Archive for May, 2011

The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

May 31, 2011

About a year ago, the Jester gave a version of his “Myths of ICT4D” talk to an audience of Indian students. Among them was Samujjal Purkayastha, who in an follow-up e-mail asked what the Jester thought of Finland making the Internet a human right. The Finns passed a law requiring that every household in the country have access to a 1Mbps broadband connection. Estonia, France, Greece, Spain, and Costa Rica have followed suit with similar legislation, providing further fodder for self-unaware techno-utopians like Nicholas Negroponte, and fueling ongoing public discussion in international development.

The rhetoric of human rights is emotionally powerful. Anyone who argues against X as a human right must answer the challenge, “How can you deny someone X, when X is so essential?” And of course, few people — not even the Jester in his most Luddite of moods — are explicitly for denying anyone the Internet. (The exceptions are dictators losing their grip on a country making a last-ditch effort to stymie the opposition by cutting communication lines. It does seems to the Jester, though, that any dictator willing to suppress his opposition by force and shut down the Internet will hardly be concerned about public shaming by some foreign diplomats.)

But, the question is not whether to deny someone something that they’ve never had, but whether, of all the things they could have next, the Internet should be it. Unfortunately, when the list of things they don’t have includes reasonable access to clean water, quality primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and basic sanitation, the Internet falls far far behind in the list of priorities. (Nor, incidentally, can any of those things be meaningfully addressed via the Internet. The Jester does not encourage young ICT4D PhD candidates to work on a mechanism by which to convert bits to water, at least not if they wish to finish their dissertation within the third millennium. )

Human rights rhetoric admits no greys. It allows no ordering of priorities. In fact, the whole point of anyone arguing for X as a human right is to turn what is in fact a question of when and how much into one of black-and-white either/or. Proponents hope that once something is accepted as a right, those in power will spare no expense to provide it universally. 

Unfortunately, this logic is short-sighted and counterproductive if true development, and not the selling of some technology product or service, is the goal. As the Jester has written ad infinitum, the Internet is of minimal value to a poor, undereducated farmer earning less than $2 a day. Countries with the highest rates of Internet penetration today are those that happened to be rich already (and which, incidentally, often also have the highest penetration of lots of other things requiring money, such as automobiles). The belief that the Internet makes a country rich is not far from the belief that sticking one’s tongue out makes one Michael Jordan.

Even if broadband access were to cost as low as $5 per month (the current cost of a monthly broadband subscription in India, likely among the lowest in the world), at $60 a year, that is a sum that could be put to use much more meaningfully towards other purposes, such as contributing to a clean-water kiosk, hiring assistant teachers for classes to boost educational outcomes, purchasing decent medical insurance, or installing a latrine.

Furthermore, by adding yet another item to the growing list of human rights, Internet-rights activists diminish the emphasis on those rights that might truly deserve special status. The world is very far even from guaranteeing clean water and minimal nutrition to all 6.7 billion people on the planet. Given that, it’s pure delusion to suggest that international development is ready to take on an information technology as a universal right.

And, if none of that is convincing, consider that the world is marching steadily and quickly towards a world in which everyone will have access to the Internet via their mobile phones. The latest figures are around 5.3 billion mobile phone accounts and 2 billion Internet users. Hungry telecoms will make it happen, anyway, so why should good people interested in development waste their time when other development objectives are being neglected?

None of this is to suggest that Finland, or any other country in particular, is  wrong to provide the Internet to all. For countries that have secured water, nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, and education for every one of their people (as Finland has more or less done), the Internet seems a reasonable next step. But, if developing countries have an aspiration to be more like Finland, it seems clear that there are many other priorities before universal broadband. To start, countries ought to learn from the Finn’s terrific educational system, which, incidentally, uses relatively little ICT.

Random Hacks of Partial Kindness

May 14, 2011

Tate Watkins at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University prompted the Jester with the following question for a post to AidWatch: “Is it reasonable to expect that Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and similar events will produce ‘solutions to development problems’?”

The Jester’s simple answer to that direct question, of course, is “no.” Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

Surprisingly, the Jester has a more complex answer to the underlying question, which might have been posed as, “Do events such as RHoK do any good?” The answer to that question is far more complicated, because these events have multiple goals, and some of the goals are not half bad, even if they could still use some course correction.

The first and most obvious surface goal of events like RHoK is to end up with a body of software that could somehow impact international development. The Jester has written extensively about this notion (for example, through his puppet, at the Boston Review), and the short answer is that exactly where we most want such technology to have impact, the required human intent and capacity to make the technology itself work is low. Combine this with the fact that very little successful software in the world gets written via a two-day hackfest, and the likely interesting impact will be zero.

The second goal of RHoK is likely to support the building of software programming capacity in developing countries. Of their currently posted 20 or so physical hosting sites, 6 or 7 are in developing countries (and of those, about half by groups well-known to the Jester), and to the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic, as the Jester implied in a previous post. Among the things that makes a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology, and to the extent that the efforts highlight the aspiration of those within country to do so, the Jester applauds. (However, as long as developer development is the goal, why not have the contest be around software that would really be useful?)

A third and less obvious goal of RHoK is to encourage software developers in the developed world to engage on problems in the developing world. The Jester has mixed feelings about this, because on the one hand, it’s great to encourage people anywhere to care about others who are in less privileged circumstances; on the other hand, further contributing to the vain belief that that intention can manifest through random hacks of software development is dubious. Good software developers would have more value by mentoring less experienced software developers in the developing world, than attempting to solve a developing-world problem through technology. The latter is still just another kind of charity, and another kind of “giving people a fish.”

A fourth goal might be build to a community around software developers in the world who care about international development. The Jester strongly believes in the value of community, and often times, the development of community — even if it for a misguided instrumental end — can be redirected later to more useful purpose. Strong communities have value, especially to the extent that their mission is really to solve development challenges. However, as with the other goals, the end impact of the community will depend on what it decides to do with its social capital.  

So, to different RHoK stakeholders, the Jester has different things to say:

  1. For budding software developers: Use the event to learn more about software development. And, for those coming from a developing country, involve more friends. The ability to write good code is exactly the kind of capacity that will help individuals earn good incomes and help countries grow economically.
  2. For experienced software developers hoping to “do good”: The intention is laudable. The most meaningful impact, though, will come not from technological artifacts, as much as from the mentoring of people in the first category.
  3. For sponsors: If the goal is practical software, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” appears next to the Jester’s head as a thought bubble. If the goal is to help developing countries gain software-developing capacity, shift focus to the end-to-end supply chain of human capital for engineering, i.e., education defined very broadly. In the current global economy, there is no shortage of demand for capable software engineers. But, supply is hurting. And, if the goal is to kill multiple birds with one stone, try hitting one bird first; no point aiming for their empty center of gravity! (The Jester does not wish to promote violence against animals, but the available proverbs along these lines are limited.)

And, to wrap up with a single sentence: The most meaningful way for the RHoK to have impact is for everyone to focus on increasing the software-developing capacity of the least experienced developers (wherever they’re from) who come to hack.

WSJ says OECD says “Technology Widens Gap Between Rich and Poor”

May 5, 2011

Sebastian Moffett of the Wall Street Journal has an article headlined, “Technology Widens Gap Between Rich and Poor.” (Non-paywall version at Morningstar.) The Jester shouts “Hurrah!!!”… not, of course, because the rich-poor gap is widening, but because the Jester, like any joker overly ego-invested in his intellect, loves to say “I told you so.”

Quoth the Jester, “technology amplifies human intent and capacity,” and that leads to the unfortunate conclusion that even an equal distribution of technology magnifies inequalities. (For more, see the Boston Review article by the Jester’s doppelganger.)

Moffett’s article summarizes the findings of an OECD report released this week. The WSJ headline is actually slightly misleading. Technology is only one of the things that the report cites as a cause of greater inequality in OECD nations. The primary one is simply that high-skilled workers have seen greater growth in pay than low-skilled workers. Under Jester Theory, this means that giving both equal access to technology will only further increase the disparity.

Also according to Jester Theory, the best way to deal with this disparity is not to level the technology playing field, but to provide good training to the players. The OECD report concludes, “Policies that promote the up-skilling of the workforce are therefore key factors to reverse the trend to further growing inequality.”

I told you so.

(Well, the Jester has little more to say about this. The original OECD report is brief and worth reading. One provocatively titled section was strangely skipped by the WSJ: “Does it matter for inequality whether rich men marry rich women?”)

Jester hat tip to @BostonReview for link to WSJ article.