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Analogue limits of digital growth
– by Hans Dembowski
Buddhist Monk in rural Cambodia
Kentaro Toyama has experienced as a technology enthusiast what social scientists have known for quite some time: it is easy to implement a single measure, but very difficult to bring about lasting, systemic change. Digging a well can be done fast, but the attempts all too often fail to get a village community to maintain it properly, use the water wisely and keep the well going over years. In a similar way, introducing a computer system or a smartphone service is not what makes long-term development happen. The real challenge is to make people adopt the new options in their daily lives.
Toyama is an associate professor at the University of Michigan. His book draws on his experience as a Microsoft manager who was supposed to drive human development by spreading digital technology in India. He concludes that, while good hard ware and soft ware matter, they are not the key to success. Just as important are:
- implementing agencies’ social commitment and grass-roots competence and
- target groups’ active involvement.
Those who introduce a new approach must not only understand the new technology, they have to make it fit in to complex social settings. And even then, the new options will not make a difference, unless the beneficiaries adopt them.
In Toyama’s view, too many technology enthusiasts believe in what he calls the “Tech Commandments”. Three of them are:
- “Measurement over meaning: value only that which can be counted.”
- “Ultimate goals over root causes: focus narrowly on the end goal to ensure success.”
- “Innovation over tried-and-true: never do anything that has been done before, at least not without a new branding.”
It is no coincidence, of course, that these commandments read like slogans from business schools, nor is it surprising that they fail in developmental contexts. To achieving lasting change for a disadvantaged community is a much greater challenge than to introduce an innovative product in a prosperous market.
Toyama states that all parties involved must show “heart, mind and will” if real progress is to be made. Empathy, intelligence and determination matter. The computer scientist expresses deep frustration with economic models that consider human beings basically to be utility maximising robots who care only for financial rewards. People are different, Toyama argues, because real fulfilment lies in improving the world, not making money.
In his perspective, policy-making should stimulate people’s personal growth, rather than economic growth. This stance is interesting and makes sense in moral terms. In terms of policy-making, however, it looks a bit naïve. Money is a useful proxy because it stands for many, though not all things, that matter in life. Moreover, it is impossible for everyone to become as rich as Bill Gates in order to turn to philanthropy.
Development economists or sociologists have known for long time that there are no quick fixes. The merit of Toyama’s book is to argue this case convincingly and compellingly from an unusual perspective: the perspective of the computer scientist.
In a much more technocratic style, the World Bank’s most recent World Development Report (WDR) similarly emphasises that, to make the most of the digital revolution, the analogue foundation needs to be strengthened. The authors write that digital technologies must be made accessible, affordable, open and safe. Moreover, they want the digital economy to be:
- underpinned by effective regulations,
- managed in a sense of governance and
- driven by broad-based skills development.
Nations that rise to the challenges appropriately, they suggest, will speed up the digital revolution and can collect dividends for everyone.
The WDR points out that the digital divide within countries can be as wide as between countries. In 2015, only 3.2 billion people were assumed to have internet access – less than half of the world’s population. While the World Bank experts warn that inequality is rising, and that those without digital skills are at risk of being left behind. Providing access to mobile phones and the internet will therefore not do, they state. Other issues matter as well. They call for:
- a business climate that allows entrepreneurs to thrive and create jobs,
- education and skills training that equip workers with the human capital they need and
- more responsive government agencies and service providers.
The WDR offers a lot of information, and its general thrust is correct. Sometimes, however, it seems a bit superficial. For instance, the introduction stresses that openness is important for digital economies to thrive, but fails to mention that some of the world’s biggest internet business are Chinese companies which owe their success – at least in part – to the fact that their country’s huge market is not open to global internet giants such as Google or Facebook.
For good reason, the WDR demands that government agencies become responsive and accountable. The snag is that it does not specifically spell out to whom. Governments everywhere are quite aware of what their national business elites want. But will they really listen to the poorest 20 %? And if so, who speaks for the poorest 20 %?
The authors make sensible hints about improving education and inclusion, but their technocratic jargon does not acknowledge the serious conflicts of interest that rage between the privileged and the disadvantaged in every society. Accordingly, the authors do not take sides either. They would, of course, not be in a position to do so because the World Bank, as a multilateral agency, is not supposed to get involved in domestic affaires of governments it is accountable to itself.
For related reasons, the WDR shies away from tackling conflicts of interest between advanced economies and developing countries. For instance, it does not assess the benefits and disadvantages of open-source software in any prominent way. Powerful corporations based in rich nations benefit from intellectual property rights, but government agencies and private sector companies are probably well advised to opt for cheaper software they can fully control.
If the World Bank were fully independent it would take sides in this debate, spelling out what is best for development, but the Bank is not above the fray. This fact reduces the intellectual merits of its WDR. Nonetheless, the report deserves to make an impact because it contains many good examples and ideas.
Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+C.
Toyama, K., 2015: Geek Heresy – Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. New York: Public Affairs.
World Bank, 2016: Digital dividends – World Development Report. Washington: World Bank.
- Toyama, K., 2015: Geek Heresy – Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. New York: Public Affairs.