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Baseball Analogies

November 17, 2010

In his essay in the Boston Review’s recent forum on “Can Technology End Poverty?“, Archon Fung writes, “What matters is hits and runs rather than the batting average.” The Jester prefers juggling balls over pitching and batting, but let’s see where the analogy takes us.

In Fung’s use of the analogy, the idea is that development practitioners using technology are baseball players and what we want is to increase the likelihood of scoring runs. He says, “Toyama’s concern, then, is whether the batting average can be increased.” The Jester has it on good authority that this is actually not quite what Toyama had in mind (though it is certainly a secondary issue). In fact, there are several problems with this formulation.

First, it completely buys into a model where development practitioners are engaging in all the action and that poor people are just passive recipients. In fact, in Fung’s use of the analogy, the beneficiaries of development don’t even appear on the field as human beings. (They are certainly not the opponent team.) Any positive impact in development is measured in runs batted in.

Second, the analogy assumes a flavor of technological determinism: Some hits are good, some are bad. (“As long as someone invents an iPhone for every few Apple Newtons or Microsoft KINs, technology will continue to improve human welfare.”) There is no subtle consideration for the manifold and complex role of technology. In effect, Fung is saying that while not all technologies are necessarily good, some are necessarily good. This is different from what Toyama says, which is that technology is effectively neutral, but whether it’s used well or not is up to people. (Toyama’s article also reduces technology to a simple amplification, but if he had had more space, he would probably have gone into more detail about how complex human intent and capacity interact with technology to cause complex outcomes. Probably.)

Fung then continues that because we don’t know which technologies will have good or bad impact to begin with, we need to try lots of them. Of course, this again assumes a kind of technological determinism. He then states that a technology’s efficacy is the key factor to focus on. “What are the problems that telecenters or plastic laptops are supposed to solve, and how are they supposed to solve them?” The Jester finds this a convenient place to say, social problems aren’t solved by technology. They’re solved by people. Technology may amplify people’s capacity to solve a problem, assuming they are already inclined and able to solve the problem to begin with.

All of this technological determinism leads to Fung’s recommendation that we should focus on technological affirmative action: Design the technology so that it is progressive in nature. (A variation of this argument was raised by Pedro Ferreira in a response to an earlier Jester post.) This conception, however, is flawed because there is no such thing as a technology that is progressive in itself. Above, there was the claim that “technology is neutral.” This isn’t strictly true, as many scholars of technology are keen to point out; technology is not “value free.” For example, it’s difficult to use an effective vaccine for anything other than a positive purpose. And, it’s hard to imagine constructive uses of thumbscrews. True enough. But, even these uses ultimately only magnify what human intent and capacity are behind them. Their lopsided value is due to lopsided magnification, not from inherent intent built into the technology. The WHO estimates that 1.4 million children under five die of vaccine-preventable diseases. The technology exists; intent and capacity are deficient. Conversely, thumbscrews have lost their popularity, as global intent to torture appears to be declining (frequent infractions by various parties notwithstanding). Again, the technology exists; bad intent has lessened.

To summarize, even a progressively valued technology only results in progressive outcomes if the human intent behind it is progressive. What does this mean for ICT4D? First, an indiscriminate spreading of technology rarely accomplishes a progressive end in those places where you’d like to see progressive goals reached, because exactly in those places, progressive intent is lacking (if it weren’t lacking, you wouldn’t have great inequality to begin with; this point isn’t as black and white as stated; there is a grey gradient, but you get the idea). Second, the only way to achieve a progressive end with technology is for progressively minded people to put technology to progressive use. This is, in fact, what many ICT4D projects attempt, and to that extent, they make sense. The Jester simply wants to nudge more of that progressive intent to be free of the constraint that technology must be used to solve the underlying problem, as well as to focus more on building human capability. What doesn’t happen is a technology by itself, however great and positive-leaning the design, solving a social problem simply by large-scale dissemination.

The Jester argues for a completely different use of the baseball analogy: The question of ICT4D is about whether a better bat will result in the worst players hitting better, thereby closing the the gap between good and bad players. As to closing the gap, the Jester believes, basically not at all. As to improving the hitting ability of bad players, the Jester says, possibly, depending on how bad. If the players are malnourished, exhausted from a day’s labor, blind in one eye, and have never played baseball, it’s very unlikely; they’ll strike out no matter how good the bat. Between players who don’t have those severe problems, a better bat will help everyone, but it will help better players more. Of course, you could progressively give the worst players the best bats. That will help, but Ichiro will still outbat the Jester. (And, you can’t really keep the best bats out of the hands of the best hitters, anyway.)

Ultimately, all the focus on the bat seems a little weird. What you really want is to feed the malnourished players, and give intensive batting lessons to all the bad players. Not everyone will be Babe Ruth, but everyone will have a decent shot at the plate. The best affirmative action isn’t to waive considerations of merit as a gatekeeper, but to intensively nurture capacity in those who lack it well before the gate, so that everyone has a chance to be accepted.

The Madness of Crowdsourcing

October 23, 2010

Paul Currion, guest-blogging on Mobile Active, performs a detailed deconstruction of crowdsourcing for development, using Ushahidi as an example to make his points. The Jester applauds!

The Jester thinks of Ushahidi as two distinct entities which happen to be named the same thing… (1) Ushahidi, the technology platform; (2) Ushahidi, the individuals who built the platform who are dedicated to international development.

Much of the excess hype around Ushahidi comes from people who think that (1) is the secret sauce, and that it offers a new hope for development. But, actually, it’s (2) that makes Ushahidi great, and it’s not particularly new. It’s people like Eric Hersman, Juliana Rotich, and Patrick Meier who are the real hope, and they are doing it with good old-fashioned positive intentions and elbow grease. It’s their devotion to development causes that, for example, allowed Ushahidi’s rapid set up for Haiti. (Even if the content wasn’t ultimately of value to aid workers, as Currion notes, it still raised global consciousness about the relief efforts, as well as what was still needed. In fact, the Jester believes much of Ushahidi’s positive value to date has been in raising public consciousness about certain global events.) Without (2), (1) would have been just another map mash-up tool, of which there are gazillions online. Technology (1) magnified the intent and capacity of people (2).

Paul Currion’s key insight, though, is that for aid purposes, even (1) and (2) only go so far, because (3) is missing. And, what’s (3)? (3) is human/institutional intent and capacity on the ground. As wonderful as Ushahidi (1)+(2) is, it makes no difference if there isn’t (3), a force on the ground that can actually respond meaningfully to the noisy information (1)+(2) produces. In the case of Haiti, response teams were already overwhelmed. Additional information, per se, was only adding to the unread mail. Ushahidi’s debut in Kenya provided a lot of insight into violence that might not have otherwise been known, but did it do anything to quell violence? That seems unlikely, because the same government that should have taken that information and responded, wasn’t even responding to violence pre-Ushahidi.

This is a common lesson in ICT4D: is limited not by its technology, but by its microfinance institution partners on the ground. Government hotlines are limited not by call volumes, but by the quality of the response team. PCs in schools are limited not by their clock speed, but by the capacity of teachers to integrate them into curricula.

Crowdsourcing has a place, likely in helping well-meaning rich people share information about development with each other. But poor countries aren’t going to crowdsource their way out of poverty any more than they can broadcast-TV their way out of poverty.