Unintended Consequences of Technology and Economic Development


I’m struck this week by two happenings in the realm of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D for short).

First, nonprofit One Laptop Per Child has unveiled its laptop for under $150. Apparently, it’s a technological marvel. It uses very little power (about 2 to 5 watts), thanks largely to a completely redesigned screen and no hard drive, and even has WiFi, which will connect to existing mobile telephone networks and other, yet-to-built, networks, depending on the location of the computer. (For more details on the specs, see Ethan Zuckerman’s report on seeing and using one of the little guys.) It will be made available to governments, but not consumers. The idea, of course, is to facilitate education and other forms of economic development in areas that need it most. According to the NY Times article, “Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator who is an adviser to the project, has argued that if young people are given computers and allowed to explore, they will ‘learn how to learn.’ That, Mr. Papert argues, is a more valuable skill than traditional teaching strategies that focus on memorization and testing.” Sounds good.

But there are skeptics, too. Stanford education Professor Larry Cuban says, “if part of their rationale is that it will revolutionize
education in various countries, I don’t think it will happen, and they are naive and innocent about the reality of formal schooling.” I admit some sympathy for this view. Nifty laptops for under $150 sure are cool, but I wonder how much could be done if $150 per child was spent on vaccines and teacher training. (I’m not an economist or a sociologist; I’ll spare you any further speculation or hypothesizing.) Even Bill Gates is quoted in the article, expressing concern about “whether the concept is ‘just taking what we do in the rich world’ and
assuming that that is something good for the developing world, too.” In other words, maybe the project is a bigger technological achievement than it is a development tool.

Another concern I have is about the unintended consequences of putting laptops in the hands of so many schoolchildren in developing nations. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see organized groups systematically rob the machines from children, and monitoring kids’ Internet use is a headache for American parents who are on average much savvier technologically (I’m guessing) than your average Nigerian housewife.

Which brings me to the second noteworthy ICT event this week. Nancy Hafkin visited Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Law and Society. She spoke about another unintended consequence of ICT: a gender imbalance in its implementation. Contrary to the notion that technology is gender-neutral, she argues, technology in developing nations spreads unevenly. Girls, encouraged to be more polite, tend to be less aggressive and therefore secure fewer of the limited seats available at computers. Public cybercafes often “end up being little more than digital pornography shops,” where girls are therefore discouraged by their families from entering. (Zuckerman’s notes of Hafkin’s remarks can be found here.) This may largely be a reflection of societal inequality in general, but even so, it seems to aggravate rather than alleviate the problem.

Oh, those unintended consequences.

Not sure what the answers are to any of this. But it’s sure interesting to think about.

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