Posts Tagged ‘magnifier theory’

Tech in the USA

September 23, 2010

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

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

The golden age of technology in America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.