Archive for the ‘government’ Category

Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

January 29, 2011

[A shorter version of this post appears at]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

All Atwitter about Twitter

September 30, 2010

In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell bites into “the outsized enthusiasm for social media.” This is a worthwhile cause, to be sure. The article drips with contempt for anyone and everyone who seems overly eager to declare the miracles of technology. The claims of Twitter’s role in Moldova and Iran are put in their place. He quotes journalist Golnaz Esfandiari, “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” Go, Malcolm, go!  

But, this is actually old news. What’s new is Gladwell’s take. He denies two business-book authors’ claim that “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation.” It’s not motivation, but merely participation that is increased via social networks, according to Gladwell. Citing Facebook causes that have millions of friends but very low average donations, he writes, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

This is true, and right in line with the Jester’s motto: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. Yes, you can get more friends on Facebook making donations, than if you had to stuff envelopes and lick stamps, but what use is it, if their underlying desire and ability to donate is limited (as it inevitably is)?

The story he ends on is the story made famous by Clay Shirky, about a New York woman, Ivanna, who loses her fancy mobile phone in a taxi and has it stolen by a teenager, Sasha, who refuses to return it. Thanks to some Internet activism by Ivanna’s friend Evan, millions of people followed the story, some agitated, and the police were forced publicly to acknowledge that the phone was stolen and not just lost. They then nabbed Sasha and Ivanna got her phone back. Gladwell says whoop-dee-doo, and ends with sarcastic flourish the Jester wished he had: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” 

If Gladwell pushed just a little further, though, he’d have had even more ammunition to critique his targets. The real issue with these stories is not that they are minor accomplishments — Shirky’s other examples, which Malcolm leaves out, are actually quite powerful. The real problem is that as everyone else starts using these tools for the same purposes, we will again settle into an equilibrium where everyone competes for everyone else’s attention, and the winners of the new game will, with minor shuffling, be the same winners of the old game. How soon do you think it will be, before people tire of agitating on the behalf of rich people’s lost gadgets? And, how quickly we’ll all get exhausted when pinged for the next thousand causes we could be giving to.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but the competition for some things — donor dollars, attention, political power — is more of a zero-sum game than a game pie that can be grown indefinitely, by technology or otherwise. For maybe a few more months, or maybe a few more years, we’ll keep hearing about how Twitter and Facebook is a wondrous, global lost-and-found. But, when the dust settles, we’ll quickly start treating common Facebook requests like so much spam.

The amplification that social media is accomplishing is the speed at which we get excited about, and then grow weary of, fads.

(Incidentally, for further commentary on Gladwell’s article, see the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column. The Jester agrees most with fellow technology realist Evgeny Morozov’s note.)

The Hand that Flips the Power Switch…

July 6, 2010

The Jester gleefully welcomes a comment by Satyajit Nath[i] on a recent post. The following is an edited version of his comment (the full comment is here, below the original post):

SN> Sometimes, the focus of consciously applied technology can be to *diminish* the impact of crafty/ corrupt people who impoverish others and make the “victims” less than what they can be.

For example, the electronic train ticketing/reservation system in India simply eliminated the corruption rampant through reservation clerks, train conductors, and others. I remember 20-25 years ago when any long distance train travel meant interminable hours waiting in line at the station to book tickets, bribes doled out by those passengers who chose to/could afford them, and no travel/poor travel for those could/would not. And today, my brother-in-law just booked my confirmed train reservation from Mumbai to Hyderabad in 2 minutes at the local store! And what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.

Yes, behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations who understood the appropriate use of technology. But the main benefit of the technology was to eliminate the impact of a huge number of corrupt/crafty ones.

So, I would argue for a transcended definition for appropriate use of technology that includes (1) to magnify good human intent; (2) to diminish bad human intent.

Satyajit – thank you, thank you, thank you! You have given the Jester a day off from playing the fool, because you are doing it so well! In fact, the Jester confers upon you the title of Fool for the Day (or F4TD, to simultaneously honor the genius who came up with “ICT4D”).

The idea that technology diminishes bad human intent is one of the classic traps that snare many an ICT4D enthusiast, and the Indian Railway System is the perfect example of a good technology system whose mechanism is misinterpreted by techno-utopians.

The Jester starts with his favorite broken record: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. But, which humans’ intent and capacity? There are typically two relevant groups: (1) the people who produce the technology and/or operate it, and (2) the people who consume the technology or its output. Some combination of these groups’ intents and capacities are what technology magnifies.

In the case of railway computerization, the technology operator is the Railway Ministry, and the consumers are passengers. As our F4TD confirms, the intents of both the operator and the consumer were aligned with the positive goal: “behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations”; and, just as his brother desires to buy tickets easily, “what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.” Thus, the relevant groups are positively inclined, and the ministry had the ability to follow through. Technology amplifies that, so it’s no surprise that the outcome was mostly good.

What of corrupt railway employees? It’s true that much of the old style of corruption was eliminated, but this in no way contradicts the Jester’s claim. If two groups of people have opposing intent, the more powerful side can impose its intent on the other, especially if it has suitable technology. In war, the side with greater intent, ability, and superior technology, wins. In this case, the Railway Ministry, which to start with had the position of power over railway employees, was firmly intent on implementing a fair, efficient system. With that kind of power and political will, it’s again not surprising that corruption was diminished.

However, there are plenty of instances that appear similar on paper, but where the political will or the organizational capacity is lacking. If human intent is negative, or capacity near-zero, technology will not contribute positively. This is, alas, the situation with many of the governments that ICT4D hopes to fix with e-government.

The Jester remembers one political science professor who claimed to tell a story of ICT supporting democracy, but then ended up telling exactly the opposite story: A well-regarded NGO in Bangalore once convinced the municipal government of that city to install a computerized financial tracking system with public access. For a couple of months, the NGO found irregularities or injustices in the city budget and lobbied publicly to get things fixed, with good results. Triumph for ICT, right? Wrong. Soon after, the government shut down the system, and it has not come back up since. If the government doesn’t want to be monitored, it won’t be monitored. The hand that flips the power switch is the hand that rules the ICT. And, behind that hand, is again, human intent.

There is no end to these examples in e-government. India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is struggling to authenticate workers, so that they can be paid correctly. But, without an inherently strong bureaucracy, fingerprint readers and other technology are readily sabotaged by people in the payment chain, who’d rather not have their skimming of government funds detected. In failed and failing states outside of India, ICT often presents a way to get the word out about gross injustice; but no amount of protest or harangue online about the government changes leaders secure in their absolute power. And, in repressive regimes, Internet and mobile-phone networks are even bent to the will of a controlling government. Websites are actively censored; e-mails are subpoenaed to track “enemies” of state; and the government-sponsored press preaches its propaganda online. Without positive intent and institutional capacity in the government implementing the technology, e-government doesn’t work. At least, not for the public good. 

The Jester also notes that the corrupt intent of lower-level bureaucrats also requires something more than technology to stamp out completely. In the case of the railways, our F4TD may be aware that even today, in the case that a train is full on the publicly available online system, he can often go to certain travel agents and purchase a seat for an additional fee. Behind the scenes, however, these tickets have been sold under the table by those who have inside access to the computerized system, who undoubtedly receive a portion of the “fee.” The Jester himself has also gotten on ostensibly full trains that were already in motion (and therefore, beyond the online booking system), only to find empty first-class sleepers for which the price seemed a little high. (The Jester is no activist-saint; he happily paid and got a good night’s sleep.) Corrupt intent doesn’t go away with technology; it just works around it.

So, does technology “diminish bad human intent”? Not in and of itself. Technology only magnifies intent and capacity. If technology is operated by the just and competent, it certainly can help them — this is what we’re all after in ICT4D. But, it’s not the technology alone that does it. If technology is put in the hands of the powerless, it has nothing to magnify. If technology is wielded by those with negative intent, it only magnifies that. For these latter situations to be turned around, only a change in the underlying human intent or capacity will allow the technology to magnify things in the positive direction. Technology’s impact is multiplicative, not additive.


[i] Note to empathetic souls: The Jester knows Satyajit in person and has great respect for him. Satyajit, an otherwise accomplished person, has recently thrown himself body and soul into ICT4D. The Jester’s jabs are only friendly ribbing. Or, at least, the Jester hopes he will take it that way, despite the public spanking to follow.