Systems (re)thinking: in ITC4D, tech is never neutral

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Taylor Downs

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

In 2008 I began working in sub-Saharan Africa, joining the fight against HIV/Aids. Two years later, frustrated at the lack of good data systems in the public health sector, I co-founded Vera Solutions, a technology consulting company, with my colleagues Zak Kaufman and Karti Subramanian. Our mission was to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of social-impact organisations by harnessing information and technology.

Since then, Vera Solutions has provided services to almost 300 organisations. We’ve also spun off a new company, Open Function, to provide data integration and automation services, processing information from hundreds of thousands of our clients’ clinical visits, training sessions and surveys every month. At Vera and OpenFn, we try to be thoughtful about which interventions we support and how our technologies are used, and our connections run deep in the ICT4D (information and communications technologies for development) space.

But it wasn’t until I stepped away from these projects and began studying at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications as part of my Atlantic Fellowship that I encountered formal critical discourses around ICT4D. Geographer Tim Unwin, for example, has recently argued that “in the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality”. This does not mean there’s no chance for technology to be emancipatory; it’s just that we need to scrutinise it on a case-by-case basis. As with any field, there are competing narratives that shape conversations, implicitly frame possibilities, and have a massive impact on the types of “development” work that get funded and implemented.

Understanding both mainstream and critical approaches to ICT4D is crucial to doing responsible development work if we are to make real progress towards alleviating the world’s rising levels of inequality, because progress is not linear.

How the mainstream sees ICT4D: commodified information and value-neutral tech

In the mainstream tradition, information is seen as a commodity and technologies are typically posited as neutral tools that are unassailable by any moral or value-imbued arguments. They increase human efficiency, as measured in terms of rising quality-adjusted-life-years, higher numbers of school graduates or greater GDP per capita. This assessment is part and parcel of a very prescriptive notion of progress– the view that less developed countries need to “catch up” to achieve inclusion in a global “knowledge society” that produces and disseminates knowledge for the betterment of its members.

Practitioners and scholars such as Tim Unwin and Robin Mansell point out that the mainstream approaches to understanding ICT4D are often (1) “positive” – in that they merely describe what is (e.g., certain countries have better technology and greater wealth than others) rather than what should be, (2) “monolithic”, in that they reference a Northern definition of progress, and, (3) crucially, that they are often “ahistorical” – i.e., they fail to address why those countries have better technology and greater wealth.

Looking beyond accepted wisdom to critical, pluralist approaches

Critical approaches differ from the mainstream approach, first and foremost, by acknowledging the existence of multiple information and knowledge societies in which knowledge can be valued differently. These approaches are pluralist. Some even allow that there can be more than one valid system of knowledge or way of knowing – and that, as sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes, “the understanding of the world by far exceeds the western understanding of the world”. Other thinkers point out that technologies are always designed in certain ways to achieve certain results and that they are emphatically not neutral.

Take the apparently laudable goal of providing a mobile phone and internet access to everyone. While it does give users the opportunity to access vastly more information more quickly and efficiently, it also very specifically shapes their behaviour in a number of ways which may not benefit them. It may well expose them to more advertising and increase consumerism. Here, as in so many cases, without full knowledge of who is funding, designing and profiting from specific technologies and ICT4D programs, embedded in a long-term historical understanding of “development”, it is irresponsible to promote their use.

Critical approaches such as these are centred on the view that individual polities should always be able to actively choose the direction in which they are “developed”.

Why rethinking ICT4D is time-consuming, difficult… and essential

There are at least two different reasons why taking the critical view of ICT4D is a challenging path. The first is that it’s genuinely hard to commit to critical praxis. It takes significantly more time and effort to help people when you have to first ask them what, if anything, they want help with. This is further complicated by Amartya Sen’s conception of adaptive preferences. “There is much evidence in history”, Sen wrote in 1987, “that acute inequalities often survive precisely by making allies out of the deprived. The underdog comes to accept the legitimacy of the unequal order and becomes an implicit accomplice. It can be a serious error to take the absence of protests and questioning of inequality as evidence of the absence of that inequality (or of the non-viability of that question).”

The second reason has more to do with who stands to gain from ICT4D. It is possible that governments are intentionally pursuing ICT4D agendas that further entrench the power of their wealthy corporate sponsors, but solely blaming the motives of those in power feels too simple. At the very least, it fails to address how challenging it can be to pursue truly responsible development, especially when everyone wants results, not conversations.

We’re here to serve, not lead, in ICT4 interventions

We need to pump the brakes whenever we hear governments, corporations, NGOs or social entrepreneurs touting the presumed benefits of their new ICT interventions. We need to ask ourselves whose notion of progress they will serve, and ask the “beneficiaries” of these programs how they want to participate – if at all.

In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educator and philosopher Paulo Freire writes that a “real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust”. With that in mind, we must ensure that both the demand for and the design of new ICT4D interventions is co-created in partnership with the communities we aim to serve. We have to accept that our job as technologists may be limited to a supporting, rather than leading, role.

Finally, we always need to question not only whether a particular technology help us progress, but also the specific direction of that particular kind of progress – all the while remembering that we may not all be holding the same map.

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Taylor Downs is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. He tweets at https://twitter.com/taylordowns2000 .

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo of man with mobile phone by Yuttana Koedpradit on Unsplash