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Tech won’t save the world (but it will help a little)


Despite enormous optimism from the tech industry and a never ending wave of improbable ideas and innovations for getting poor people online (Google Loon, anyone?), technology by itself will not save the world, eradicate poverty and cure all the ills of mankind. Indeed, where some great idea is presented as a ‘silver bullet’ (umm, Google Loon anyone?) it’s “destined to be disappointed because such optimistic faith fails to understand the nature of poverty”.

That, at least, is the opinion of the authors of a new report published today in the journal Information Technologies and International Development, the academic bible of the ‘ICT4D’ community which incorporates government agencies, NGOs, researchers and industry groups worldwide. Written by Siobhan Clark and Gillian Wylie of Trinity College Dublin, along with Hans Zomer of Dochas, the paper is a fascinating – and for an academic piece a surprisingly easy read – looking at how technology has been applied against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs were drawn up by the UN in the 2000, and featured highly specific targets in 15 areas of equality and reduction of poverty that member states were to aim to achieve.

In a amusing sign of the times, technology was only passingly referred to in the original MDGs. Since then, we’ve seen the creator of the World Wide Web – Sir Tim Berners-Lee – call for internet access to be added to the list of inalienable human rights. We’ve seen mobile phones come to dominate the media and communication networks of low income countries. We’ve seen M-PESA, and we’ve seen a series of revolutions in Northern Africa which were intrinsically tied up with social media. We’ve also seen Facebook by SMS and USSD introduced to the poorest (Don’t forget Google Loon – Bonkers Ed).

The report, therefore, is given the acronym-oneous title ‘ICT for the MDGs’. And it’s actually a really hopeful piece of writing, filled with caveats but ultimately saying that tech, done well, can level the land and provide opportunities and equality for all. But those caveats are stern and fierce.

On education, the authors write:

For some advocates of ICT for Education (ICT4E), digital technology seems to be the magic bullet, bypassing
the enormous costs of educational infrastructure by providing affordable education directly to the child.
The One Laptop Per Child philosophy, for instance, suggests that the $100 laptop will connect children  straight to learning, transcending the need for classrooms and teachers. This view has been criticized for failing to understand that problems in education systems are systemic and “reforming education is hard work that involves making coordinated changes in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and teacher training”
(Kozma, 2007) as well as ensuring necessary resourcing. Kozma, among others, queries the proat
motive, which inevitably intertwines with the growing role of private-sector companies in supplying
classrooms.

But they temper its words with encouragement.

Undoubtedly, access to educational software and the superabundance of information on the Internet enhance learning. However, information itself is not neutral. Curriculums are designed to convey certain
knowledge and search engines prioritize results. English as the principal Internet language creates yet
another digital divide. Access to educational ICTs is not enough; acquiring the digital literacy to make
critical sense of the information (Unwin, 2007) is equally important and perhaps unrecognized by those who simply prescribe “one laptop per child.”

For women in IT, for example, the authors find lots of evidence that instead of liberating female workers, quite often IT is seen as the prerogative of men who rush in to dominate new projects. Thus it can “reinforce rather than challenge gendered norms”. On the other hand, by making it easy for women to work from home while they wait for their husbands to come round to the idea that they can be wage owners (something I’ve seen in many joyous places), the mobile phone and/or cheap laptop can transform lives.

Ultimately, the authors say, it’s not about the tech – it’s about the people. It’s an idea which has been espoused many times by the editor of the same journal, Kentaro Toyama. Toyama is an ex-Microsoft employee who’s spent most of the last 15 years or so working on ways to change the world through tech, while at the same time poking fun at those who others who do the same but with do so with a sort of faux naivete.

The motto most often associated with Toyama is that “technology amplifies human intent and capacity; it doesn’t substitute for them.” That could be interpreted as a clever way of saying that the right person with a laptop can change the world. But most of us will simply use it to browse porn.

This report, though, could have been written at any time over the last six or seven years. As we go into 2014 and Gauteng ramps up its spending on IT in education, another tech hub is set to open in Johannesburg and more and more corporates line up social responsibility cash to spend on projects which benefit themselves as much as they benefit the poor, it is a good time to contemplate exactly what it is we should be supporting out there.

Don’t get me wrong. The whole reason we launched htxt.africa was because we thought there was a massive gap in the landscape for a techno-cheerleader with a fresh view on all the amazing stuff that’s going on. We’re obviously on the side of getting everyone online and iPads for all and the power of tech to transform everything from entertainment to governance for the better. But it makes you think, right?

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