Archive for the ‘General Overview’ Category

Boston Review: Can Technology End Poverty?

November 9, 2010

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.

Q&A with the Jester!

May 27, 2010

The Jester and his alter ego receive an intermittent stream of questions soliciting free advice about ICT4D projects. Most are too far gone for effective recommendations; the questioner has already committed to using ICT to address a deep development problem, akin to tying both hands behind one’s back before a piano competition.

The Jester’s alter ego is similarly hamstrung in responding to these requests, since his superego commits him to diplomatic, constructive  responses (or at least, attempts at such) that wouldn’t thoroughly discourage idealistic folk who still believe there is a shortcut to meaningful development.

Luckily, the Jester himself can be as obnoxious as he wants to be! In this series of posts, the Jester paraphrases requests for ICT4D advice wherever he may find them, and responds to them as he pleases. Woo hoo!

Questions? Send them to the Jester! The Jester promises to remove all personally identifying information prior to making fun of you.

Pedagogy of the Professed

April 28, 2010

It’s raining ICT4D classes at universities, particularly in the United States! What used to be no more than a sprinkle of classes across the globe, is spreading quickly. As with ICT4D in general, multiple disciplines are contributing to the downpour. Computer science and engineering departments have ICT4D courses; business schools have social entrepeneurship classes; design schools have design-for-the-other-90% classes; and quite a few departments hold classes examining the activity of ICT4D under all manner of critical lenses.

This might be due to growing interest in global development from people who hadn’t thought about it before. It might be curiosity about ICT from people who have non-ICT development experience. Or, it might be recent ICT4D graduates trying to propagate their intellectual selves from newly gained faculty positions.

In any case, it shows that both students and faculty are eager to get into the game. Despite the Jester’s persnickety remarks, he believes this is a good trend, overall. Certainly, it’s a positive sign that people are interested in something other than building a new iGadget on which to polish their Facebook profiles. (The Jester believes gadget and social-networking fetishes to be a kind of pornography – turn-ons depend on minor variations of the same thing; libidos are the underlying motive force; and people spend all sorts of secret time on them. But, that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

But! It wouldn’t be very jesterly to raise the issue if there weren’t some problems, too. And, oh, how there are problems with ICT4D education! The Jester even considered a name change to the ICT4D Curmudgeon. He decided against it only because he likes jester’s hats. That, and he’s too cheap to pay for another domain name. Instead, he will dump relevant posts in the Teaching ICT4D bin.


March 28, 2010

This is a brief, overarching summary of the Jester’s views, for people who don’t have time to read the whole blog. Because this is a summary, the Jester disavows all responsibility for your misinterpretations of the material!

(1)    Why won’t information and communication technologies (ICTs) save the world? The Jester says: Because technology is not additive, but multiplicative. Technology multiplies human intent and capacity; it doesn’t add to it. Tough problems in the world are generally caused by non-positive human intent, or near-zero human capacity. Multiply by technology, and you don’t see gains.

(2)    Why do sane people keep thinking that ICTs will save the world? The Jester says: There are many reasons, but chief among them is inaccurate causal attribution resulting from not understanding Point (1) above. People who believe that ICTs will save the world come in two categories: (a) They are wealthy, educated, self-confident, well-intentioned people with bank accounts, affordable transport, good social networks, and a host of other significant advantages that impoverished people often don’t have; or (b) they have been brainwashed by such people. It’s those advantages that keep people of Class (a) out of poverty in the first place, but because they are swimming in an ocean of advantages, they attribute dramatic changes in their ability to find a good job to minor proximate causes – such as – not to these other far more important factors. In the old days before the Internet and the mobile phone, rich, educated people got the good jobs, and poor, uneducated people didn’t, just like today. So, why do people keep thinking it’s the Internet that gets them good jobs? Misattribution of cause.

(3)    What do you do, if you’re a technologist who still wants to do some good? The Jester says: First, teach or mentor. Your greatest asset relative to a very poor person is not your technical expertise; it’s your overall education and general understanding of the modern world. Impart that through education, training, capacity building, etc. Basic literacy, basic education, basic self-confidence, basic grasp of human rights, and basic ability to organize people… those capacities are far more important to them, than a new gadget or, even, minor computer literacy skills. If you give them a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach them how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. No one said anything about giving them an automated fishing pole!!! See Point (1), above.

Of course, the Jester realizes that many technologists need to prove their brilliance and ingenuity by building fancy gadgets, and they want to do some good, too. If you are in this category, the best thing you can do is to put your ability to work for a well-intentioned, competent organization that is already doing good development. That way, you could magnify their impact. See, again, Point (1), above. Do not make the mistake of believing that technology fixes human problems, and that it will scale a solution. Technology requires a substrate of well-intentioned, human competence to work. See, yet again, Point (1).

Welcome to the ICT4D Jester!

March 28, 2010

Why, if personal computers are so great, have obesity rates in America only skyrocketed since their introduction in 1972? Why, if Google is so wonderful, have levels of happiness in the United States not gone up since it was founded in 1998? Why, if the iPhone is so awesome, have poverty rates kept climbing in the land of the free since its debut in 2007?

Ridiculous questions, aren’t they? Thank you, thank you, thank you… Ridiculous questions are the specialty of the Jester. But, he’s not as unique as he would like to believe in his ridiculousness. Consider, for example, the following quotations…

  • “Can the cellphone help end global poverty? …the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary.”[i]
  •  “[T]he Internet should be a human right in and of itself.”[ii]
  •  “There is a pressing need to employ information technology for rural healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa.”[iii]

That’s right – the mobile phone might end poverty, the Internet is a human right, and information technology will save the healthcare system in Africa! These quotations are all by respectable people writing in serious publications. Why are the Jester’s questions ridiculous, while these latter comments are not?

That is the question!

In response, the Jester takes arms against a sea of ICT4D hype, and attempts to explain (1) why information and communication technologies (ICTs) won’t save the world, (2) why sane people keep thinking that it will, and (3) what to do if you’re a technologist who still wants to do some good. (See summary for quick answers.)

The ICT4D Jester welcomes you!


[i] Corbett, S. (2008) Can the cellphone help end global poverty? The New York Times, April 13, 2008., retrieved March 24, 2010. 

[ii] Best, M. L. (2004) Can the Internet be a Human Right? Human Rights & Human Welfare, Vol. 4. University of Denver., retrieved March 24, 2010.

[iii] Friedman, E. (2009) Computer-assisted medical diagnosis for rural sub-Saharan Africa. IEEE Technology and Society, 23(3):18-28., retrieved March 24, 2010.