“Can Technology End Poverty?”

The problem is that ICT4D [Information & Communications Technology for Development] assumes the very results it seeks to achieve. The human intent and competence ICT4D aims to generate must already be in place for the technology to work. But if developing economies had the capacity, there would be no need for an external technology push: capable people attract, or develop, their own technology.

The Boston Review has a fantastic article on the role that technology can and, more importantly, can’t play in economic and social development. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently as I consider whether the work I do is particularly useful. Sure, I like improving websites for TV stations and helping people build interactive installations, but I think you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m really making the world a better place beyond making a few well-to-do people in rich countries a little bit happier. So how can I? I think I would be morally remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my good fortune in life and seek to help others who do not have the same advantages and successes I do.

On one hand it’s probably fair to say I have more technical skills than money and so those are the best things I can use to benefit others. How can I? There are some cool initiatives of technologically minded people using their skills to help the disadvantaged, like the cool Engineers Without Borders, inspired by the even cooler Doctors Without Borders. It’s a very seductive idea to think that I could, whether from my home in Amsterdam or geographically closer to a group of people I would be seeking to help, hack out some code and make some, maybe even many, people’s lives noticeably better.

However, as the linked article argues, this is rarely, if ever, the case. Given my educational background and general beliefs, I am a very strong believer in the power of systems, particularly political systems. Dysfunctional ones will produce bad results, while improving them will lead to better results. But of course you can’t just wave a magic wand and give everyone pluralistic democratic systems with well-functioning, inclusive economies. The question then, is how can I bend the curve? Give money to organizations? While €100 once a year surely helps someone, eventually, and is especially powerful when done en masse, simple charitable giving strikes me as neither the most personally rewarding nor the best  I can offer of myself. But what web service or what mobile phone app could I make, should I make, to help others ? I wish I knew because I would build them but, again returning to the article, I am very skeptical that there is any such thing I could build ex nihilo that would have any real effect.

Speaking of organizations, there seems to me to be a dearth of ones taking a political systems approach, particularly independent of national governments and their logically self-interested aims. Independent Diplomat is the only organization I can immediately think of. Maybe I should also add Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the list, but these great organizations strike me as more focused on the symptom than the cause.

The Seattle Project is the closest of any of my work has come to having a larger societal context and thus potential effect, but it is admittedly a plaything right now and deeply biased towards a hyper-technological market-driven context, ie the developed world. I think we’re doing good work but I’m more than ready to admit the project’s limitations and failings.

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