(photo: Royal Air Force testing the first ground to air radio)
There has been a rash of heated discussion on the nature and future of ICT for Development sparked by Ken Bank’s ICT4D postcards competition. Perhaps the best summary of the discussion to date can be found on Linda Raftree’s blog. Here’s my rather late foray into this discussion.
Reading all these different opinions or positions it occurred to me that part of the issue is that people are talking at cross purposes, since they mean quite different things by ICT4D, they don’t even agree on what development is (and who does) and they have quite different views about the role of ICTs and what approaches should be taken, often quite heatedly disagreeing with others in the process. Part of this appears to come from the natural desire to label and compartmentalize things so we can better relate to them from our own experience. I’ve written before about definitions and terminology and it seems it frequently trips us up.
So in an attempt to make sense of this all for myself, here is a broad sweep massively oversimplified view of ICT4D (or whatever you want to call it).
1. Technology is fundamental to human progress. Throughout history technology has been a critical driver of human change and progress starting with domestication of crops, including diverse technologies such as currency, guns, medicine, the printing press, the internal combustion engine and yes, the internet, computer and the mobile telephone. Read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” if you don’t believe me!
2. Technology impacts development through people and how they actually use the technology. Technology itself doesn’t have an impact if it is not applied by people. New technology can be developed, but if people don’t find it useful, or at least interesting or entertaining then it’s not going anywhere. (Obvious perhaps but sometimes overlooked).
3. How technology will be used, and the direction and pace of the subsequent impacts of that use are unpredictable, often being very different from the expectations of their inventors or promoters (or their detractors). Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM famously said in 1943 “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Luckily for IBM this turned out not to be true.
4. The development, spread and use of technology is a huge field with lots of actors each playing their part, with plenty of room for different motives and philosophical or empirical approaches – even contradictory ones – since in the end they will all contribute to the change that takes place through collaboration, competition and even contradiction. In short it’s a complex adaptive system. Past technological spread has always resulted from the actions of multiple actors often with very different motives and philosophies: Inventors, entrepreneurs, governments, consumers, academics, not for profits and others have all helped shape the way technology is currently used both consciously and unconsciously. Using technology to make money is a key component of spreading technology that improves lives, but it’s only part of the story.
So what do I conclude from this:
ICTs (as an important but not the only form of technology) are important to development however you define either of these. Mobile is the hottest and most promising looking technology right now, but it’s not the only technology that can be useful, and it will probably be displaced by something else in the future.
We don’t all agree on what ICT4D is, what technology we should use, what the aims of ICT4D are, and what are the best ways to pursue them – we don’t even agree on what “development” is (obviously).
It doesn’t matter that we don’t agree, in fact it’s a good thing. A diverse approach involving multiple actors and friction between them is in the best interests of the field because it allows different models to co-exist, compete and learn from each other, and it allows then to be judged in the market and the marketplace of ideas. Despite our strong convictions, none of us know if we are right (or even partially right) and only through doing, and adapting as we go will we find out what works best, and what the (currently unknown) potential of this work will be. Talking to each other and debating our ideas is useful to help people reframe their ideas and approaches – but the real test is not in who makes the best argument – but in what actually happens on the ground when these approaches intersect.