On Thursday, the Jester donned his civilian clothing, took a red-eye to Washington D.C., and participated in a panel hosted by the New America Foundation (NAF). Mobile Disconnect was among the best panels the Jester has experienced, either as panelist or attendee, due a combination of good organization, moderation, and mix of panelists. The audience was also excellent, with good questions during Q&A that stayed on topic. Missing was that one guy who manages to appear at every panel discussion, who raises a “question” that doesn’t end in a question mark, and whose irrelevance and incomprehensibility is only matched by its length. An associated debate-style forum appears on CNN.com.
The other panelists were Maura O’Neill of USAID, Katrin Verclas of Mobile Active, and Michael Tarazi of CGAP. The Jester would summarize the panelists’ positions thus:
- O’Neill: M4D might be overhyped, but it’s all upside from here.
- Verclas: M4D might be overhyped, but the important thing is mobile security.
- Tarazi: M4D might be overhyped, but everyone loves mobile money, and it should be made available to everyone.
- Jester: M4D is overhyped.
(The Jester blames any oversimplification on lack of space, but anyone interested in the nuanced details is directed to the video of the event online http://newamerica.net/events/2012/mobile_disconnect.)
The Jester, being his compassionate self, will avoid a boring play-by-play, as much of the discussion will be all-too-familiar to ICT4D enthusiasts. Instead, the Jester will focus on two things that occurred to him during the panel – one in this post, and another in the next.
First, for almost a year now, the Jester has not heard or read public comments that express total naïveté about the potential of ICTs for development. Nobody seems to believe that ICT4D is a slam dunk any longer. Discussions of project successes are qualified with their challenges. The idea that “the technology is only 10% of the solution” has gone viral (though Nicholas Negroponte appears to have a unique mutation that confers on him a robust immunity). Is it possible that the broader ICT4D community is becoming ever so slightly more sophisticated? Is it possible that social scientists, FailFaires, and Yours Truly are actually having an impact?
The Jester certainly hopes so. But, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. And while a little knowledge is a necessary way station on road to true wisdom, this part of the path might be a low point on the journey. Most worrying is the trend where clever rhetoric is way ahead of actual practice, due to cluelessness, marketing, hypocrisy, or outright mendacity.
An example of the more innocent brand of this disjunction was demonstrated a couple of weeks ago on the TIER and Change mailing lists. A young man, let’s call him “Ashish,” started a thread about the Raspberry Pi, a $25 “computer.” (The price in practice is considerably higher since the device requires additional investments in a display and input device, but the Jester will avoid mentioning this fact which is irrelevant to the larger point.) Ashish then proposed that the Raspberry device was superior to the Aakash tablet and the OLPC XO3, as a device for education.
A group of experienced ICT4D-ers descended on the hapless Ashish, and in a positive sign of the increased sophistication of the ICT4D community, chided him for his techno-fetishism.
Ashish, though, responded with a comment along the following lines: “I get that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity au Jester, but seriously, won’t the Raspberry work a lot better than the Aakash in changing rural Indian education?”
This caused the Jester to wonder what exactly Ashish means by the word “get.” Does this word mean what Ashish thinks it means?
On the NAF panel, O’Neill and Tarazi displayed another version of the rhetoric-practice mismatch, which is all-too-common in D.C. In both cases, they were happy to mouth the facts of “ICT failures” and “partial solutions,” while remaining in the thrall of the techno-deterministic delusion that technology is largely good in and of itself. When it came down to it, both seemed to believe that expanding access to certain technologies or services is, in fact, the primary issue.
The Jester believes that these are analogues of the oft (but perhaps not oft enough) criticized Washington Consensus: O’Neill is a pusher of what might be called the “ICT Consensus” that assumes that the great benefits that America gains from ICT would naturally follow elsewhere and without any of the negatives. Tarazi backs the “Banking Consensus” that imagines that a formal bank account for all is a pressing need in international development. At one point, Tarazi let slip that this was the first event he had attended where anyone even questioned whether being connected to the formal banking system was a good thing.
This caused the Jester to wonder which events Tarazi had been attending. Were there, in fact, underground ecopods where whole groups of people have been blissfully unaware of subprime mortgages, European debt crises, and credit default swaps?
To return to the rant, people appear to have internalized the notion that at the very least, ICT4D is not an easy win, and that some qualifiers are necessary to be credible. Unfortunately, this ushers in a new era of doublespeak, where everyone says the right thing, while continuing to throw resources into their one killer app that will undoubtedly save the world.
Just before the panel, the Jester heard an interesting story from Greta Byrum, a policy analyst at NAF. She mentioned meeting an ICT4D practitioner on a recent trip to Delhi. This man apparently told her that it’s not that the technological is 10% of the solution and the rest – social, political, institutional – is 90%. It’s that technology is 1% of the solution, while the rest is 99%. This would be an admirable level of comprehension, except that it apparently caused no cognitive dissonance for this IT consultant.
Why do so many of us want to keep supporting the 1%, which would really take care of itself, if the remaining 99% were in order? The Jester is tempted to start a new protest called “Occupy ICT.” Its motto: “People are the 99%!”