Archive for the ‘technology pessimism’ Category and Why Facebook Is the Matrix

August 28, 2013

The Jester thanks Ashwani Sharma for requesting jesterly opinion on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement. Last week, Zuckerberg announced vague plans for, a collaborative effort involving Samsung, Ericsson, Qualcomm, et al., and of course, Facebook, to bring better Internet connectivity to the “next 5 billion” people… that is to say, the 5 billion people who still aren’t slaves to Facebook.

It will come as no surprise that the Jester finds this effort pointless from the perspective of international development and ineffective even for reaching its own stated goals. (The Jester laughed at the conspicuous absence of telecom operators in the consortium, who, more than anyone else, control bandwidth in the target geographies. Presumably, they were not interested in further eroding their profit margins for the sake of customers who have the least disposable income. Note to Zuckerberg: There’s a reason why free-market solutions for the bottom billion don’t work.)

What’s surprising, though, is that the response of the media has been appropriately tepid, even critical. The New York Times (in what otherwise reads like a corporate press release) quotes Bill Gates making a general comment about universal access efforts: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Chris O’Brien at The Los Angeles Times astutely notes that “fails to recognize the complexity of reasons that people don’t use the Internet.” And then there’s Gawker’s Sam Biddle, who shows off that surprisingly rare commodity in an age of instant information: critical thinking. He calls the effort “faux humanitarian” and a “long con.”

Perhaps the world is becoming a little jaded by Internet giants claiming to save the world with the same toys they unleash on smartphone-addled developed-world users. Hurray says the Jester – it’s about time! (The Jester likes to imagine that there are clandestine anti-tech-hype cells forming all around the world, trafficking in tattered paper copies of old Jester posts lovingly transcribed at dusty Internet cafés where the printers are broken. The Jester daydreams that those cells are having some impact, but more likely, it’s just people coming to their senses. And even more likely, it’s just journalists going through a cycle of negative sensationalism about the tech industry. Whatever the case, the sun is shining in Jesterland!)

With the critique out there, the Jester has less to say. Less, but not zero. (Does the Jester ever have zero to say? Unfortunately for readers, no.)

What’s amazing about is just how thoroughly empty it is of any attempt to connect Internet access to something tangibly good in the lives of the next 5 billion. At least in the nostalgia-inducing days of telecenters, people tried. Proponents explained how specific projects would deliver agricultural advice to farmers or would improve healthcare through telemedicine. They had detailed plans and prototypes. Zuckerberg doesn’t even bother…

  • “The Internet is such an important thing for driving humanity forward.” in The New York Times
  • “Making the internet available to every person on earth is a goal too large and too important for any one company, group, or government to solve alone.”
  • “The internet […] is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.” Zuckerberg’s whitepaper

So, according to Zuckerberg, the Internet is important, and it’s important. And, by the way, did you hear that the Internet is important? Even compared to telecenters, the Jester has seen very few claims that Facebook leads to better healthcare, improved education, greater income, or anything like that. Even misguided cheerleaders of the “Facebook revolution” in the Arab Spring have fallen silent now that Egypt teeters between failed state and military dictatorship.

The most that can be said of Facebook is that users appear to want it. There’s no doubt that the billion+ people with Internet access do in fact spend unfathomable amounts of time on Facebook. But usage doesn’t always mean positive social value, as we know from the tobacco industry. Calls for universal Internet access tend to hang on the neo-liberal consumerist rationalization that is the bane of so much that is wrong with the world today: Namely, that by giving more people something that they want – or by making it cheaply available in the free market – the world necessarily becomes a better place.

This was articulated recently on an ICT4D mailing list by someone the Jester will call “Kurtis.” Kurtis – whom the Jester dubs Fool for the Day – writes, “at least [] is a project that’s trying to give people things that they want instead of telling people what they should want (e.g., crop prices).”

At least. Well, it’s hard to argue against giving people what they want, but the Jester will take on this thankless task.

Of course, giving people what they do not want should not be the goal of development. That much seems obvious.

But it’s also the case that giving people what they want shouldn’t be the goal of development, either.

Giving people what they want is just another word for charity. It stunts local capacity; it creates dependent relationships; it strengthens corrupt power. Giving people what they want is to jack them into the Matrix, where lost in a semi-pleasurable, mind-numbing digital dream, they don’t mind squandering their productive energies to feed their machine masters. And in case no one has noticed, Facebook is the Matrix! It’s exactly an artificially intelligent Internet overlord that lulls users into a semi-conscious reverie of bourgeois fantasies while it harvests their energies to feed itself. It is reported that among American smartphone users, the average Facebook user is on Facebook for 30 minutes a day. 30 minutes a day! To put that into perspective, the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 American Time Use Survey shows that on average, Americans spend 32 minutes “caring for and helping household members,” 38 minutes on “educational activities,” and 18 minutes on “participating in sports, exercise, and recreation.” (And, even in the Internet age, Americans still spend two and a half hours a day with that other major opium of the masses, television.)

“But wait!” shouts the attentive reader. “If you neither give people what they want nor give them what they don’t want, what else is left to do?” Well, the attentive reader also seems an unimaginative reader. There are so many other things we could do other than give or trade in stuff. If giving people fish is suboptimal, so is giving people Internet access. We could instead teach a class where good teachers are scarce. (Zuckerberg can be commended for doing this himself.) We could instead help strengthen healthcare systems. We could instead march in the streets together against injustice. We could dance the funky chicken.

Indeed, there are many other ways to frame the goal of development other than as “giving people what they want.” The Jester’s personal favorite is that the main goal in development is to help people become better versions of themselves. But that’s a topic for another court session.

So what should those of us who aren’t Silicon Valley gazillionaires do? Alas, there is little recourse for most of us to reign in the power of the Matrix Facebook, as it seeks world domination in a way that previous evil empires hadn’t even dreamed of. In the current global zeitgeist, the ethic of “let corporations do whatever they want unless they are breaking actual @#$% laws” is just too powerful. But as people concerned with international development, we can still avoid getting on this and other Internet-access bandwagons. Publicly funded organizations can avoid the apparently immense temptation to partner with grandiose but substanceless technology projects , especially when there are plenty of other genuinely meaningful projects to engage with. Bloggers can post their own critiques of Internet-access-disguised-as-philanthropy. And practitioners can strengthen their resolve to resist the attraction of save-the-world-quick schemes. In a universe where the virtual world is ruled by the multi-tentacled spawn of Silicon Valley, it is all the more important that some of us spend years in the real world organizing under-voiced communities into effective political and economic actors.

In short… take the red pill!

[A follow-up to this post is here:]

This Time, It’s Different!

November 16, 2011

The M4D “revolution” continues unabated, but new revolutions are already well underway. It’s been at least a year since Kindles and iPads have also gone 4D, and the latest news is India’s $35 Aakash. The Jester is now taking bets on when the first event, journal, or working group focuses on the topic of T4D – “tablets for development.”

Today, though, the Jester will take a break from decrying the hype that comes with each new wave of technology. He will not question the bizarre juxtaposition of an industry unable to produce hardware that lasts three years talking about sustainability. And, he will not cynically note how with each new ICT, technologists squeal, “This time, it’s different!” until it, too, ends up in a dump where the locals burn off plastic for metal, in the process getting a good carcinogenic whiff of the toxic fumes.

No, instead, the Jester will return to his roots as a computer scientist and daydream about future ICTs. He will extrapolate to infinity and beyond, where technologies might actually really be so different that they really actually would save the world. Why continue fooling around with Python and Javascript, when brainpower could be applied to real breakthroughs…?

  • Potential World-Saving Technology #1: The holodeck. Here is a technology that allows people to immerse themselves in any conceivable world, with animated characters that look, feel, and act just like real people. Forget TV, forget laptops… Just drop children into holodecks from birth until 18 years of age, and they would all pop out with world-class educations (as well as a host of imaginary friends)! This time, the technology is sure to make schools a thing of the past.
  • Potential World-Saving Technology #2: The kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix. Why waste 18 years in the holodeck, when education could be beamed into a person’s brain in seconds? Illiterate parents could have their children do unpaid labor for the early years, and then, on the eve of their adulthood, instantly transform them into lawyers, doctors, *and* engineers.
  • Potential World-Saving Technology #3: Autonomous humanoid robots. The Jester claims “technology amplifies human intent and capacity” but with self-willed robots, he’d have to include “robotic intent and capacity.” With technology amplifying itself, pesky human beings would no longer be necessary for having impact. Hurray!

The Jester offers a few comments regarding these reveries. First, for the beginning Jester reader: Unfortunately, like a lot of pipe dreams, these technologies are a long long ways away. Too bad.

Second, for the advanced Jester-ologist who is not so easily fooled… That’s right, even these incredible future technologies won’t fix human problems. 

For example, unless society musters the will to fix its social challenges, it will only be the rich and powerful who will have access to holodeck hardware, good holodeck content, and time inside a holodeck. Meanwhile, without a good upbringing to begin with, rural holocenter users, particularly the male ones, will be inclined to spend hours in holo-orgies instead of productive educational lessons. (Some future development theorists will also suggest that this should be considered development because it is an exercising of the users’ agency and an expansion of capabilities.)

Similarly, direct-to-brain instructional machines will come with different levels of quality. Again, the rich and powerful will be able to afford high-caliber machines that maximize learning while minimizing negative side effects. On the other hand, a poor, marginalized user will only be able to afford the local knock-off brands. Also, she will not understand that while she might very well learn kung-fu, she also risks a 5% chance of coming out believing she is a duck.

Finally, with robots, it will still be people who decide what motivations are built into them. Robotic goals will only echo our own intent and capacity. Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics sound great, except that it’s not at all clear, in the absence of a wise, effective world government, how anyone could enforce the laws for all robots. Despots as well as clueless development “experts” will release their own robots into the world, eager to implement policies that are supposedly good for people via robotic fiat. (Meanwhile, clever roboticists will design robots that (1) form ad hoc wireless societies on their own, (2) are hackable so that smallholder farmers can reconfigure them for themselves, and (3) are secure from Three-Laws tampering, except of course, if their password is stolen.)

It appears that even in the future, technology only amplifies human intent and capacity. As for the present craze with mobiles and tablets, the Jester sees a silver lining: it is reassuring to know that no app will turn him into a duck.

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.

The Gap to Be Closed

April 21, 2011

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?

ICT is to Education as a Treadmill is to Fitness

January 18, 2011

It’s heartwarming to see the passionate debate over at Educational Technology Debate, ensuing from Toyama’s post, “There are no technology shortcuts to good education.” The Jester also would like to acknowledge Stephen Downes, who wrote an articulate point by point rebuttal to Toyama’s article. (The Jester notes, though, that Downes seems to be coming from the perspective of rich-world tertiary education, which is exactly what Toyama wasn’t writing about. Incidentally, if anyone would like to be a Guest Jester and rebut Downes, the Jester would be delighted to cede the stage).

Although the Jester is slowly coming to the conclusion that there is little point in trying to convince people who are pro-technology otherwise, he will give it another shot here, and respond to the main classes of responses that were received.

Throughout, the Jester will use an analogy for ICT in education (which he hit upon while out for a jog in the chilly north end of the Bay Area): ICT is to education as exercise technology is to fitness. The parallels are as follows…

  • Fitness only happens when the person does the work (at least with current technology – electrical ab stimulators notwithstanding!).
  • Education only happens when the learner does the work (at least with current technology – we don’t yet have the kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix).
  • Thus, the key challenge of exercise is the motivation of the person.
  • Thus, the key challenge of education is the motivation of the learner.
  • Children are naturally dynamic and want to exercise, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good athletes.
  • Children are naturally curious and want to learn, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good thinkers.
  • Treadmills may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • Computers may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a treadmill is the inspiration for someone to stick to a tight exercise regimen for the long term. But, these people will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a computer is the inspiration for a child to seek out further learning for the long term. But, these children will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • Treadmills may be convenient; they can do some things that help with exercise; and they could certainly be part of a good exercise program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for exercise that hold up well against treadmills (and other exercise machines).
  • Computers may be convenient; they can do some things that help with education; and they could certainly be part of a good teaching program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for education that hold up well against computer (and other ICT).
  • If someone is terribly out of shape and as their doctor, you could pay for either a treadmill or a personal trainer, you would pay for the personal trainer. A good personal trainer can coach someone into shape with little technology, while there is no guarantee that the person would actually use the treadmill.
  • If someone is behind in their education and as their administrator, you could pay for either a computer or a good tutor, you would pay for the tutor. A good tutor can coach someone into learning with little technology, while there is no guarantee that a student would make productive use of the computer.
  • Where large numbers of people are out of shape, what you need is to enroll them in an exercise program with good personal trainers.
  • Where large numbers of children are not learning, what you need is to put them in a school with good teachers.  

Using this analogy, the Jester now clarifies some points on Toyama’s behalf:

First, as Toyama tried to emphasize, the admonition against overenthusiastic use of ICT in schools is directed mainly at primary and secondary schools, where students’ motivation and direction are (for the most part) not dependable for good education. On the other hand, by tertiary levels, many students have the motivation and direction to study on their own, and the power of certain ICTs can certainly help, just as college students with an exercise habit can benefit from a well-stocked gym.

Second, much of the challenge in education, particularly in publicly funded developing-world education, is remedial in nature… and not just for the students, but for the entire school system. Effectively, what you have are couch potatoes languishing under the poor guidance of uncaring coaches. It might require a Herculean effort to turn all stakeholders – athlete-to-bes, coaches, managers, fans – around, but without doing so, no amount of fancy exercise equipment will make a contribution. Having said that, school systems where good education is happening could certainly benefit from ICT, just as a healthy athletic program would benefit from treadmills and weight machines.

Many respondents repeated variations of the need for “21st century skills” by which they meant capacity to use high technology. Yes, the world is full of technology, but there is a huge difference between being able to use a technology and being able to do meaningful things with the technology. The former requires technology to learn, but the latter requires mature thinking skills. The former is easy to learn; the latter is difficult, and therefore requires attention in school. Athletes today use state-of-the-art technology when they compete – “technology is everywhere!” – but while the technology gives them a boost, their real advantage is years of training, often in low-tech circumstances. Many Kenyan marathon runners, for example, grow up training barefoot. Does every child have to run with Nike Air technology to become a world-class runner? It might even be argued that learning how to run without the technology makes one a superior competitor when the technology is available.

Some people noted that ICT can extend education beyond the classroom. This is true for motivated, self-directed children, but those are few and far between at the primary and secondary levels, especially when they have never experienced a good educational environment. It’s like saying that couch potatoes without a habit of exercise will suddenly exercise more if you put a treadmill in their living room. The Jester guesses that most such treadmills are dramatically underused.

Finally, a class of respondents talked about the opportunity cost of NOT providing ICT in education for the future of the country. As Mike Trucano noted at the World Bank blog, this is a line of argument that inspires fear in the hearts of education ministers. Unfortunately, it’s misplaced without showing that ICT can really make a big impact. In economics, “opportunity cost” means the best alternative to the purchase in question. So, the opportunity cost of ICT in education is what you could do with the ICT budget if you spent it on something else in education. The Jester asserts (as did Toyama), that there is a lot, and a lot that is proven in rigorous studies to be impactful.

Educational Technology Debate

January 6, 2011

The Jester wishes he had been the one to write this superb article in Educational Technology Debate (ETD) by Kentaro Toyama! It’s really unfair that a person should have such insight and be a candidate for Brad Pitt’s long-lost more handsome half-brother. The full article, titled “There are no technology shortcuts in education,” is worth reading (incidentally, the Jester applauds the folks at ETD, who have provided a great platform for discussion about technology in education), but here are some juicy excerpts…

“Quality primary and secondary education is a multi-year commitment whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest.”

“While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst.”

“With respect to sustaining directed motivation, even the much-maligned rote-focused drill-sergeant disciplinarian is superior to any electronic multimedia carnival.”

“…efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.”

“We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology).”

“If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.”

“In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents.”

“Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders!”

Toyama has previously written articles that question the value of technology in development (for example, see this Boston Review forum), but he has rarely expressed so much anti-technology sentiment. The Jester thinks that this might be because technology in education is particularly hard to get right and more likely to distract from core efforts towards better teaching and administration. Education also has a longer history of technology failures, whereas, for example, agriculture and healthcare often benefit in tangible ways from technology.

What makes education different? The Jester believes it has to do with the fact that education is so much a social process, where the critical magic happens in the ongoing relationship between learner and the teacher (or parent or guide or mentor or whomever). The magic isn’t about information or knowledge or skill. It’s about inspiration, motivation, encouragement, scolding, etc., all of which involve a social, emotional element, that human beings (even when misguided) can generate far better than any technology on the horizon. Education is very unlike a vaccine, which works automatically after injection.

There are occasional self-taught geniuses, and they seem like counterexamples to the social nature of good education, but they are rare and still likely to have been raised in environments with motivational influences, however fleeting. One nod from a coolly distant father might be all it takes to make a kid work alone for months on a project, but in a poor educational environment, even that timely nod is missing (or lost in other noise)… and critically can’t be replaced by technology.

The question the Jester has for Toyama, though, is whether this kind of rational cornering of dissenters ultimately works to sway them. Among readers, only a very small minority are likely to be persuaded by an opposing view.

Some recent research by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, for example, suggests that dire messages about climate change (this will be relevant… stay with the Jester here) can cause some people to shove their heads underground in denial, because the implicit threat to one’s foundational beliefs is so unnerving. A similar phenomenon might happen with people who are already so vested in technology for education, that their own livelihoods or reputations depend on its perceived success. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” What is the best way to change their minds? The Jester, for once, is stumped. Any ideas?

Brave Confession from Azim Premji Foundation

December 17, 2010

Here’s an amazing, courageous, honest revelation from the Azim Premji Foundation:, among the world’s largest and most dedicated technology and education non-profits. They do their work in India (so, note qualifications around that fact). Many thanks to @gkjohn for forwarding this article.

For anyone in technology and education, it’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some excerpts…

Over a four-year period, we at the Azim Premji Foundation produced the largest single library of digital learning resources (DLR) in India for children… After 5 years, when we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that the whole thing was at best a qualified failure.

The Jester has worked with APF. It should be noted that they did a lot more than just produce software. They looked after computer labs, they did evaluations, they ran exploratory projects. They know what they’re talking about, and being the foundation of an IT magnate, they would probably liked to have seen the computers have impact.

[T]here was practically no impact in a sustained, systemic manner on learning.

[T]he limited numbers of schools with computers have a [sic] very poor uptime […] [A]t best 30%, driven both by poor electricity supply and the inability to fix technical glitches. Let’s not even discuss Internet availability.

[We] find that innumerable people inside and outside the education system think of technology (always meaning ICT) as something between a panacea and “the-most-important-solution”. A number of them are in influential positions, and these misconceived notions can have a significantly detrimental effect on the national effort to improve educational quality.

At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, “why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher”. This perspective is lethal.

In the past few months, we happened to meet education leaders from Finland and from the province of Ontario in Canada—two regions with outstanding school systems. Across two continents, they said the same thing – “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building”.

 If everyone were as brave as APF, we w ouldn’t need William Easterly.

Ideas Matter: Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?

December 3, 2010

On December 2, 2010, there was a panel discussion titled “Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?” in Cambridge, MA, hosted jointly by the Boston Review and the MIT Political Science Department. (The Jester appreciates the platform provided by the Boston Review — thanks to editors-in-chief Josh Cohen and Deb Chasman!) The panelists were Kentaro Toyama, Nicholas Negroponte, Rachel Glennerster, and José Gómez-Márquez, and moderation was handled expertly by Archon Fung. Brief bios of the panelists are all available here:; a video of the event should appear there soon, as well.

There was some drama on stage, but the panelists’ views were nothing new for people who follow this space. So, just a quick summary…

– Toyama: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. In international development, technology is rarely a solution by itself. (Geez, this guy is a human broken record!)

– Negroponte: Laptops transforms education for children. Anyone who can’t see this needs a therapist!

– Glennerster: Look for whatever solutions work in international development, technology or otherwise. Then do randomized control trials (RCTs) of them to verify effectiveness.

– Gómez-Márquez: We need to design technologies and systems so that they will work in a hostile environment.

Overall, the Jester couldn’t have agreed more with Toyama, but there were some things that Toyama didn’t do well. For example, he didn’t clarify that he was talking mostly of ICT up front (although the Jester increasingly believes the amplification thesis applies beyond ICT and beyond international development). He also came  off as anti-technology, or anti-ICT4D, which is not quite true. He’s just pro-foundational-investments-in-human-capacity-that-rarely-require-much-technology.

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez both held extremely reasonable positions about technology, namely that sometimes they can be helpful. The only problem with extremely reasonable positions is that while they are invariably true, they provide no additional insight.

Toyama’s core thesis primarily leads to arguments against (1) the indiscriminate spreading of technology without a full understanding of impact, (2) any hype around technologies potential that ignores the necessary human or institutional requirements for success, and (3) ignoring of opportunity costs when cheaper solutions abound. There is nothing wrong with cost-effective technology being used in the right way to amplify existing positive intent and capacity, as the Jester recommends for ICT4D-ers.

Of these, Point (3) on opportunity costs was discussed on the panel. (Everyone except for Negroponte appeared to agree with (1) and (2).) The Jester fully agrees with Toyama’s point about opportunity costs. When presented with multiple ways to solve similar problems, which should you choose? One slogan often goes, “It’s not either/or, do all of them!” This is an approach that might appeal to the United Nations, where participation and consensus is the goal, but the reality is that funds allocated to international development are always limited. If you “only” have a budget of $100 million for a million students, you can’t both buy them all computers and do meaningful teacher training. You have to choose how to allocate the budget.

That choice often, though not always, comes down to a simple question — Which intervention provides more bang for the buck? Unfortunately, ICT rarely comes in on the cheaper side, particularly in low-labor-cost environments (note to self: Jester, hurry up and get to Myth 9: “Automated is always cheaper and better”). Negroponte seemed excited to reveal that OLPC only costs a dollar a week per child, but as Toyama and Glennerster both responded, there are interventions that cost 100 times less, with known and significant educational benefits, and even a dollar a week is too much for countries that barely spend that much total on education per child. (Actually, the Jester even doubts Negroponte’s dollar a week number — note to self: hurry up and get to Myth 8: “Hardware and software are a one-time cost”!)

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez were both very persuasive in the importance of designing interventions well, so that they work even in hostile environments. Toyama had difficulty responding to this point, although he should have done better considering that he used to make similar remarks himself. Gómez-Márquez, in particular, made an intriguing comment that you could design things so that they work even under adversarial conditions. This sounds fantastic in theory, but in reality, someone somewhere in the system must have the intent to solve the the problem, for any technology to work (this is similar to what computer security people say about computer security). It might be a minister, an NGO leader, a local entrepreneur, a group of mothers, or some combination, but every technology requires positive human capacity behind it to activate.  (In a post-panel conversation, Gómez-Márquez acknowledged this point.) Gómez-Márquez talked about identifying what might be called “champions” in a given environment, and then providing them with the right tools. Toyama would undoubtedly agree with this approach (the Jester agrees, too) — it means that the technology is amplifying the champions’ intent and capacity. ICT4D projects whose stated intent is to identify and amplify champions make perfect sense.

Glennerster brought up the topic of vaccines, which are a theoretical pebble in the Jester’s pointy shoes. Such technologies do pose a partial counterexample to the theory of technology as amplifier, because at the least, they don’t amplify negative intent (unless, the Jester supposes, some of them can turn to poisons when not used as indicated). But, even vaccines are subject to bad institutional capacity, and they are certainly not immune (ha ha — the Jester should be punished for every pun he sheds) to the amplification thesis. In the end, vaccines are regularly and routinely distributed unequally, which is exactly why yellow fever still exists in the developing world, despite the technological existence of reliable vaccines. Disproportionately, it’s poorer countries that continue to have these problems and it’s usually because the vaccine supply chain is not in order.

Of course, none of this says that we shouldn’t develop the technology — the Jester so far hasn’t suggested that PCs or mobile phones should be uninvented. (Not yet, anyway!)

Finally, the Jester came away with new appreciation for Negroponte’s persuasiveness, if not his logic. Although Negroponte lost his cool at times (and perhaps did more to hurt his own cause than to advance it), he does genuinely appear to believe 100% in the power of laptops alone to radically transform children’s education for the better. And possibly as a result, his tone, if not his rational argument, is incredibly seductive. The Jester found himself nodding along hypnotized, while Negroponte compared laptops to vaccines and suggested that nothing that required experimental evaluation was worth doing.

These last points will be addressed in the Jester’s next post. The Jester passed on commenting on Negroponte in a previous post, but it seems necessary.  Negroponte’s salesmanship requires repeat doses of a rational antidote!

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.

Myth 6: Technology counteracts “rich getting richer.”

November 7, 2010

Just in time for Myth 6, Nicholas Kristof, the patron journalist of international development wrote an article about inequality in America. As we all know, inequality is increasing. Kristof does a slick lead in, in which a statistic that sounds remarkably like that of many developing countries turns out to be one for the United States: The richest 1% of Americans make nearly a quarter of the country’s income (while 10% of the  country is unemployed and 14% is in poverty).

Striking, but what does this have to do with the Jester? Well, as he already illustrated in a previous post, the growing inequality in America is co-occuring with its golden age of innovation and technology. As Kristof notes, 80% of the gains in wealth between 1980 and 2005 went to the richest 1%, and that was the same period of time when the Internet, Windows, cell phones, Google, and iPods all went mainstream. Is this what techno-utopians mean when they say that ICT democratizes and that it levels the playing field?

As the Jester is fond (too fond?) of saying, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity. And, in America, there is little or no intent to address inequality , and there is a woefully uneven distribution of capacity. That means there’s an uneven distribution of nutrition, education, capital, social capital, etc. If you then sprinkle an even layer of technology on top, it magnifies the unevenness, and voila! The rich get richer; the powerful, more powerful.

Of course, the sprinkling isn’t even — rich people have more technology, which only worsens the effect. This latter problem is what’s called the “digital divide” and people are always trying to bridge it or close it. In ICT4D, there are constant calls for access: Bytes for all! The Internet for everyone! Cheap SMS for billions! But, leveling the playing field doesn’t solve the underlying problem: There are vast differences between the players. You can level the playing field all you want, but Babe Ruth is still going to hit more homers than the Jester.

Try the following thought experiment: You and an involuntarily poor farmer from the remote village of your choice are both asked to raise as much money as possible for whatever charitable cause you wish. To accomplish, this, you are given free, unfettered access to an e-mail account and an Internet-connected PC (or, if either of you prefer, a mobile phone with a data plan), and only that. Given a fixed amount of time, say, one week, who would be able to raise more money? [The Jester interrupts this program to give you time to think, and to link to a TV sitcom he’s become enamored of: Outsourced, about an American manager who runs a call center in India. And, now, back to our scheduled programming…] Clearly, you would. And why? You’re literate, accustomed to e-mail, able to write convincing messages, embedded in a wealthy social network, capable of organizing people, etc. In short, you have far greater capacity. Since the technology is exactly the same, the cause for the different outcomes lies not in the technology, but in the people. (Incidentally, sociologist Richard Florida does a brisk analysis of how social media is primarily augmenting the rich and educated in America.)

There are only two ways to handle this situation. The first is to apply technology progressively. If you could somehow provide the technology only to the poor and leave the rich without, then conceivably over time, the gap would close. There are problems with this approach, however. Philosophically, we’d then have to restrict the freedom of wealthy people, which the Jester finds difficult to advocate for. In practice, this is impossible — you can’t exactly keep the Internet and mobile phones out of the hands of the wealthy. And, finally, it’s not at all clear that even this would really change things. Imagine if the thought experiment above were conducted with the farmer having e-mail, and your having access only to paper, pen, and the postal service. The Jester still wagers that you’d raise more money.

The second way is to invest dramatically in the capabilities of the poor farmer. Education, “soft skills,” organizational skills, interaction with other social circles, etc. And, if that seems futile because adults don’t learn quickly, then invest in the farmer’s children for the next generation. The point is to direct attention to increasing the capacity of the less capable. The Jester agrees with Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Unfortunately for ICT4D-ers, this way doesn’t really require technology. There are plenty of very cheap things the world can do to improve the state of education, such as deworming. (For those who argue we should then use more technology in education, the Jester would like nothing more than to slap you awake into the real world, but instead recommends tuning in when he confronts the Grand Poobah of that view on a panel. The short response is that good schools can sometimes make positive use of technology, but bad schools inevitably do not. You can’t fix a bad educational system with technology, any more than you can fix a failing business with more PCs!)

Going back to St. Nicholas, the Jester isn’t saying that technology is the primary reason why inequality is increasing in America. It’s unlikely. There are plenty of other mechanisms by which the rich get richer: an accelerating meritocracy, an increasingly efficient capitalism, and better schools for the children of the educated. But wait, those things don’t seem like bad things! That’s, however, only because we include in our idea of “merit” qualities that we really shouldn’t ascribe credit for — a good education, a solid work ethic, healthy ambition. If you went to a bad school in a poor neighborhood, the odds are against you that you’d have emerged with those characteristics. The only way to counteract rich-getting-richer phenomenon is progressive policy. And, that is a problem not of technology, but of political will, i.e., human intent.