Bad Influence

The Jester recently attended yet another conference on doing good with ICT. He initially wondered whether he should attend, but went for three reasons: (1) the event happened only blocks from the royal palace; (2) several of his old pals were there (from the days before the Jester was rescued from his depravity by the royal court); and (3) in spite of himself, the Jester hoped there might be some enlightenment among save-the-world technologists.

Alas, there was little sign of nirvana. Although there were a handful of presentations by those who had attained moksha, their wisdom was lost among the many fancy plans to scale positive change with ICT (which the Jester doubts ever happens even in alternate universes).

One thing the Jester did notice, however, was the incredible bluster of some of the presentations. In fact, the less evidence there was that good work was happening, the more confidently the speakers seemed to project the future potential of their technology projects.

The only other context in which the Jester has witnessed this phenomenon is when business school types make venture capital pitches. The Jester is surprised not to have noticed it before, but there is a distinct tendency among ICT-for-doing-gooders to promote their projects in the same manner.

The Jester speculates that this happens for one of several reasons:

  • Some people are recycling some or all of their VC presentations, particularly in light of so much delusion about Prahaladian bottom of the pyramid.
  • Some people are recycling the presentations they made for the recent spate of dubious contests for mobile apps for development.
  • In the tweet-magnified ICT-for-good sphere, people come to think of every presentation as a VC pitch or a contest submission.

Even supposing that the underlying technology-for-good projects were worthwhile (a temporary supposition, the Jester assures you!), this is an abhorrent development. Other words to describe this phenomenon include lurid, execrable, putrid, detestable, loathsome, and whydontwealljustselloursoulstothedevilable.

Although the Jester appreciates attempts to make the world of do-gooding as efficient as the world of for-profiting, there are some very real differences. The for-profit world, for example, has a natural (eventual) check against pure bluster without substance, and that is the bottom line. In addition, the only people who lose in the for-profit world, if a start-up goes under, are the rich folks who bet on the start-up.

In the world of doing good, there is only a theoretical bottom line of positive impact. In practice, because impact is so hard to measure, rarely does impact figure in what receives support. Furthermore, there is an irretrievable opportunity cost when a bad project is funded over an impactful project.

Together, these two things mean that while in the business world, it’s perfectly ethical to pull all sorts of random numbers out of a hat and confidently claim them as the market potential, the world of doing good requires a bit more… doing good. More honesty and more humility.

Unfortunately, because social VCs and telecom competitions are judged by people drawn largely from the for-profit world, they bring their bad habits with them. Namely, they reward cleverness, confidence, and fake numbers over humility, genuine intent, and determination… exactly the opposite of what we want in good ICT-for-good.

So, what can be done? In a vain attempt to influence the juries of social enterprise competitions, and an even vainer attempt to influence the competitors, the Jester offers the following guidelines:

  • Above all, presenters should be up front about what is known and what is not known. Among the unknown, the process by which they might become known should be highlighted over attempts at speculation. Where speculation is necessary, the fact of its guesswork should be highlighted in neon colors. Judges should dock points for hollow confidence that comes ahead of real knowledge. Judges should award points for humility and interest in finding out the reality on the ground.
  • Presenters should highlight the role of organizational partners or efforts to build the non-technological requirements for success. If 80% of the effort is not technological, why should technology dominate the presentation? Anyone who thinks magic will happen without non-technological components should be required to do community service.
  • It should be made clear what stage a project is in. Those projects that are only planning to have impact should be presented and judged differently from those projects claiming a history of impact.
  • For projects claiming to have had impact, a good presentation should include evidence of concrete impact, lessons learned, and what open questions remain for the next stage. Judging should look at the quality of impact first, and scale second.
  • Early-stage projects will have limited evidence of impact. In its stead, there should be more discussion of open questions about what kind of impact is expected. Attempts to guess at the range of possilibities, the possible theory of change, what is known about impacts from related projects, should all be cast as question marks, and not exclamation points. Most importantly, the intended methodology by which open questions might be answered should be presented. Judges should assess the completeness of the list of questions and the plans to answer them, not skill in speculation. 
  • Presentations will presumably also include boasts about the technology, etc., but the less the Jester says about that portion of the presentation, the better.

Overall, judges should judge as VCs supposedly do — not for the idea or clever technology, but for the right qualities in the “management team.” For do-gooding, the key qualities are genuinely benevolent intent, determination with humility, and healthy respect for non-technological aspects of the solution. (For more along these lines, see the Jester’s comments on teaching ICT4D design.)

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3 Responses to “Bad Influence”

  1. Jyo Says:

    I guess you are including compassion as one of the variables of wisdom in your book. Not sure if you are differentiating compassion from pity, both for self and for others. Guess the mix of these motivations will lead to different outcomes for all the parties involved.

    This was in response to your post ‘white altruistic dudes’. Though also because I came across a very insightful article on self-compassion.
    https://webspace.utexas.edu/neffk/pubs/SCtheoryarticle.pdf

    Pity may makes others feel inferior, and I turn into a hero/ martyr, though I might also be treating others as a means of my own self-fulfillment. Fulfillment of meaning or profession? Pity is about ME. I might be feeling strong distress and want to do something to ease my distress/ guilt/ sense of obligation and feel better. I might also see other person as ‘needy’ leading to the cycle of pity-contempt-guilt-more pity. Though some also say that in pity, you respond out of a sense of objective justice, while in compassion, you respond due to an internal, personal love for the affected.
    Pity will bring a lot of resistance from anyone who observes the dynamics. And I have noticed a lot of people from deeloping world talk about this in person (though not so much in public). Though it gets challenging and draining for the ‘do-gooder’ too. Here comes the need for compassion for self and others both. Guess that is why in Buddhism Pity is considered as the ‘near enemy’ of compassion. And all this wisdom is overflowing in Psychology research now 🙂

  2. Anu Says:

    Wow. That was amazing. I think you’ve said all the things that I was too afraid to say (due to the fact that…well..I didn’t think I was qualified to say them!)

    That is actually the thing I am most scared of- making our company into…exactly what you described in this post. To avoid that, I started our company blog- wherein I wanted to be COMPLETELY honest in the hopes that other (smarter) people (like yourself) could help us when we needed help. Because I think when people don’t tell the truth about their own company in this space, they set these ridiculous standards that nobody can really meet, and then everyone feels compelled to do the same thing (aka spout ridiculous numbers).

    I definitely feel pressure to do the same (and we just got started!!) and it’s really comforting to know that other people feel the same way- that those numbers are unrealistic projections and what we REALLY need is honesty.

    Thank you for speaking out. And hopefully you (and others like you) will keep our company in check. This blog is now on my blogroll, and I am documenting your lessons!

    THANK YOU AGAIN!

  3. J Says:

    Guess you should allow people to return back to even old discussion 🙂
    None of your posts on education was allowing comments, so I’m posting here.
    While some countries are chaging their education policies after finding that they are lagging behind other countries in maths and science scores (heard Japan went back to 6 day/week school). On the other hand a storm is brewing against this high-stress-little-learning models of current education.
    Came across this movie which adds a lot to this debate and was screened in one of the schools around and had post-movie discussion too…
    http://www.racetonowhere.com/
    I’m afraid all the powerful positions of policy making attracts a certain kind of personalities. It attracts people who themselves have high achievement orientation. They are disconnected from the fact that not everyone has capacities/ resources to go to ‘the’ best colleges and this doesn’t make such kids any less valuable.
    Guess crazies are driving the bus… !!!

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