Myth 1: ICTs will save the world.

The Jester likes to ask questions. Here are three multiple-choice questions, just for fun. But first, read the following passage:

“…X has never been used to its full capacity in support of economic development. It may be financially impossible to use it in this way. But still the possibility is tantalizing: What is the full power and vividness if X teaching were to be used to help the schools develop a country’s new educational pattern? What if the full persuasive and instructional power of X were to be used in support of community development and the modernization of farming? Where would the break-even point come? Where would the saving in rate of change catch up with the increased cost?”

Question 1: In the passage, “X” refers to which of the following?
   a) Television
   b) Personal computer
   c) Mobile phone
   d) None of the above

Question 2: This passage was written in what year?
   a) 1964
   b) 1984
   c) 2004
   d) None of the above

Question 3: Since this excerpt was published, X has accomplished which of the following?
   a) Taught millions of children how to read
   b) Made millions of farmers richer
   c) Paid for itself many times over in value to global development
   d) None of the above

The correct answers are at the bottom (no peeking before you commit to your answers!). Give yourself a 100% and an A+, if you got all three correct! Maybe you’d like to guest-write the next post for the Jester. Give yourself a passing grade as long as your response to Question 3 was correct – you can go home. If your response to Question 3 was incorrect, you fail, and you are required to remain for detention and write out, “I will not believe that technology on its own saves the world,” a hundred times!

The author of the excerpt was Wilbur Schramm, widely considered to be the father of communication studies, and co-founder of the Department of Communication at Stanford University. The book from which I drew this excerpt is titled Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries [i], and it is an insightful look at the exuberant hopes for a technology and its potential to impact global development.

Nearly 50 years later, we can say that those hopes have not been fulfilled. Certainly, television has had some minor successes: See, for example, Rob Jensen’s nice paper on rural women appearing to become more empowered through the presence of TV [ii]; Brij Kothari’s Same-Language Subtitling, in which subtitling movies and music videos in the recorded language appears to increase reading fluency among semi-literate viewers [iii]; or the Sabido methodology for airing soap operas with a pro-social message as a way to enhance healthcare outcomes [iv]. But, on the whole, television has not transformed education, agriculture, or poverty, even among those who own TVs and are comfortably within broadcast zones. Television penetration in India, for example, is above 50% of households, with quite a few of those televisions owned by villagers in remote, rural areas or residents of urban slums. Many more people actually watch television on a regular basis, either at neighbors’ homes or in petty shops and tea stalls. Yet, all it takes is a visit to a poor household with a TV to realize that the boob-tube is aptly nicknamed: It is not making anyone dramatically better off. Certainly, it hasn’t transformed education the way people once thought it might.

The problem isn’t TV. It’s what we do with it. And what we do with it has nothing to do with technology; it has to do with us… human beings. Both, those human beings in power and what they choose to stream on the airwaves, and those who human beings who consume, and what and how they elect to watch.

(Some might argue that even if television hasn’t made anyone materially well-off, maybe it’s made people happier in their poverty by entertaining them. Maybe, but those people should then consider the recent history of Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness: They were poor and happy until the spread of TV showed them what a wealthier life looked like; they stayed poor, but became less happy. And, in any case, are we sure that a world of poor, mindless, TV-watching zombies is better than a world of poor people working themselves out of their plight?)

More recently, we have an example of the PC, particularly in the form known as the telecenter. “Telecenters are those entities which exist primarily to provide the general public access to computing and/or the Internet with the explicit intent to serve a developmental purpose” [v]. I plan later to write a post on the rise and fall of the telecenter (actually, I might just focus on the fall), but for now, suffice it to say that telecenters repeatedly fail to sustain themselves or to demonstrate cost-effective impact. Araba Sey, a researcher at the University of Washington, recently wrote a review of the research literature on telecenters. She says: “Research conclusions generally still speak to the potential rather than actual impact of public access to ICTs [read: telecenters and libraries with PCs]. Aside from the fact that impacts are difficult to measure and attribute, this could be linked to the tendency for most studies to find that public access is underperforming. Despite overall dissatisfaction with the performance of public access ICTs, the perception that they are an important means of bridging digital gaps remains strong” [vi]. We learn from this (1) that telecenters are underperforming, (2) that there is dissatisfaction with telecenters, and (3) that Ms. Sey might consider a career as a professional diplomat.

The failure of telecenters stands in stark contrast to the initial hype, starting less than a decade ago. For example…

“It is hoped that the per capita rural GDP of India will double from its current figure of $200 to $400… [using the rural telecenter as…] a virtual university, training centre, banking outlet, trading outlet, agriculture support centre and much more.” [vii]

Double… because of a computer! I wish my income doubled when I signed up for the Internet. Incidentally, these early telecenter promoters could do a great service to the world by publishing honest, reflective pieces about whether they achieved their objectives, and if not, why not. (There’s no shame in telling the story of a possible hope that didn’t work out. In 2000, nobody knew whether telecenters would work, so the experiment was worth trying. But, today, we’ve learned some things. Not telling the story is to condemn another generation to invest in projects that don’t work.)

At this point, sharp readers will be asking the question, “What other technologies won’t live up to their promise in development?” And, the obvious answer is… the mobile phone!

Now, it would be an unjustified extrapolation, if based on several technologies that failed to live up to their expectations, we jumped to the conclusion that all technologies must be similarly doomed. But, the Jester is not jumping. He’s walking step by step from the trend to the conclusion. The steps are simple, and I’ll flesh them out in ensuing articles: Technology is a multiplier of human intent and competence. Poverty is a caused by a deficiency in positive human intent or capacity. If you take zero or a negative value and multiply it, you don’t get a positive number.

I’m by no means the first to make such a statement about technology. For example, in an area relevant to ICT4D, Tichenor et al., discuss the knowledge gap hypothesis. They note that “as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease” [viii]. That is, when you introduce a technology, there’s a tendency for the rich to get richer.

Alternatively, guns don’t kill people – people kill people! Or, to put it in terms of ICT4D, technology doesn’t develop people – people develop people! The Jester is no rifle-toting militia type, but in this case, the rifle-toters are right. In either case, the underlying problem is human and social, and technology is just an amplifier. This is a point that the Jester will return to over and over.

Luckily, even if you don’t believe me, the world is conducting the largest experiment ever in ICT4D. As of this writing, there are more than 4.6 billion active mobile phone accounts in the world [ix] – more than the total population of adults over the age of 20. More people own a phone now than own televisions or radios, and the trend is only continuing with a growth rate of tens of millions of new accounts per month. If mobile phones really have the power to transform development of the extreme poor, we should see a surge in development impact attributable to the phone over the next few years.

My bet, though, is that even in 2020, 10 years after this writing, the poor – even the mobile-owning, Internet-surfing, technology-savvy poor – will still be with us. Mobile phone owners won’t be much better off than they were before, and owning a mobile phone, however fancy and Internet-enabled, won’t do squat for helping a person out of poverty, illness, ignorance, or misery. Sure, we’ll hear a heart-warming story of a poor basket weaver climbing out of poverty because of the dial-a-job-mobile-service-for-migrant-laborers, but that will be a handful of cases. Meanwhile, we’ll also see the heart-wrenching story of the parents who forewent food for their children to feed their phones (see Kathleen Diga’s PhD thesis for early evidence in Uganda [x]). Technology will help some and hurt some, and in the end, it’ll all come out a wash.

Because technology is multiplicative, not additive.

Answer to multiple choice questions: Q1 – (a), Q2 – (a), and Q3 – (d).

[i] Schramm, W. (1964) Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Pp. 231.

[ii] Jensen, R. and E. Oster. (2009) The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(3):1057-1094.

[iii] Kothari, B., J. Takeda, A. Joshi, and A. Pande. (2002) Same language subtitling: a butterfly for literacy? Int’l Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(1):55-66., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[iv] Population Media Center. (n.d.) Sabido methodology – background., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[v] Toyama, K. & K. Keniston. (2008) Telecentre Debates. In Telecentre Magazine. March, 2008. Debates

[vi] Sey, A. (2008). Public Access to ICTs: A Review of the Literature. Research Working Paper Series. Center for Information & Society, University of Washington.

[vii] Jhunjhunwala, A., A. Ramachandran, A. Bandyopadhyay. (2004) n-Logue: the story of a rural service provider in India. Journal of Community Informatics 1(1): 30-38.

[viii] Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A., & Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media and the differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 158-70.

[ix] International Telecommunications Union. (2010) Measuring the Information Society 2010. International Telecommunications Union., retrieved March 28, 2010.

[x] Diga, K. (2007) Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda. Masters Thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban., retrieved March 28, 2010. I first read of this in Richard Heeks’s blog, which contains other examples: Heeks, R. (2008) Mobiles for Impoverishment. December 27, 2008., retrieved March 28, 2010.


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