our mission was mass disseminate technology, not real education. I’ve kept the name, but more because it’s a known brand. For me, it serves as a reminder of our early missteps.

For example, one of my initial hopes was to get India hooked on OLPC. But although I was traveling to India five to six times in those days, they didn’t go for the 1 million laptop deal I presented to them. At first, I couldn’t believe it! Laptops are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration. How could they not get that? It seemed so obvious to me. Maine had a great laptop program that did really well, and I had so many brilliant friends at MIT who grew up tinkering with computers.

Surprise! It turns out that India isn’t Maine and that MIT professors are a little atypical. Indian government schools are an eye-opener. I’ve seen schools where class meets under a tree and students do arithmetic in the dirt. I’ve seen schools where most of the teachers don’t show up. I’ve seen schools that have no toilets for the children, and so then, the girls don’t show up. And that’s even though you can build a decent toilet for $300 there. When I saw these things, I started to wonder a bit about the appropriateness of a $188 laptop.

In fact, I later learned that Indian public spending on primary education is between $70-$200 per student per year, and that most of it goes to teacher salaries. How could we then ask that they then pay $188 per laptop? (And, the $188 doesn’t include incidental costs that are bound to come up, like those of maintenance and teacher training.) Even at $1 per week, OLPC is pretty expensive! As Toyama notes, many private schools in India only charge $1 a month.

In retrospect, I feel glad that India didn’t spend $188 million or more on our laptops. I’m not sure I would have wanted that on my conscience.

At this point, we have over 2 million laptops out there, but I’m glad to report that most are in countries that are wealthier than India on average. Peru’s per capita GDP is around $4500 (they have 300,000 laptops) and Uruguay’s around $10,000 (400,000 laptops). They also each spend more of their per capita GDP on each primary school student. I’m a little worried that Peru wasn’t quite ready for us, but Uruguay is likely to be OLPC’s star country.

Uruguay, first of all, starts with a great educational system. Literacy is high, at over 98%. The commitment to education is strong. As soon as they decided to try laptops for all of their students, they were able to get Internet connectivity to 98% of their schools! Phenomenal. (In contrast, less than 10% of Peru’s schools have managed connectivity.) They’ve invested in great teacher training and they have strategies to develop relevant content. The teacher training programs are sophisticated with support teachers, master teachers, and ongoing teacher meetings.

I’ll admit even in Uruguay, all is not rosy. Between 25% and 35% of the laptops are effectively out of service at any given time, and maintenance is hard to do at a national scale. Also, we really need to do an evaluation there, to understand exactly what kind of impact OLPC has had beyond the anecdotal stories that my team loves to tell me about. And, that’s not even beginning to address questions of cost-effectiveness.

So, what have I learned from all of this? If you’re a country, you need a good educational system in place and a budget that isn’t overwhelmed by the $188-per-student cost, before you should even think about OLPC. And, if you’ve got those things, you’ll need to think still harder. Remember that in addition to the first batch of hardware, you’ll need to invest in teacher training, connectivity, curriculum development, maintenance, replacement costs, and oh, did I mention teacher training? All of these things can add up. (Note to self: We should check back on Uruguay to see how much the entire program is actually costing them.) After all that, if you’re still interested, by all means, call me… I have some laptops to sell you, as well as some tips for best results. Among them: start small, and scale gradually. If it’s really worth it, you’ll get to a million eventually.

How do you eliminate poverty? The answer is simple: education. How do you provide education? The answer is less simple. I no longer believe that just a laptop per child will do it. Being a technologist, I can’t get it out of my head that somehow laptops ought to help. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that education is a deep, complex, social challenge, and that if OLPC is going to play a role, it will be in a support role, not as the main actor.

One thing I can say for sure: OLPC has been a great education… for me.

Boston Review: Can Technology End Poverty?

November 9, 2010

This article by Kentaro Toyama in the Boston Review stole the Jester’s heart away. (Admittedly, it’s easy to steal a heart that is beating in your own ribcage.) Not surprisingly, the Jester recommends reading the full article, but here are some excerpts. A summary that echos the Jester:

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

The issue of opportunity costs:

Despite critical needs in all areas of development, ICT4D proponents tend not only to ignore the opportunity costs of technology, but also to press for funding from budgets allocated to non-technology purposes. Presumably, this was one of the reasons behind OLPC’s brazen doublespeak in claiming to be “an education project, not a laptop project,” while expecting governments to spend $100 million for a million laptops, the original minimum order. In a fine example of the skewed priorities of ICT4D boosters, Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union, suggests, “[governments should] regard the Internet as basic infrastructure—just like roads, waste and water.” Of course, in conditions of extreme poverty, investments to provide broad access to the Web will necessarily compete with spending on proper sanitation and the rudiments of transportation.

Technology also amplifies inequality:

Disseminating a technology would work if, somehow, the technology did more for the poor, undereducated, and powerless than it did for the rich, well-educated, and mighty. But the theory of technology-as-magnifier leads to the opposite conclusion: the greater one’s capacity, the more technology delivers; the lesser one’s capacity, the less value technology has. In effect, technology helps the rich get richer while doing little for the incomes of the poor, thus widening the gaps between haves and have-nots.

Caveat and rephrasing…

My point is not that technology is useless. To the extent that we are willing and able to put technology to positive ends, it has a positive effect. For example, Digital Green (DG), one of the most successful ICT4D projects I oversaw while at Microsoft Research, promotes the use of locally recorded how-to videos to teach smallholder farmers more productive practices. When it comes to persuading farmers to adopt good practices, DG is ten times more cost-effective than classical agriculture extension without technology.

But the value of a technology remains contingent on the motivations and abilities of organizations applying it—villagers must be organized, content must be produced, and instructors must be trained. The limiting factor in spreading DG’s impact is not how many camcorders its organizers can purchase or how many videos they can shoot, but how many groups are performing good agriculture extension in the first place. Where such organizations are few, building institutional capacity is the more difficult, but necessary, condition for DG’s technology to have value. In other words, disseminating technology is easy; nurturing human capacity and human institutions that put it to good use is the crux.

Be still my beating heart! (For anyone with masochistic tendencies, the author will be giving a CITRIS talk at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center, Nov. 10 (Wed) noon-1pm Pacific time. It will be webcast and put on YouTube.)  

For now, only Nicholas Negroponte’s response has been posted online, but it is worth reading; it fits nicely in the category of “ICT4D humor.” For ICT4D enthusiasts, it provides a textbook example of how not to make a case for your project. The Jester empathizes with the many people who, with genuinely positive intentions, devote their time to OLPC. If only they were led by a more reflective, self-aware leader open to constructive criticism! Perhaps they could engineer a coup.

In the following weeks, the Jester will use this space to discuss some of the points brought up by Boston Review respondents.

Myth 6: Technology counteracts “rich getting richer.”

November 7, 2010

Just in time for Myth 6, Nicholas Kristof, the patron journalist of international development wrote an article about inequality in America. As we all know, inequality is increasing. Kristof does a slick lead in, in which a statistic that sounds remarkably like that of many developing countries turns out to be one for the United States: The richest 1% of Americans make nearly a quarter of the country’s income (while 10% of the  country is unemployed and 14% is in poverty).

Striking, but what does this have to do with the Jester? Well, as he already illustrated in a previous post, the growing inequality in America is co-occuring with its golden age of innovation and technology. As Kristof notes, 80% of the gains in wealth between 1980 and 2005 went to the richest 1%, and that was the same period of time when the Internet, Windows, cell phones, Google, and iPods all went mainstream. Is this what techno-utopians mean when they say that ICT democratizes and that it levels the playing field?

As the Jester is fond (too fond?) of saying, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity. And, in America, there is little or no intent to address inequality , and there is a woefully uneven distribution of capacity. That means there’s an uneven distribution of nutrition, education, capital, social capital, etc. If you then sprinkle an even layer of technology on top, it magnifies the unevenness, and voila! The rich get richer; the powerful, more powerful.

Of course, the sprinkling isn’t even — rich people have more technology, which only worsens the effect. This latter problem is what’s called the “digital divide” and people are always trying to bridge it or close it. In ICT4D, there are constant calls for access: Bytes for all! The Internet for everyone! Cheap SMS for billions! But, leveling the playing field doesn’t solve the underlying problem: There are vast differences between the players. You can level the playing field all you want, but Babe Ruth is still going to hit more homers than the Jester.

Try the following thought experiment: You and an involuntarily poor farmer from the remote village of your choice are both asked to raise as much money as possible for whatever charitable cause you wish. To accomplish, this, you are given free, unfettered access to an e-mail account and an Internet-connected PC (or, if either of you prefer, a mobile phone with a data plan), and only that. Given a fixed amount of time, say, one week, who would be able to raise more money? [The Jester interrupts this program to give you time to think, and to link to a TV sitcom he’s become enamored of: Outsourced, about an American manager who runs a call center in India. And, now, back to our scheduled programming…] Clearly, you would. And why? You’re literate, accustomed to e-mail, able to write convincing messages, embedded in a wealthy social network, capable of organizing people, etc. In short, you have far greater capacity. Since the technology is exactly the same, the cause for the different outcomes lies not in the technology, but in the people. (Incidentally, sociologist Richard Florida does a brisk analysis of how social media is primarily augmenting the rich and educated in America.)

There are only two ways to handle this situation. The first is to apply technology progressively. If you could somehow provide the technology only to the poor and leave the rich without, then conceivably over time, the gap would close. There are problems with this approach, however. Philosophically, we’d then have to restrict the freedom of wealthy people, which the Jester finds difficult to advocate for. In practice, this is impossible — you can’t exactly keep the Internet and mobile phones out of the hands of the wealthy. And, finally, it’s not at all clear that even this would really change things. Imagine if the thought experiment above were conducted with the farmer having e-mail, and your having access only to paper, pen, and the postal service. The Jester still wagers that you’d raise more money.

The second way is to invest dramatically in the capabilities of the poor farmer. Education, “soft skills,” organizational skills, interaction with other social circles, etc. And, if that seems futile because adults don’t learn quickly, then invest in the farmer’s children for the next generation. The point is to direct attention to increasing the capacity of the less capable. The Jester agrees with Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Unfortunately for ICT4D-ers, this way doesn’t really require technology. There are plenty of very cheap things the world can do to improve the state of education, such as deworming. (For those who argue we should then use more technology in education, the Jester would like nothing more than to slap you awake into the real world, but instead recommends tuning in when he confronts the Grand Poobah of that view on a panel. The short response is that good schools can sometimes make positive use of technology, but bad schools inevitably do not. You can’t fix a bad educational system with technology, any more than you can fix a failing business with more PCs!)

Going back to St. Nicholas, the Jester isn’t saying that technology is the primary reason why inequality is increasing in America. It’s unlikely. There are plenty of other mechanisms by which the rich get richer: an accelerating meritocracy, an increasingly efficient capitalism, and better schools for the children of the educated. But wait, those things don’t seem like bad things! That’s, however, only because we include in our idea of “merit” qualities that we really shouldn’t ascribe credit for — a good education, a solid work ethic, healthy ambition. If you went to a bad school in a poor neighborhood, the odds are against you that you’d have emerged with those characteristics. The only way to counteract rich-getting-richer phenomenon is progressive policy. And, that is a problem not of technology, but of political will, i.e., human intent.

Myth 5: If you build it, they will come.

November 3, 2010

Next week, the Jester will, under cover of his secret identity, give a talk at UC Berkeley called “The Ten Myths of ICT for International Development.” In a demonstration of technology leading to questionable outcomes, Jesterial intent will be magnified through webcast and later available on YouTube.

Generous readers of the ICT4D Jester have already read four of the ten myths that will be presented. Where are the remaining six, readers might wonder? Actually, the Jester has since dreamt up a total of no less than twelve myths, but he has been remiss in posting. The impending talk was a good reminder. And so, here we are with Myth #5…

Recall from “Myth 3: Needs trump desires” that needs assessments are biased towards what outsiders perceive to be needs. Rich people (by which the Jester means middle-class and up) won’t settle for medical care that isn’t scientifically certified, but poor people are often comfortable with questionable healthcare. Rich people ensure quality education for their children; poor people consider third-rate private school at $2 a month quality education. Rich people believe houses should be constructed to earthquake-resistant codes; poor people are content with walls of concrete blocks stacked on top of one another.

None of this is to say that poor people don’t deserve good healthcare, good education, good housing, and a good many other things. Of course, they do! But, because of the tremendous human capacity for psychological habituation, people get accustomed to what they have. And, when people are accustomed to things, they don’t necessarily feel a strong motivation to change them, even when what they’re accustomed to might appear horrific from the outside.

Habituation to low standards is good on the one hand, since it keeps people sane. A hard life would be only harder, if people constantly felt the harsh contrast with a better life. But, habituation is also one of the greatest forces working against international development, because it means that impoverished people don’t necessarily feel the motivation to improve their own situation. Habituation is also one of the key reasons why in so many development projects, you build it, but people still don’t come.

The classic case of this in ICT4D is the telecenter. (Telecenters are Internet cafes with a development mission.) The Jester has visited over 50 telecenters across three continents and at least six countries, run by a variety of different organizations — governments, universities, private companies, and NGOs. In the vast majority of these, footfall was minimal. Even in those cases where the Jester stayed for more than a couple of hours, it was rare to observe more than one or two of clients per day. In short, whatever value these telecenters might have provided (that’s a whole ‘nother banana), demand was slim. The major exceptions were telecenters in certain locations that billed themselves as computer education centers (these sometimes did spectacularly well), and telecenters which otherwise provided a narrow service, such as allowing people to pay their electricity bills. Few people were interested in acquiring better knowledge of hygiene practices or learning superior agriculture techniques.

Of course, non-ICT development experts in healthcare and agriculture extension will tell you that it takes immense effort to motivate people, to say nothing of changing their habits. Motivation is at least half the battle. No doubt, readers will have heard comments along the following lines from on-the-ground practitioners: “You know what’s the biggest challenge in my job? Sure, funding is a problem, corruption is a problem, infrastructure is a problem. But the real challenge is motivating people to take an active role in improving their own lives.” Perhaps the most striking example of this that the Jester has heard, is that there are people with curable blindness, who are offered a fully subsidized surgical procedure to get back their sight (by groups such as the Aravind Eye Hospitals), who nevertheless decline the offer.

(At this point, the Jester feels compelled to say that he is not blaming the victim. Lifelong circumstances in which effort is not rewarded but upset by whims of weather or constraining social structures are bound to beat motivation out people. We have a bias towards believing that motivation is self-determined, but who’s to say that it isn’t due to inherited genes and the encouraging attitudes of parents and teachers, none of which are under our control? Political philosopher John Rawls argued that we cannot necessarily take credit for such traits.)

Insufficient motivation equals deficient intent. And that means that if technology is a magnifier of intent and capacity, no amount of technology will accomplish anything where there is deficient intent. Analogues in the rich world are easy to come by: In most of the developed world, every car must come with seatbelts and wearing them is mandatory, yet more than 20% of passengers continue not to wear them. Studies of gym membership and actual usage inevitably report that frequent users are in a tiny minority, despite all the technology they have access to. And, the Jester is flabbergasted by the number of Bay Area drivers lining up in the slow toll booths, because they never acquired the effectively free Fastrak automated toll-paying device. What are they thinking?

All of these are examples of cases where access is not the problem. Motivation is. Luckily, motivation is something that, if eager-beaver ICT advocates would get off their access soapbox, could be influenced by ICT using well-worn methods of social marketing. The Population Media Center’s Sabido methodology, for example, airs soap operas on broadcast television with positive social messages to influence healthcare outcomes. A radio and TV ad campaign in Ghana increased the fraction of people washing their hands. A study by IPA researchers, Dean Karlan et al., shows that SMS-based reminders to save can boost the fraction of people who stick to previously made commitments to save. (The Jester would note that changes in motivation often require person-to-person awareness campaigns, training sessions, and laborious “hand-holding” efforts, but since he so seldom has an opportunity to end on a positive note for ICT4D, he will not.)

Of course, all of these examples are consistent with technology magnifying intent and capacity. In these cases, it is the people behind the campaigns, whose desire is to boost motivation, whose intent and capacity are being magnified by technology.