The Gap to Be Closed

The Jester now turns to the comments by Eric Brewer from a panel about ICT4D a couple of weeks ago (audio available here). Brewer started his comments with the following: “Technology is the only path forward, it’s not optional… if there’s a gap to be closed, there is no other mechanism.” He continued that economics might be an alternate mechanism, but that if so, it was so that people could become richer and then buy more technology.

This is an established line of thinking, and on the surface, it’s incontrovertible. Certainly, the incredible quality of life that most middle-class people in the world enjoy today is a direct consequence of incredible technologies. We’re freed from the tyranny of darkness because of lighting and power infrastructure. We can set up white-collar offices anywhere because of modern heating and air conditioning. We have terrific mobility due to automobiles and airplanes. We have much longer lives due to improved nutrition and amazing healthcare. And, we can know when some distant acquaintance has a hangover because of Facebook. As the cliché goes, the average person in a developed country today has a dramatically higher quality of life than kings and queens did even a century ago. And, it certainly is because of technology. The Jester cannot disagree.

So, if all of this is true, and it does seem to be irrefutably so, where is the error in thinking that “if there’s a gap to be closed, there is no other mechanism” other than technology? Ha, Jester! What do you say to that?!

The simple response is that the real gap to be closed is a gap of human intent and capacity, and not of temporary outcomes. Short of a technology that really could replace caring, capable parents and teachers (and no, Mr. Negroponte, even OLPC version 10 isn’t going to be it), technology doesn’t contribute significantly to closing that gap. In terms of the tired fish analogy, the goal is to show people how to fish, not to provide them with a turbo-charged robotic fishing pole.

In fact, at some subliminal level, Brewer is sure to understand this despite the words that come out of his mouth, because the Jester is certain that as a father, Brewer cares deeply about how his children are raised. They will get caring parenting and a great teacher-led education. Ironically, they will probably be limited in how much TV they can can watch, and Brewer will probably carefully monitor their use of mobile phones and the Internet as they grow up. The advantage Brewer’s kids will have over the children of a poor illiterate banana farmer in Uganda is that they will be well-educated and have access to Brewer’s Rolodex. Does Brewer really believe he could even begin to replace that with even the best of today’s technology?

The Jester anticipates two possible reactions…

First, technology could be deliberately applied to those with the least capacity. The Jester applauds progressive efforts; inequalities can only be reduced through them. But, the world being what it is, it is difficult in reality to design a progressive technology that isn’t desired by the rich and powerful (and which they could do more with) but which is still desirable and meaningful for the poor and marginalized.

Apparent examples of such technologies are not real examples on closer inspection. For example, a mid-tier farmer in the developing world would definitely benefit from a better treadle pump, which the Jester has no use for. But, that’s because the Jester’s court salary and the wealth of his kingdom buys him a much more expensive and sophisticated system of irrigation that he doesn’t even have to know about to benefit from. Whatever technology might benefit a very poor person, the rich will have better versions of. At best, progressive technology building is playing a never-ending game of catch up without addressing the core inequality of human capacity.

Second, even if inequalities increase in an absolute sense, isn’t it still better if very poor people benefit even a little? This is the core of neoliberal philosophy, embraced both by free-market economists and Rawlsian political philosophers. It says, as long as everyone benefits a little bit, it’s okay for the superrich to get richer.

The answer to the abstract question is, it depends. It depends on how much the absolute inequality increases over the benefit to the poor. Rawls’s conception is nice in pristine theory, but given human nature (“power corrupts”) and limited resources (which gives global economic growth elements of a zero-sum game), many situations that appear to lead to minor benefit for the poor and major benefit for the rich actually lead, in the long run, to no real benefit for the poor and often increased ability for the rich to do as they wish. For example, note that in technology- and free-market happy America, the poor have not actually gotten any richer for some decades.  

The answer to the specific question of whether there are ICTs that would be of value to the very poor, even if rich owners of mobile telecoms get even richer is also, it depends… but the opportunities are preciously few, because the value of information and communication technologies is so dependent on information processing ability and social capital, two things which poorer, less educated people have much less of compared with richer folk. Unlike technologies like roads, electricity, and running water, it takes a lot more to extract value from them.

In the end, ICT is more a consequence than a cause of development. Technology correlates with development and it does contribute to development. But, a greater cause of both technology and development is human intent and capacity. The critical gap we want to close is not the having of technology, but the ability to design, build, and support technology. It’s again the difference between having access to Google products and being a potential employee at Google.

One way to see this, is to consider a genie who offers you one of two options at the snap of his fingers:

  1. Every poor person in the world immediately has free access to every ICT that could conceivably be invented over the next decade.
  2. Every poor person in the world immediately has the mental equivalent of a first-rate bachelors degree.

Knowing what will happen to the technology, knowing the costs to maintain the genie’s gifts, knowing that a good university degree grants far more than knowledge, and anticipating the impact on the next generation… which would you choose?


2 Responses to “The Gap to Be Closed”

  1. Jay Tharp Says:

    Thank you! I attended the panel and was surprised and somewhat disturbed by the untempered enthusiasms for disruptive, albeit progressively-intended, ICT, as voiced by Brewer and occasional others. As a development practitioner and evaluator, I must warn that Well-meaning people unwittingly do much damage every day.

    In Berkeley Town, loud underdoggerel typically accompanies blindered piety. But this was a solemn, well-behaved crowd. Still, at several junctures I imagined a faint choir reprising a “stages of growth” manifesto, now hawking innovative artifacts. Was I the only one squirming?

    Jester, the best neoliberal minds of my generation are outright junkies — ministers impersonating doctors, piously lusting for economic boom. A happy many of them were present at the ICT4D panel. Only the folly is sustainable! The subsequent busts will be all the more catastrophic for the liberal, lemming-like, go-go gadget goosestepping of this crowd. Sorry for the hyperbolic doom, but my view is that few nations nowadays operate sufficiently risk-aversely as to adequately define and fund the rapid-redistribution social safety webs needed to prepare for the inevitable, if localized, missteps. Our carpetbagging brethren will not suffer, but their ostensible beneficiaries are very much at risk.

    Google and other U.S.-based dot-com-boom celebs are clearly an implied reference point in ICT4D. The anticipation of righteous upward social mobility was palpable at the panel. As an early donor to UNICEF “Save Biafra” efforts, I am reminded that in the aftermath of joyously appropriated windfalls, Nothing secedes like success. So, too, that a monstrous backlash is easily directed at a resented ethnic minority. (Amy Chua has nicely illustrated this latter dynamic for a current audience, in “World on Fire”.)

    Surely there are already now some assessments that seek beyond the obvious measures of innovation penetration and narrow impact (e.g., on specific education outcomes for children, perhaps on some health outcomes for isolated populations). The OLPC brand — an extreme example — remains quite strong today. The OLPC effort, so deliberately socially disruptive — even when implemented aligned with agendas of the rich and powerful (e.g., to “capture the peasantry”) — must be examined in the light of many different wavelengths. I admit that I will need to search further for meaningful stories.

    If we mean to stand “4D”, then our radar needs to be attuned to cultural disruptions (such as “generation gap” and “displaced immigrant” mechanisms) that disintermediate and make moot, for example, incumbent parents, elders, and institutions. We also need to watch closely for technical and corporate re-intermediation. Nominal empowerment, without power, signals only another poser’s revolution. Basically, I am holding out for formative evals, process evals, and ethnographies — formats that go far beyond the scope of the current ICT4D promotional literature. In short, Quality of life will not be measured in the aggregate. Nor by heartwarming anecdote. Good luck to us all.

  2. The Gap to Be Closed – Ethnos Project Crisis Zone Says:

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