Boston Review: Can Technology End Poverty?

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.


4 Responses to “Boston Review: Can Technology End Poverty?”

  1. Pedro Ferreira Says:

    I think Toyama is on to something, but it seems to me he exaggerates his point, almost as if technology had no impact whatsoever than to “magnify” pre-existing conditions. That seems to be reasonable within certain boundaries.

    Negroponte also has a really valid point that technology also enables the rise of new conditions and possibilities that did not exist before. The separation that Toyama makes between intent/capability and its magnification is, in some cases, forced and unrealistic.

    A huge problem however in Toyama’s argument (even ifI truly believe that there is a lot of truth in what he writes about, although it needs to be better defined and expressed) is this idea that we can tell a priori what the conditions are that are going to be magnified by technology. In our “Western economic powerhouses” (quoting Toyama) we did not make those considerations as technology was arising, and a lot of our economic strength came from the original ways in which those emerging technologies were appropriated beyond their intended functionality.

    Another point where I believe Toyama is not completely honest is when he says that technology amplifies differences between rich and poor, for instance with the example of public libraries having computer access, because poor people do not have sufficient time to profit from these. True, but wealthier people might have the technology anyways, beyond the public library and so the real question is… although technology in general might be an amplifier for differences, ICT4D projects might help to slow down the widening of that gap. Because ICT4D can do little or nothing regarding technology access and usage by the wealthier segments of our population.

    • Jester Says:

      Sharp points! The Jester has inside information that some of these points will be addressed in Kentaro Toyama’s final response in the Boston Review forum.

      The most important is the last point, about whether technology applied in a progressive way (that is, focused on the poorest or most marginalized people) can help. And, as Toyama hints, this can happen as long as the institutions that the technology is magnifying are themselves solidly progressive in mindset. But, as long as you are trying to help the really poor and very marginalized, the most effective help is to nurture their capabilities (a la Amartya Sen), not to simply provide them with technology.

      The error in 99% of ICT4D is to believe that technology can fix or make up for the core problem of misdirected human intent or deficient human capacity.

      • Pedro Ferreira Says:

        Looking forward to your final response then. I must say that since the first time I heard you talking about this division between intent and capability I truly thought you were on to something big, and we should feel the urge to incorporate this notion in our thinking if we want to do things right.

        As time goes on, and as this idea starts to progressively sink in, I feel some resistance towards it (I guess that is just a natural phenomenon when, like me, you have the luxury to just think and not act :)).

        But I guess my main resistance is: how do you really define and grasp this idea of intent? aren’t all systems a conflict of intents? how do you know what is the overall intent that your technology is magnifying?

        In that more diffuse vision on intents, where in the same system (for instance where militia rule, as in one of your examples, and where the potential of the technology is channeled to increase the capability of the militia) there are different intents (militia vs. oppressed people to make it simple), technology implementation can magnify one or the other intents (as I believe you suggest), and in that sense it can alter the power distribution between the different intentions within the system, and thus provoke a change of intent in the overall system…

        I am sure I used the word intent way too much in that paragraph, but I hope I made my point across, and am wondering how do you deal with that (assuming that you already came across that problem and have already solidified a perspective on that issue).

  2. Baseball Analogies « The ICT4D Jester Says:

    […] 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 […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: