Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Why We’ll Keep Reinventing the Wheel in M4D and Otherwise

May 5, 2015

The Jester was recently consulted by consultants to provide input on a large upcoming mobile-for-development (M4D) project. At one point, it emerged that the client wanted to solve one of those problems that yours truly believes is “development-complete.”

And, what is development-completeness, you may ask? For this, the Jester must make a digression into technical computer science. One of the few areas of computer science that is actually a science (as opposed to hacking or engineering) is the theory of computation. Its practitioners prove mathematical theorems about different levels of problem complexity. For example, some problems like sorting a list, can be performed in a reasonable amount of time (with a non-quantum digital computer) relative to the length of the list. Other problems, like the canonical “traveling salesman problem” — in which the goal is to find the shortest possible route to visit a set of cities — are believed to take dramatically longer to solve as the number items in the list increases. What exactly is a “reasonable” or a “dramatically longer” amount of time? That’s one of the things that computational theorists explore, and in this case, they are quite confident (though not yet certain) that there is a hard line separating sorting from optimal route planning. In addition, on the more complex side of that line, there is a subclass of problems which have the following interesting quality: If you could solve any one of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time, you could solve all of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time. That class of problems is called NP-complete (where NP stands for “nondeterministic polynomial time,” in contrast to the polynomial time it takes to solve reasonable problems). Yes — until he was demoted, the Jester’s previous occupation was court Geek.

Thus, computer scientists have an admittedly poor inside joke in which whenever they encounter a situation in which in order to solve one problem, you’d have to be able to solve a set X of other problems, whose solving would obviate the need to solve the original problem, they call the original problem X-complete. So, if a problem is development-complete, it means that if you could solve that problem, you could solve all of international development itself. End of digression.

So, what in this case, raised the Jester’s development-complete alarm? In this case, it was that the consultants’ client wanted to end what is formally called “too many pilots,” or “reinventing the wheel,” or “total lack of coordination” among those who work on M4D projects. Ah, yes. The recurring problem of people ignoring history and each other in international development! Can’t we just spend a few million bucks and end this problem once and for all?!?!

Before the Jester goes into why this problem is development-complete, it’s worth considering its root cause. It’s very simple, actually: There is no single entity in charge of global development. There is no world government either dictatorially or democratically deciding what development projects will be undertaken or not. The “or not” part is essential, because in order to avoid too-many-pilots and reiventions-of-the-wheel, someone must stop those pesky other people (and they are always other people) who start unneeded pilots and reinvent wheels. But “or not” can only be imposed by an entity who can coerce compliance, and of course, there is no such entity on a global scale.

Without a world government, anyone who can afford an air ticket can fly to a random urban slum or rural village and start messing about. And importantly, they can do so without ever having studied or even having heard of any other development projects. It’s quite possible, for example, for someone to start a new cookstove project without ever having heard that the history of international development is strewn with failed cookstove projects.

Imagine if tomorrow, through some miracle, every M4D actor joined a single consortium, aligned with a single M4D standard, built on the same technology platform, agreed to a single set of interventions that is known to work, etc. Hip hip hooray! But unity would be shortlived. The day after tomorrow, you can be sure that some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will enter the fray and ignore the consortium because (1) he has never heard of it; (2) he once visited a poor village and realized he could be their savior; (3) he wants to build his own humanitarian empire; (4) he can in any case do it better than everyone else; (5) he has his own money and no one can prevent him from spending it how he likes; and (6) he may or may not actually have any humanitarian intentions at all.

Actually, this is pretty much what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with (Which, incidentally, further demonstrates how technology amplifies underlying human forces.) In designing his rhetoric, he has chosen to completely ignore the fact that providing poor villages with the Internet through telecenters really didn’t do much for them except in instances where there were significant, accompanying investments to nurture local human capacity. (In reality, he may just not care at all as long as those folks all get hooked on Facebook, too.)

There are only two ways to solve this problem of total lack of coordination. One is the aforementioned world government. The other is spontaneous total world coordination — by which the Jester means that all seven billion of us agree to a set of rules about how to engage in development and enforce it ourselves. You may laugh and say, “These are the pipe dreams of children or of a crazed monomaniacal dictator!” and you’d be right. But, let’s just suppose we could achieve either of these things in any meaningful way. If so, we might as well focus on development itself, instead of worrying about the minor problem of too many uncoordinated pilots.

Hence, development-complete. QED

P.S. The commentary above does not appear in the Jester’s alter ego’s forthcoming book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Nevertheless, the book is worth pre-ordering if only for the photograph of its extremely handsome author on the jacket flap. 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:]

Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

January 29, 2011

[A shorter version of this post appears at]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

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.)