Archive for the ‘technology pessimism’ Category

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.)

Tech in the USA

September 23, 2010

There are many different ways to gain intuition into the likelihood that widespread dissemination of technology alone – whatever it is – will not have a dramatic impact on development of the world’s poorer countries. One way is to consider how technology does under ideal conditions, or something close to it. The Jester considers the United States of America.

Below, the Jester’s alter ego has taken a graph from the US Census Bureau, showing the rate of poverty in the United States since 1959 (bottom line), and has overlaid it with the inception dates of several major technologies and technology companies.

The golden age of technology in America?

As you can see, the poverty rate declined in America until the early 1970s, but has effectively held steady since then (and absolute numbers in poverty have increased). Since the 1970s, America also underwent a boom in information and communication technologies. If technology innovation and usage were the key to addressing poverty, then we’d expect that the technology revolution of the last couple of decades would have put some dent in poverty. But, it hasn’t. This fact should cause any non-fool to question, at the least, whether the invention and widespread use of ICTs is really something we can rely on to fight poverty.

Now, if this is the story during the golden age of innovation in the world’s most technologically advanced country, what are we to expect for developing countries, which are typically much worse off in terms of literacy, basic education, and physical and institutional infrastructure, to take advantage of ICTs?

The Jester acknowledges that there are a number of conceptual flaws with this flamboyant demonstration — he’s not a fool for nothing! But, let’s consider exactly what the objections might be…

Objection 1: How do you know that the poverty rate wouldn’t have been even worse, if the US didn’t have all that technology?

Sure, this is possible, but what an implication! Are you saying that without all this incredible technology, the poverty rate would actually have increased? What does that say about America? And, what does it say for other countries and future periods which might not be such vibrant technology generators? Do we always need to innovate so furiously just to stay above water? Do we need to keep buying gadgets so that people don’t go destitute?!

Objection 2: Maybe technology will have more of an effect in poor countries.

Yes, that’s also what people thought about TV as an educational device, tractors for better agriculture, and fancy medical devices for rural healthcare. Technology requires a human substrate of well-intentioned competence to work (so that it can amplify it), but that’s exactly what is often deficient in poor countries, and it’s particularly true for information tools, because they require decent education to manipulate. The human substrate needs work first!

Objection 3: Well, that’s just because Americans haven’t made eliminating poverty a priority.

The Jester couldn’t agree more! Recall his mantra: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. It’s exactly because Americans aren’t really seriously about eliminating poverty, that poverty persists. Technology doesn’t have much positive intent there to amplify. If that intent were ever to turn around, America could probably halve poverty in record time. If the world were really serious about ending poverty, those 5 billion mobile phone accounts would really help! But, the human intent is what that matters, and it’s not currently there. Nor will the technology by itself change intent.

(*) The Jester thanks Omar Wasow for urging him to post the graph above.

The Inventor’s Dilemma and Our Fix-It Faith

June 1, 2010

It seems that plenty of jesters in other domains are also raising the volume in questioning techno-utopian ideology.

A New Yorker article (May 17, 2010, p. 42) talks about MacArthur Fellowship winner Saul Griffith’s realization that “The real problem with eyeglasses in the developing world isn’t making lenses, it’s testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions.”  Sound familiar?

Another New York Times article (May 28, 2010) discusses our society’s hubris in believing that technology can fix all problems, with regard to the oil spill. It quotes David Eyton, BP’s head of research and technology: “[Technology] becomes both an enabler, while at the same time being itself a source of risk.” Andrew Khout, president of the Pew Resaerch Center for the People and the Press, says “American have a lot of faith that over the long run technology will solve everything.” The article ends with a note about air passengers frustrated by the inability for volcanic ash delays. Khout says, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.'” Indeed! How could it be possible that our technology can’t solve a problem caused by volcano?!

(The Jester, incidentally, was also caught in the Netherlands when the volcano struck and decided to take advantage of train and bus to reach Barcelona, and from there to fly home. The Jester is thus thankful for land-based transport technologies. He fears an all-too-soon need to return to animal-based transport technologies.)

“Myth of Scale” at TEDxTokyo

May 18, 2010

Here’s a man after my own heart! And, with striking good looks that rival the Jester’s…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxutDM2r534 

The talk is about the “myth of scale” – the misguided notion that scaling technological solutions can ever solve complex social problems.

Myth 1: ICTs will save the world.

March 28, 2010

The Jester likes to ask questions. Here are three multiple-choice questions, just for fun. But first, read the following passage:

“…X has never been used to its full capacity in support of economic development. It may be financially impossible to use it in this way. But still the possibility is tantalizing: What is the full power and vividness if X teaching were to be used to help the schools develop a country’s new educational pattern? What if the full persuasive and instructional power of X were to be used in support of community development and the modernization of farming? Where would the break-even point come? Where would the saving in rate of change catch up with the increased cost?”

Question 1: In the passage, “X” refers to which of the following?
   a) Television
   b) Personal computer
   c) Mobile phone
   d) None of the above

Question 2: This passage was written in what year?
   a) 1964
   b) 1984
   c) 2004
   d) None of the above

Question 3: Since this excerpt was published, X has accomplished which of the following?
   a) Taught millions of children how to read
   b) Made millions of farmers richer
   c) Paid for itself many times over in value to global development
   d) None of the above

The correct answers are at the bottom (no peeking before you commit to your answers!). Give yourself a 100% and an A+, if you got all three correct! Maybe you’d like to guest-write the next post for the Jester. Give yourself a passing grade as long as your response to Question 3 was correct – you can go home. If your response to Question 3 was incorrect, you fail, and you are required to remain for detention and write out, “I will not believe that technology on its own saves the world,” a hundred times!

The author of the excerpt was Wilbur Schramm, widely considered to be the father of communication studies, and co-founder of the Department of Communication at Stanford University. The book from which I drew this excerpt is titled Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries [i], and it is an insightful look at the exuberant hopes for a technology and its potential to impact global development.

Nearly 50 years later, we can say that those hopes have not been fulfilled. Certainly, television has had some minor successes: See, for example, Rob Jensen’s nice paper on rural women appearing to become more empowered through the presence of TV [ii]; Brij Kothari’s Same-Language Subtitling, in which subtitling movies and music videos in the recorded language appears to increase reading fluency among semi-literate viewers [iii]; or the Sabido methodology for airing soap operas with a pro-social message as a way to enhance healthcare outcomes [iv]. But, on the whole, television has not transformed education, agriculture, or poverty, even among those who own TVs and are comfortably within broadcast zones. Television penetration in India, for example, is above 50% of households, with quite a few of those televisions owned by villagers in remote, rural areas or residents of urban slums. Many more people actually watch television on a regular basis, either at neighbors’ homes or in petty shops and tea stalls. Yet, all it takes is a visit to a poor household with a TV to realize that the boob-tube is aptly nicknamed: It is not making anyone dramatically better off. Certainly, it hasn’t transformed education the way people once thought it might.

The problem isn’t TV. It’s what we do with it. And what we do with it has nothing to do with technology; it has to do with us… human beings. Both, those human beings in power and what they choose to stream on the airwaves, and those who human beings who consume, and what and how they elect to watch.

(Some might argue that even if television hasn’t made anyone materially well-off, maybe it’s made people happier in their poverty by entertaining them. Maybe, but those people should then consider the recent history of Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness: They were poor and happy until the spread of TV showed them what a wealthier life looked like; they stayed poor, but became less happy. And, in any case, are we sure that a world of poor, mindless, TV-watching zombies is better than a world of poor people working themselves out of their plight?)

More recently, we have an example of the PC, particularly in the form known as the telecenter. “Telecenters are those entities which exist primarily to provide the general public access to computing and/or the Internet with the explicit intent to serve a developmental purpose” [v]. I plan later to write a post on the rise and fall of the telecenter (actually, I might just focus on the fall), but for now, suffice it to say that telecenters repeatedly fail to sustain themselves or to demonstrate cost-effective impact. Araba Sey, a researcher at the University of Washington, recently wrote a review of the research literature on telecenters. She says: “Research conclusions generally still speak to the potential rather than actual impact of public access to ICTs [read: telecenters and libraries with PCs]. Aside from the fact that impacts are difficult to measure and attribute, this could be linked to the tendency for most studies to find that public access is underperforming. Despite overall dissatisfaction with the performance of public access ICTs, the perception that they are an important means of bridging digital gaps remains strong” [vi]. We learn from this (1) that telecenters are underperforming, (2) that there is dissatisfaction with telecenters, and (3) that Ms. Sey might consider a career as a professional diplomat.

The failure of telecenters stands in stark contrast to the initial hype, starting less than a decade ago. For example…

“It is hoped that the per capita rural GDP of India will double from its current figure of $200 to $400… [using the rural telecenter as…] a virtual university, training centre, banking outlet, trading outlet, agriculture support centre and much more.” [vii]

Double… because of a computer! I wish my income doubled when I signed up for the Internet. Incidentally, these early telecenter promoters could do a great service to the world by publishing honest, reflective pieces about whether they achieved their objectives, and if not, why not. (There’s no shame in telling the story of a possible hope that didn’t work out. In 2000, nobody knew whether telecenters would work, so the experiment was worth trying. But, today, we’ve learned some things. Not telling the story is to condemn another generation to invest in projects that don’t work.)

At this point, sharp readers will be asking the question, “What other technologies won’t live up to their promise in development?” And, the obvious answer is… the mobile phone!

Now, it would be an unjustified extrapolation, if based on several technologies that failed to live up to their expectations, we jumped to the conclusion that all technologies must be similarly doomed. But, the Jester is not jumping. He’s walking step by step from the trend to the conclusion. The steps are simple, and I’ll flesh them out in ensuing articles: Technology is a multiplier of human intent and competence. Poverty is a caused by a deficiency in positive human intent or capacity. If you take zero or a negative value and multiply it, you don’t get a positive number.

I’m by no means the first to make such a statement about technology. For example, in an area relevant to ICT4D, Tichenor et al., discuss the knowledge gap hypothesis. They note that “as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease” [viii]. That is, when you introduce a technology, there’s a tendency for the rich to get richer.

Alternatively, guns don’t kill people – people kill people! Or, to put it in terms of ICT4D, technology doesn’t develop people – people develop people! The Jester is no rifle-toting militia type, but in this case, the rifle-toters are right. In either case, the underlying problem is human and social, and technology is just an amplifier. This is a point that the Jester will return to over and over.

Luckily, even if you don’t believe me, the world is conducting the largest experiment ever in ICT4D. As of this writing, there are more than 4.6 billion active mobile phone accounts in the world [ix] – more than the total population of adults over the age of 20. More people own a phone now than own televisions or radios, and the trend is only continuing with a growth rate of tens of millions of new accounts per month. If mobile phones really have the power to transform development of the extreme poor, we should see a surge in development impact attributable to the phone over the next few years.

My bet, though, is that even in 2020, 10 years after this writing, the poor – even the mobile-owning, Internet-surfing, technology-savvy poor – will still be with us. Mobile phone owners won’t be much better off than they were before, and owning a mobile phone, however fancy and Internet-enabled, won’t do squat for helping a person out of poverty, illness, ignorance, or misery. Sure, we’ll hear a heart-warming story of a poor basket weaver climbing out of poverty because of the dial-a-job-mobile-service-for-migrant-laborers, but that will be a handful of cases. Meanwhile, we’ll also see the heart-wrenching story of the parents who forewent food for their children to feed their phones (see Kathleen Diga’s PhD thesis for early evidence in Uganda [x]). Technology will help some and hurt some, and in the end, it’ll all come out a wash.

Because technology is multiplicative, not additive.

Answer to multiple choice questions: Q1 – (a), Q2 – (a), and Q3 – (d).


[i] Schramm, W. (1964) Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Pp. 231.

[ii] Jensen, R. and E. Oster. (2009) The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(3):1057-1094.

[iii] Kothari, B., J. Takeda, A. Joshi, and A. Pande. (2002) Same language subtitling: a butterfly for literacy? Int’l Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(1):55-66. http://www.planetread.org/pdf/Journal%20of%20education.pdf, retrieved March 28, 2010.

[iv] Population Media Center. (n.d.) Sabido methodology – background. http://www.populationmedia.org/what/sabido-method/, retrieved March 28, 2010.

[v] Toyama, K. & K. Keniston. (2008) Telecentre Debates. In Telecentre Magazine. March, 2008. http://telecentremagazine.net/articles/article-details.asp?Title=Telecentre-debates&articleid=72&typ=Telecentre Debates

[vi] Sey, A. (2008). Public Access to ICTs: A Review of the Literature. Research Working Paper Series. Center for Information & Society, University of Washington. http://www.cis.washington.edu/depository/publications/CIS-WorkingPaperNo6.pdf

[vii] Jhunjhunwala, A., A. Ramachandran, A. Bandyopadhyay. (2004) n-Logue: the story of a rural service provider in India. Journal of Community Informatics 1(1): 30-38. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/APCITY/UNPAN023008.pdf

[viii] Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A., & Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media and the differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 158-70.

[ix] International Telecommunications Union. (2010) Measuring the Information Society 2010. International Telecommunications Union. http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/2010/Material/MIS_2010_Summary_E.pdf, retrieved March 28, 2010.

[x] Diga, K. (2007) Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda. Masters Thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. http://ecologize.org/Documents/Diga_2007.pdf, retrieved March 28, 2010. I first read of this in Richard Heeks’s blog, which contains other examples: Heeks, R. (2008) Mobiles for Impoverishment. December 27, 2008. http://ict4dblog.wordpress.com/2008/12/27/mobiles-for-impoverishment/, retrieved March 28, 2010.