Posts Tagged ‘Internet.org’

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 Internet.org. (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.

The Jester is back… sort of!

December 16, 2014

One problem with having a non-comic-book alter ego is that one doesn’t also have superpowers to genuinely multitask. (Genuine multitasking is when one does N things at once and each gets done as quickly and as well as if one were fully focused on just it. This is unlike pretend multitaking where one thinks one is doing N things at once, but none of them well.) That is to say, the Jester can explain his long absence by noting that for over a year, his schizophrenic other has been feverishly working to finish a book. The Jester is happy to report that the manuscript has been submitted, and the Jester has gotten the use of his brain back!

Alas, it takes some time for the neural cobwebs to clear, so in lieu of a proper post, the Jester will serve his doppelganger’s marketing manager’s bidding and proceed with several shameless plugs.

To begin, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology will be released May 26, 2015 in the United States. (The title is one the Jester wishes he had come up with himself — thanks go to fellow jester Tom Paulson at Humanosphere.) Unfortunate souls in other countries will have to ask US-based friends to ship them their copies. It’s possible to pre-order copies of the book through the monopolistic, tech-enabled, couch-potato-breeding, mom-and-pop-shop-killing Amazon, but the Jester strongly urges potential readers to pre-order the book at their friendly local bookstore, where not only will readers be greeted with the warm smile of bibliophilic staff, there is a greater opportunity to contribute to the count of various book-sales-tallying services. Non-Americans are encouraged to make a trip to the United States specifically to purchase the book at one of the country’s fine retail establishments. Yes, it is that good!

The Jester’s virtual twin has also recently just published a book review of Bill Easterly’s recent tome, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. The review is available free at the open-access journal, Information Technologies and International Development. (Full disclosure: The Jester shares gray matter with co-editor-in-chief of the journal. As the Jester warned, this post is just one long shameless plug!)

Finally, just this morning, the Jester’s spirit was channeled at the Atlantic online, where an article picks up where the Jester last left off… It not only takes on Internet.org, but also Time Magazine journalist Lev Grossman, for going too easy on Zuckerberg. Here are some teasers: “Much of the public sphere on both the political left and right [is] unable to resist the grand ambitions of Silicon Valley late capitalists,” and “Freedom is the basis by which corporations seduce unsuspecting consumers so long as it isn’t causing them biological harm.” The Jester would have written those words if he had had his wits about him!

Internet.org 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 Internet.org. 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 Internet.org 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 Internet.org’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 Internet.org 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 BurgerKing.org… BurgerKing.org?), 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!

Internet.org 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 Internet.org, 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 Internet.org “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 Internet.org 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.” Internet.org
  • “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 [Internet.org] 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: http://blog.ict4djester.org/2013/09/02/internet-org-posts-and-ripostes/.]