Beyond the Digital Divide

Do the wretched of the earth need mobile phones? Scott McLemee recommends a symposium,

November 17, 2010

A recent purge of my bookshelves saw the departure of a few volumes on “the new economy,” that hot topic of yesteryear. Information technology and innovative business models were going to create hitherto unimaginable levels of efficiency and productivity; at the same time, there would be an end to wasted industrial capacity, let alone warehouses full of excess output. Cybernetics would smack down the business cycle for good. What could go wrong?

I sent these titles, among others, to a small university library, where someone is probably unpacking the boxes. Arguably these books belong to the history collection, rather than in current affairs. The particular brand of visionary gleam marketed as "the new economy" was at its peak in the late '90s and early ‘00s. But the outlook is both older and more durable than that, and there's no chance we've seen the last of it.

In the 1920s, the American social theorist Thornstein Veblen argued that economic upheavals could be wiped out -- provided that engineers took over control from businessmen and reorganized things along more rational lines. He died just a few weeks before the stock market crash of 1929. A couple of years into the Depression, there was a brief craze for an organization called Technocracy, Inc. that was of more or less Veblenian inspiration. The Technocrats offered to repair the world economy, which clearly wasn’t fixing itself. Some years ago, while working in a manuscript archive, I found a folder full of magazine articles on Technocracy that were clipped by someone who had lived – and worried – through the early 1930s. They included a sort of blueprint of how things would run under the wise rule of the engineers. Computers were not yet part of the plan, so its resemblance to a flowchart was all the more striking.

The Technocracy movement faded from view by the time the New Deal began. But the neologism stuck (in lower-case form) and the technocratic imagination has never really gone away. Now it usually takes the form of confidence that a sufficiently powerful technology can bring all-but-utopian benefits, rather than an explicit belief that the geeks shall inherit the earth.

“Can Technology End Poverty?” asks the cover of the latest issue of Boston Review. Inside is a forum in which nine contributors debate the subject of information and communication technologies for development. ICT4D, as it is sometimes abbreviated, is a field emerging from the confluence of two recent tendencies, according to Kentaro Toyama, a visiting researcher at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, whose article leads off the symposium. One is “the emergence of an international-development community eager for novel solutions to nearly intractable socioeconomic challenges.” The other is “the expansion of a brashly successful technology industry into emerging markets,” whether through commercial efforts or via philanthropy.

The well-known One Laptop Per Child program was inspired by a belief that access to the Internet could make a huge difference to the tens of millions of kids in the world with no access to schooling. Since 2004, the OLPC Foundation has distributed about two million laptops. Meanwhile, the mobile phone has become ever more ubiquitous. Eighty percent of the planet’s population lives within range of a cell tower. More than half of the world’s 4.5 to 5 billion mobile phone subscribers are found in Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa.

An article in The New York Times two years ago hailed the “potentially revolutionary” role of the cellphone in ending poverty in the world’s poorest countries. The profits of fishermen in India grew when their mobiles helped them determine the best price for the day’s haul. A mobile application in Kenya allows people who had never used bank accounts before to transfer funds to their families or to pay for goods and services at local businesses. Farmers have been able to save their crops through timely teleconferencing with agronomists. And so on.

Even civilians far from the world of international-development bureaucracies (or Silicon Valley philanthropies) have heard this sort of argument about the need to get the new information and communication devices into the hands of those who might otherwise be swallowed by the “digital divide.” Publicity for such efforts has fallen off a bit. Economic optimism of any sort is being rationed, lately.

Still it’s good to see Toyama’s critique of the idea that digital technology is the last, best hope for the wretched of the earth. He spent five years developing and assessing 50 “telecenters” in Africa and Southeast Asia, where locals had access to digital technology and basic instruction in its use. But no gizmo -- however varied its potential uses – can make up for poor or nonexistent public utilities or low levels of education. Good intentions notwithstanding, Toyama writes, “hardware tends to be designed for people working in climate-controlled offices with stable AC power; software tends to be developed in languages understood by the world’s largest, wealthiest populations; and content tends to be written for audiences with the largest disposable income.”

Let me recommend the whole symposium, rather than just drifting off into a précis. Eight people respond to Toyama, including economists, philanthropists, and technology entrepreneurs – most of them defending ICT4D to some degree. Interesting and varied as their perspectives may be, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a better discussion for including the thoughts of, say, a trade unionist from Bolivia or Zimbabwe, or maybe a democratic activist from Thailand or Iran. (Better yet, all of the above.) Otherwise, it seems as if intellectuals (and the occasional millionaire) in the developed world are the only people giving serious thought to the effect of information and communication technologies.

In any case, the exchange is timely, especially given something revealed by a recent BBC poll of some 28,000 adults in developed countries. It found that 79 percent of them agreed with the statement, “Access to the Internet should be a fundamental right for all people.” Universal access to clean drinking water ought to be at least that fundamental, it seems to me. But getting everyone a mobile phone or laptop is an aspiration closer to the technocratic heart -- though “heart” may not be the right word, in this context.


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