Archive for the ‘Q&A with the Jester’ Category Posts and Ripostes

September 2, 2013

Over at the TIER mailing list, the Jester’s last post was part of a swarm of fast-flying posts and ripostes about Now that the outbreak appears to have died down, it seems a good time for a post-mortem.

The Jester’s main point was that made almost no effort to explain how the indiscriminate spread of the Internet everywhere was a good thing. (Zuckerberg’s whitepaper alludes only to that bastion of expert, unbiased knowledge known as a McKinsey report.) In this, it was a striking step back even from the days of telecenters, whose proponents made direct attempts to aid agriculture and healthcare. Zuckerberg’s endlessly repeated premise is that the Internet is so important that he and his merry band of hardware companies will spread it farther and wider for the sake of “driving humanity forward.”

The Jester then implied that’s rhetoric was based in part on a misguided consumerist concept that deserves to be questioned much more often: That “giving people what they want” is necessarily a good thing; that’s what the machine masters of the Matrix do. So should we praise Zuckerberg for seeking to expand his attention-sucking, productivity-reducing machine across the planet? Quoth the Jester, nevermore.

“Kurtis” graciously rose to his newly appointed role as Fool for the Day to argue that he had personally seen positive uses of Facebook in Papua New Guinea and believes that Facebook is good overall. (The full conversation on mailing list is available here.)

Facebook is filling some fundamental communication need for people. It really is. The people in Papua aren’t playing farmville (though they might if they had bandwidth), they’re communicating over a closed facebook group representing the teachers. Media is shared on that page, sorta like a mailing list (as they don’t have emails). They also connect to their friends and family in other communities and abroad, as many teachers are shipped in. I am told it is a *critical* service; teachers, doctors and others would leave the community if they were not able to talk with spouses on the central islands.


I would wager though, that if you asked teachers, they’d say internet access makes their jobs easier. That’s good enough for me, and probably a net positive overall too.

The Jester concedes that this is a valid perspective – it’s not one that the Jester agrees with, but neither can the Jester prove otherwise. We will probably never have indisputable objective evidence about Facebook’s overall social value, but we probably can agree that there is disagreement. In fact, several people from developing countries (though all well-educated and with the leisure time to monitor ICT4D chit-chat), chimed in with conflicting views.

Assane (from West Africa?) expressed dissatisfaction:

I feel very frustrated when I enter to those internet cafe’s (in Senegal where I am from) and see all those young kids spending more than 2 hours with the “machine” using facebook, visiting p*** sites, watching photos etc…

The problem is not to bring Internet to the people, the problem is what they are going to do with it to have a better quality of life. I would rather vote for a program (with a sustainability plan) to help school kids learn how to “usefully” use the Internet!

Pablo (from the non-rural part of a developing country) focused on insufficient content and cost-benefit:

I think FB does not care only on rural and communications only, so it is fair to address the ‘content’ question (i.e. what will be done with this infrastructure?) and also the urban problems associated with the so desired ‘development’.  In other words assess the cost-benefit of this program in broader terms.

Donald from Indonesia argued that Facebook was an important force in building up the Internet:

Facebook (moral, corporate, credit aside) has been an enormous force of change in spreading internet (and broadband, with the help of youtube)…

Let’s just credit facebook for its ability to bring about the mobile internet revolution in indonesia and (hopefully) continue to drive the buildup of the data infrastructure. And let others build more socially responsible / beneficial applications of it.

“Ibrahim” (from Pakistan?):

Every solution requires variable amounts of Multi-directional information flow and i guess there is no other silver bullet. Putting your knowledge to test with the existing knowledge (www) spurs innovation which in effect promises better solutions to the daunting challenges faced by humanity. In my opinion connectivity is one of the most effective, if not the only, solution to these problems.

Having said that, no one denies that every giant has its primary profitability motives but this does not necessarily implies that these motives can’t coincide with the greater good of the people.

Two people struck a conciliatory tone. Keshav from India emphasizes the importance of having learn from the past:

Even the best-intentioned action, when carried out without adequate care, can lead to indifferent or negative results. We need to ensure that this initiative learns from the successes of the past.. and avoids making the same mistakes as many others.

And “Paul” (who said only that he was from…, in a private e-mail suggested an alternate analogy:

facebook is more like mcdonalds. it’s great that it exists because it fills a real human need more cheaply and conveniently than almost any other option. but it’s addictive, the side effects of overuse are not very attractive, and the vendor has an incentive to get you in there as often as they can.

in america nobody needs to starve to death because there are dollar meals. but fast food basically creates a lot of fat people. fast food is widely considered to be an industry that needs reform, not promotion as a social good.

The Jester agrees that this is a far superior analogy. However, the same argument can be made with just about any product or service with debatable merit. It’s not clear, for example, that it would be praiseworthy to make unconditional cash transfers universal, for example, even though there will certainly be cases of positive use, and almost everyone would say they benefited?

So, to summarize, anti-indiscriminate-Facebook-spreading sentiments focus on (1) its negative effects (many of which the Jester believes the company actively encourages); and (2) other factors which are necessary to make Facebook a positive force.

Pro-Facebook arguments focus on (1) the existence of positive uses of Facebook (which the Jester does not deny); and (2) the importance of universal infrastructure even before it is clear what to do with it. (2) is an interesting perspective, and it deserves to be taken seriously, but the case against it is complex. For now, the Jester will summarize and leave the discussion for another time. The two issues are whether the Internet/Facebook is among the primary aspirations of the people of a country as a whole, or just that of a tech-excited elite; and, whether it makes sense to focus on universal Internet first simply because it can do good things, even if the foundations for its positive use are not in place. As the Jester’s alter ego has written elsewhere, “can” is not “is.”

To put this long post out of its misery, the Jester will answer a question raised by Ibrahim, who is appointed Fool for the Day for his happy innocence within the ICT bubble…

[The Jester says that] “there are many, many other more morally credit-worthy ways than the indiscriminate spreading of [Facebook.]” Jester can you please enlighten us with some?

Again, there are many possibilities. But if the Jester had gazillions of dollars, he would build on his currently meager support for favorite efforts like…

  • Shanti Bhavan, an Indian boarding school that takes children of very poor dalit families and nurtures them into smart, capable, well-adjusted, socially aware young adults. (The last time the Jester visited, the school had no Internet, but there was a computer lab for teaching a computer class. The first batch of graduates are now working as accountants, software engineers, and teachers at organizations like Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, and the Indian Army.)
  • Ashesi University, Ghana’s first private liberal arts college whose founder has a clear vision for how to impact Africa: Patrick Awuah is a former Microsoft employee who mercifully decided not to use his technical skills to build a gadget to save the world, but instead to do what Silicon Valley companies really don’t like doing: investing in people’s education.
  • PRADAN, a north Indian NGO that helps rural communities form effective self-help groups and guides them to realize their livelihood-related aspirations.

And, for ICT lovers…

  • Digital Green, an international non-profit that uses digital tools and unique organizational processes to amplify the impact of organizations like PRADAN. The Jester previously wrote about DG.

The Jester thanks the court for an interesting conversation! 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:]

Kooks and MOOCs

April 5, 2013

[The kind folks at Educational Technology Debate have posted a more sober, unjesterly version of this article.]

The other day, someone the Jester will call “Shabnam” mailed him the following question: Do you have any thoughts, for or against MOOCs? Thank you, Shabnam, for waking the Jester from a long slumber. As he shakes off cobwebs, the Jester can almost hear the squeaking of his creaky bones.

MOOCs – massively open online courses are all the rage these days! If it’s not MIT and Harvard deigning to grace the world with EdX, it’s Stanford celebrity professors exposing themselves on Udacity. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and others are going crazy over the Khan Academy. Perhaps most bizarre is the story of University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, being ousted and then invited back within a couple of weeks. It seems some trustees were impatient with the pace at which she was initiating MOOC-ish offerings at the university.

Before the Jester jests about the impact of MOOCs, it will help to categorize MOOCs into three categories. The first type of MOOC is the MOOC as educational material. The Jester dubs them MOOC’EMs. These are MOOCs that consist almost solely of educational content placed online. They make no serious attempt to take attendance, administer proctored tests, provide call-in numbers for human tutors, give certified grades, or otherwise do anything that goes beyond providing just the educational material. (By “serious attempt,” the Jester does not mean issuing of printable certificates upon clicking the “Finish” button.) The content may be fancy – interactive simulations, educational games, adaptive problem sets, videos of uproariously entertaining professors giving lectures, etc. – but if no attempt is made to do anything other than provide this educational content, it is a MOOC’EM. One characteristic of the MOOC’EM is that proponents like to highlight how many gazillions of users have enrolled for the courses, while in fact, the actual number of people who have actually completed a course can be counted on one thumb. (By “completed,” the Jester does mean having randomly clicked on all the multiple-choice tests, the way he once passed an online driver’s education course.)

The second type of MOOC is the MOOC+ (pronounced MOOC-plus). As cleverly implied by the name, the MOOC+ is a MOOC’EM plus some elements. Those elements attempt to provide some aspects of the regular school experience beyond mere educational content. There may be real-time online chat with tutors. There may be some way to take proctored exams. There may be an office that issues certified transcripts of students who have taken courses. In any case, MOOC+s are an attempt to be more like a real school, with the content delivered as a MOOC, but other components, such as grading, or help from a real person (heaven forbid!), provided in a way that requires human administration. MOOC+s vary greatly in exactly what they offer, but most like to emphasize that they do more than just offer content online. They know that MOOC’EMs aren’t enough, so they’ll talk about the warm, fuzzy side of their work, such as how they have paid proctors remotely view recorded videos of online test takers to make sure they aren’t cheating. (The Jester is not making this up!)

The third type of MOOC is not really a MOOC at all. It is an OC – online course. These are real courses that are organized, taught, graded, and certified by real educators, but which just happen to use online channels to engage with students. They include regular distance-learning courses, and are rarely either “massive” or “open” in the sense that the material is offered free to the entire galaxy. One way to tell that a MOOC is an OC is that it will usually charge a hefty fee for a class – after all, someone has to pay for the teachers, the graders, the administrators, and the infrastructure.

The brilliance of the Jester’s classification into MOOC’EMs, MOOC+s, and OCs is that it simplifies the analysis. To wit, MOOC’EMs are useless; OCs are as good as the institution behind them; and MOOC+s will tend over time to become MOOC’EMs or OCs.

As always, it helps to keep in mind the Jester’s mantra: technology amplifies human intent and capacity. In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.

MOOC’EMs will certainly not solve any real problems in education. Why not? Because real problems in education require serious human effort, and MOOC’EMs, by definition, do not provide that. MOOC’EMs are just collections of educational material sitting online, and educational material sitting online is no better than educational material sitting in a textbook. As the Jester has implied in other guises, the real problems of education are not problems of educational content, but of student motivation. And student motivation is a problem that content alone, however entertaining and gamified cannot easily solve. (The Jester promises a future post on games and how they won’t save the world, either.)

Wait, Mr. Jester, what about that rare student who has a lot of self-motivation? Yes, it’s true that the rare student who has the curious combination of…

  • good access to the Internet, but not access to good textbooks,
  • good Internet skills, but an inability to find good educational content online apart from MOOCs, and
  • good motivation, but no motivation to scavenge the plentiful educational content already available on the Internet in non-MOOC form,

might very well benefit from MOOCs. But, that student is so rare that she (the Jester has verified that she is a she) can also be counted on one thumb.

At the other end, there are OCs. According to the Jester’s Law of Amplification, an OC amplifies the pedagogical intent and capacity of the institution running it. And, there is always an institution running an OC, because OCs are real schools first, online gimmicks second. OCs will certainly allow schools to reach a larger set of students, and the clever bits of technology used to run them are likely to lower some costs so that someone in the system will benefit from greater revenue or lower prices. Cost is the OC’s best selling point, but the cost reduction will be scalar – each student will cost some non-trivial amount that will likely not shrink below an order of magnitude of regular tuition.

Also, OCs will never quite be as good as the real thing. At physical schools, warm bodies can engage in lively face-to-face discussion; feel the responsibility to attendance and assignments that physical classes impose; get a boost from the camaraderie of shared struggle; create long-lasting friendships that become valuable social networks; etc. As a result, there will always be a place for the physical school – and here, the Jester will predict that however popular MOOCs become, and however many experiments there may be to replace real schools with MOOCs, physical schools will not only survive, they will (continue to) prevail. At the very least, the world’s elites will always pay good money to hoard the best social capital for themselves.

And then there are MOOC+s. MOOC+s are where the most interesting action will be, but they are inherently unstable. They will tend to slide down to MOOC’EMs or climb up to OCs over time. MOOC+s will have to charge someone for the plus that they provide. And whomever gets stuck with the bill will demand the two critical parts of formal education which are, of course, real learning by students and certifiable sorting of students. So over the long run, MOOC+s will either get paid to deliver the full package, or forego pay and the plus components that bump them above MOOC’EMs. (Half-clever readers will imagine that ad revenue is a viable possibility; yes, and let’s also poster our physical classrooms with junk food ads to generate revenue for public schools.)

The best test of MOOCs (or of any educational concept, for that matter) is to see where their strongest proponents send their children. The Jester wagers that anyone making good income off of MOOCs will send their own kids to the best physical school they can afford (or otherwise ensure that qualified adults are deeply involved). At best, MOOCs will serve as a supplement.

Ultimately, the Jester expects that MOOCs will come and mostly go, like television-for-education came and mostly went. In a few years, there will be some other techno-fad driving today’s MOOC fans into a tizzy. Meanwhile, the world of the future might have a few more people learning online, but very quickly a new equilibrium will be reached, and things won’t be all that different from today: students from underprivileged backgrounds will continue to lose the educational race; parents with means will ensure the best (non-MOOC) education for their kids; and most students won’t learn that much more or less than they learn today.

…unless, of course, we make the hard social and political decisions to pay for excellent adult guidance in education for everyone, by which the Jester does NOT mean buying every charter-school student a laptop loaded with Khan Academy videos and educational video games.

My Internet, Right or Wrong

June 8, 2011

The stars have aligned for the Jester, who is fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and U.N. Special Rapporteur, Frank William La Rue, in affirming the need for the Internet to be a human right. (Thanks to @jeffswin and @fortuny for bringing the Pakistani and U.N. news to the Jester’s attention. The Jester chuckled at @fortuny’s triumphant tone, and appreciated @random_musings’s wry remark about the U.N. ignoring the Jester. The Jester demands that his country be recognized by the United Nations!)

In light of both grassroots and grass-tops support for the Internet as a human right, it might seem all too foolish for the Jester to rant against the idea. Nevertheless, ranting is the Jester’s favorite pastime. If only some queendom would actually pay him for it!

The Jester has already posted his arguments against human-right-ism of ICT. So, he will focus on rebutting rebuttals.

Fool-for-the-Day Jaume Fortuny begins, “Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people,” and continues with several such platitudes. The Jester is certainly not against social harmony, personal development, or dignity in the lives of people, and actively believes that these things should be worked on very directly.

The real question is not whether these things are important, but how best to achieve them. ICT, alas, is simply not even a partial cure for challenging social problems. Technology amplifies human intent and capacity. Consider social harmony: if people want to fight rather than to reconcile, then the Internet only makes the fighting more intense. Witness the phenomenon of cyber-balkanization in the United States, for example, where conservatives and liberals each have their vocal representatives and blogs, and only scream more loudly at each other. Just a quarter of a century ago, it was common for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate on legislation. Today, with the miracle of the Internet, politicians are even more beholden to their constituents, and constituents isolate themselves in parallel Internet universes that never intersect. Is that ICT-enabled social harmony?

Mr. Fortuny is on firmer ground when he suggests that developing countries might want to learn from the Finnish capacity for innovation. The Jester agrees, but capacity for innovation and use of technology are two different things. It’s relatively easy to drive a car; it’s much harder to engineer one (and then to profit from it). Not understanding that difference is at the heart of much ICT confusion.

FftD Tony Roberts asks, “In a world where oppressed groups with the volition and potential ability to overturn dictators and challenge injustice, chose the internet, or other ICTs as the most efficacious tools in a stage of their struggle, should we deny them the right?”

The Jester has two responses to this question: First, Mr. Roberts may have misunderstood the nature of a declared “human right” as the Jester was critiquing it. The Jester never said that anyone should be actively denied the use of the Internet. Though it may come as a surprise to readers, the Jester doesn’t go around sabotaging telecenters as a side hobby!

The question is whether the Internet must be actively made available to everyone, which is the implication of something being a human right. There are many things that are desirable, but which cannot practically be provided for all, and are not absolutely critical to dignified human life. For example, if Twitter ever becomes necessary for dignified human life, the Jester will likely take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix.

Note that the United Nations has not issued a declaration of the human right to gasoline-powered vehicles, even though it could be argued that physical mobility is an even more fundamental need than the ability to watch YouTube. Despite the immense utility of transport, human beings can, amazingly, live decent lives without automobiles (unlike food, water, air, shelter, or basic healthcare), and it would likely burst  developing country budgets to provide transport to every citizen.

A second interpretation of Mr. Roberts question might be that for the very sake of fighting for human rights, shouldn’t we make the Internet a human right? This point of view is particularly relevant given the current uprisings in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is also very circular. It falls into the category of the most common response that the Jester receives: “If X, not ICT, is what’s important in development, then how about using ICT for X?”

If the Jester had a dime for every time someone asked him that, he would simply fund a T1 line for everyone on the planet, just so that we could all move on to the real challenges. Of course, it would be nice if freedom fighters everywhere (the good ones, anyway) could have access to the Internet so that they could communicate with each other and the world, while their evil oppressors are stuck with carrier pigeons. Maybe if declaring the Internet a human right got us one inch closer to that possibility, we ought to do it. FftD Frank La Rue in his report writes, U.N.“ Special Rapporteur calls upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” (The Jester would like to know, where did they come up with his fancy title, and can he have one like it, too? Perhaps, Special Royal Gluteal Ache to the U.N.)

But the reality is that any dictator willing to shut down or censor the Internet is already engaged in violating other more important human rights, such as the right not to be shot in the head or tortured by secret police. Mr. La Rue filed his report on May 16, a couple of months after the Syrian uprisings began.

The Jester likes to imagine President Bashar al-Assad having the following moral quandary: “In order to stay in power, I’ve killed a thousand of my fellow citizens, detained tens of thousands, and even had one 13-year-old tortured and killed. But, the U.N. says the Internet is a human right. Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t shut off the Internet. Hmm, what to do…?”

On June 3, al-Assad reportedly shut down much of the Syrian Internet.

The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

May 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Hacks of Partial Kindness

May 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schadenfreude for Google

January 31, 2011

The New York Times published an article titled “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy” (the Jester thanks Bill Thies for forwarding). The Schadenfreude in the title permeates the entire article, and the Jester will join in the Freude. Not so much because an entity with deep pockets failed to do something good for the world (that would only merit Traurigkeit), but because that entity started it all with so much hubris… perhaps the greatest sin of international development. Larry Page wanted to “eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact,” and to somehow do it with only 1% of its profits.  

The Jester Googles just like anyone else, and has few doubts about the company’s smarts as a technology company. The Jester’s previous employer viewed Google as a competitor, and so he had reason to keep an eye on Google’s attempts to engage the poorer parts of the developing world.

The Jesterial conclusion is that Google’s strength as a Silicon Valley juggernaut is exactly its weakness in the developing world, and this is a lesson not just for Google, but for other technology companies. Google has a tendency to see everything as a technology problem. Lawrence Simon, a Brandeis professor who is quoted in the NYT article, puts it perfectly: “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.” Google, however, persists in the illusion: The title on reads, “Technology-Driven Philanthropy.”

Anyone (that may include the reader) who thinks the differences between the developed and developing world can be solved through engineering is overlooking a very obvious flaw with that thesis: The world already has all of the technology it needs for the developed part of it to be developed. The problem isn’t that poor people need culturally appropriate climate control systems. The problem is that the ability to acquire, produce, support, and capitalize on technology is unequally distributed in the world. It’s not a technological challenge, any more than the uneven distribution of gold in the world is an alchemy challenge. (And, the Jester hasn’t even mentioned physical and infrastructural problems, which are decidedly not challenges of bits.)

The corollary of Google’s techno-fetishism is that the company abhors paying for non-creative-class human labor. Google has succeeded in the developed world largely by hyper-automation, by removing or avoiding human labor as much as possible. It all started with Page Rank, which brilliantly recognized that people’s ideas of webpage importance were already embedded in the hyperlink structure of the web, and that that knowledge could be automatically crawled and analyzed. This inclination also explains Google’s beta-itis, where products are left in trial state for centuries. What better way to keep customer service costs low? Even when it does have to pay humans, like the ones who monitor illegitimate content on YouTube, it does so with shame and secrecy.

In the developing world, though, this tendency is the exact opposite of what is required. Google’s attempts to win more eyeballs in poor rural areas, for example, consistently try to bypass intermediary human beings in the communication chain, whether it is delivering health information by SMS in Uganda or setting up rural announcement boards in India. But, as readers of the Jester know, information isn’t the bottleneck! (As proof of that thesis, note that Google’s one attempt to work with live human intermediaries was a telecenter project. If the world’s supposedly smartest company can’t be bothered to learn from the vast critical literature on telecenters, then what chance does an undereducated wage worker have with information dribbling in over SMS?)

Even where information is immediately helpful, it still requires human mediators in the “last mile” who can establish trust relationships, work the human-computer interface, manage cash if necessary, and possibly even provide a little education. That would mean hiring human labor, though, and Google doesn’t want that line item. (Meanwhile, a clever service called “Just Dial” in India uses a variation of Google’s revenue-sharing business model, but over voice calls and with a human-operated call center. Just Dial has turned it into a useful, lucrative business.)

As a result of its developed-world attitude to solving developing-world problems, Google has taken to offering what the Jester calls “thin technology” in the vain hope that just putting good software in the cloud will transform the developing world. Thin technology is technology that isn’t thickly integrated into a working institution. It’s mobile search without trained healthcare workers who can interpret medical information for undereducated patients. It’s Google apps for schools without any attempt to support teachers, administrators, or students. It’s crisis response tools without crisis response teams. To the extent that thin technology is for a world that uses Google and Gmail, some of it might be useful. But, that’s not the vast majority of the developing world.

So, what should Google, or any technology company, do? Strategically, here are the Jester’s recommendations:

  • Ringfence resources, so that the company’s primary business considerations don’t influence what is done. Specify the budget up front, then don’t touch.
  • Allow for a separate goal and strategy. In another technology company the Jester is intimately familiar with, one DotOrg-like group couldn’t decide whether they were philanthropy or business or PR or incubator. Pulled among different objectives, they had difficulty achieving any of them, and the group folded.
  • Disregard mumbo-jumbo about fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid or eradicating poverty through profits. If revenue is the goal, don’t bother with the poor world. Even if revenue flowed in, it will be by profiting from poor people. Is that the real intent? (For more, see the Jester’s post on the BOP.)
  • Emphasize impact over scale. Scaling something with impact makes sense, but shooting for scale before impact is confirmed is pointless, and possibly evil in development, where resources are scarce.
  • If any of the above don’t appeal, stay out of the game. Match employee donations, sure, but don’t pretend to do good while “increasing shareholder value.”

Next, more tactically…

  • Recognize that a technology company’s biggest asset isn’t its technology. It’s its people. What the world needs is more people nurturing, and less technology to solve their problems. Send out engineers to train engineers, managers to mentor managers. Etc.

The Jester doesn’t believe that providing technology solutions is effective in long-term development. In the end, it’s just another kind of charity — instead of giving money, it’s giving technology. However, the Jester is fully aware that technologists desperately want to prove their ingenuity. (Why they aren’t excited about mentoring others to be brilliant is beyond the Jester.) If this is the case…

  • Find organizations that are already effective. (Note here that “well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Any fool can have good PR.) Partner with them in the full, messy sense of the word. Thoroughly understand what they do and see whether anything can be done to contribute to their goals. Technology amplifies existing intent and capacity.
  • Set up (pro-bono?) consulting services for any tools built. Free software is useless to most non-profit organizations unless it comes with training, engineering, and support.

Not a lot to excite a profit-maximizing CEO, alas, but any CEO with real intent in philanthropy should consider pulling a Bill Gates: drop the technology job and move to philanthropy full-time.

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.


July 12, 2010

A two-and-a-half week trip to India was very productive for the Jester. He gave talks at an ICT4D summer school, spent quality time with friends and NGOs, and consumed six months’ worth of genuine Indian food, to make up for the six months since he was last there.

During this time, and in the synchronicitous ways of the world, the Jester encountered many groups of people who were tremendously excited about ICT4D. The summer school was attended by 70-odd students and would-be ICT4D-ers all eager to learn about ICT4D. And, many of the NGOs the Jester visited were beginning or continuing experiments with ICT4D. Although it was rumored that the Jester’s musings on “10 Myths of ICT4D” convinced one or two souls in the summer-school audience to reconsider ICT4D altogether, most seemed invigorated, perhaps in the manner of reckless, young, race-car drivers who taste adrenaline at the sight of crash and burn.

Their excitement was captured best by an e-mail the Jester received. In a strange juxtaposition of technological irony and global serendipity, the message was received while he was in India, but it came from America, and it was written by an Indian. The subject line announced, “Request for Guidance!” In it, the author (let us call him “Abhishek”) says… “During my final year at [university], I started to ask myself the question ‘What is the purpose/ultimate goal of my life?’ After a lot of thought process I came up with an answer like ‘do work which impacts the lives of millions in the poor communities’. What I am now trying to figure out is the suitable path through [which] I can contribute most effectively to these developing communities.” Earnestness like this, you can’t buy at a chai stall!

It turns out that Abhishek has recently joined a US technology company, but he feels that he can best achieve his purpose in life through ICT4D. Although there are some kinds of puffing-up the Jester enjoys deflating, he finds no joy in mocking sincere seekers. (Not much joy, anyway.) Too, it seems wrong to shut the gate on those who walk the path the Jester trod not too long ago. After all, as a great king of jesters once said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” What then, does the Jester say, to the excited ICT4D newbie?

Jump in!!! And, jump into direct experience, not piles of books, papers, and other second-hand accounts. The most important thing, if one is interested in impacting other people’s lives, is to become intimately familiar with what their lives are really like. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a million. Whatever it is, the Jester encourages any way to actually get involved with work that requires very close contact with the people one hopes to impact. This could be done in a number of ways, through volunteering, internships, jobs, etc. Many such opportunities are often posted on online websites (e.g.,, as well as mailing lists (e.g., the TIER mailing list: ), and a good fraction seek people with technical skills. The important thing is to sign up for an opportunity that involves significant engagement with poor communities – the more time with them, the better; don’t take a job that only involves coding in an air-conditioned office, especially if it’s in a rich city in the developed world. Then, once in the job (or internship or volunteer opportunity), keep volunteering for work that requires working with relevant groups. Find out as much as possible through questions, observation, living with them, etc. Do not complain to the Jester about language differences, cultural barriers, inconvenient weather, or guerillas brandishing guns. (Hmm, perhaps the latter are a valid reason for concern.) Where there’s a will, there’s a way. ICT4D intervention is a good entry point to development for those with technical ability. It can be used as a way to get an understanding for real development issues.

Meanwhile, the Jester recommends reading as much as possible about international development. Books, websites, papers, etc. Reading is valuable not so much because it describes what development really is (that sense – often a very personal one – is best gained through direct experience), but so that one becomes comfortable with the jargon and discourse of development. Among the most enlightening of writings is an obscure blog known as the ICT4D Jester. The Jester recommends reading every post. Thrice.

In short, ICT4D is the perfect entrance for technologists interested in development. (The key phrase here is “for technologists.” For those coming from a development background, the Jester says, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter ICT4D!”) It offers a means to engage with the complex, multi-faceted endeavor of development, while allowing a technologist to contribute a little technical support here, or a bit of electronic innovation there. ICT4D is a broad perch from which to learn about development, because technology’s tendrils can extend into every domain of development, whether it’s education, agriculture, microfinance, governance, livelihoods, gender issues, et cetera.

The Jester thus encourages a foray into ICT4D for technologists, albeit with the hope that wanderers will not stop there, but continue onto even more meaningful aspects of development. For technologists, ICT4D is a step in the right direction. (The Jester only requests that those taking this step remember his Golden Rule:  If your goal is to accomplish something in development, then work with people who are already doing competent work in development; then, apply your technical skills to support those people.)

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.