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Technology First?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The other day we received a paper from our colleagues at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) on "Deepening Participation and Improving Aid Effectiveness through Media and ICTs." I made it until point 3 of the executive summary before I felt a blog post coming on. Read for yourself: "1) Starting as a magic solution from its beginnings, ICTs are now considered as just another normal media channel useful for enhancing the effectiveness of development cooperation programs. 2) It is not the technology that counts; it is the economic and social processes behind the technology that drives the change. 3) Thus, ICTs are instrumental, not a goal in itself, and they should serve to improve the practice of development cooperation."

There are some interesting, if somewhat obvious, points in here. Most interesting, I thought, was SDC's rejection of technological determinism. Technological determinism assumes that technology drives the development of society, whereas the opposite perspective would mean that society shapes technology and puts it to its best use. The former position is the one of McLuhan, who assumes that "the medium is the message." The latter position is more widely accepted and seems a little easier to swallow. However, thinking about technological determinism in the context of the current revolutions in the Middle East is an interesting exercise.

Much has been made of the role of ICTs for those uprisings, and we have discussed this on our blog. Strictly speaking, the argument that those revolutions were only possible because of the new communication channels opened by Internet and social media is a deterministic argument. It claims that history has been shaped by technology and Tunisia, Egypt, Libya etc. would not have changed, or would not be in the process of changing, if it wasn't for technology. The other way around the argument would be that those revolutions would have happened anyway, but that communication technology was used to help the process along.

Technological determinism or not, that's more than an intellectual exercise. If it's a legitimate argument then it would make sense if development focused on pushing ICTs, or other technologies, assuming that if you only have the right technology you will get the right development outcome. If development is not technologically determined it should be about shaping the environment in which technology is used, so it will be used for empowerment or other ways to improve people's lives. Looking at development aid the way it is often done today makes one wonder whether we're all technological determinists, who assume that it's sufficient to build infrastructure to make people's lives better. Looking at technology as a tool in development, not as a cause of development, would mean to also make sure that herders in remote areas of the steppe actually have access to the technology and are free and able to use it to their own advantage. Building a road doesn't guarantee that people are getting anywhere.

Picture: Flickr user The Kitten's Toe

Comments

Submitted by Linda Clark on
Infrastructure development is clearly not the best way to provide energy for the poor in the developing world. Building coal plants in India does not bring electricity to the rural villages. Solar energy can as can wind turbines and other decentralized means of providing energy.

This is very true "looking at technology as a tool in development, not as a cause of development". If we use more n more technological tool then only we get the proper development in the future.

Submitted by Aubrey Davis on
I tend to think of ICTs and development as part of a symbiotic relationship, where either can spur the other forward and create momentum. And I think the recent events in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East are great examples of how indigenous movements co-opted technology but also how the use of technology gave the movement to a form it might otherwise have had. I also think it's key to remember that ICT in development can also have unintended results that aren't always positive. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad, but its use can result in both.

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