It’s summer, which – oddly enough – means that the Berkman Center is filled to bursting with students. Berkman is hosting the Summer Doctoral Program, an annual gathering for PhD students working on Internet-related topics, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute. The two-week session has been held three times in Oxford and once in Beijing. Rumor has it that my colleage Urs Gasser wanted to hold it at the University of St. Gallen this year, but had to cancel because his city was being re-carpeted.
For anyone interested in what current PhD students are researching in this field, and what work scholars in the field are sharing with them, Ismael Peña-Lopéz is creating an excellent resource on the ICTology blog, posting detailed session notes from each lecture and presentation. His notes on the session that Mike Best and I offered yesterday does a great job of hitting the key points of our respective talks, which orbited the theme of “incremental infrastructure“.
I’m trying to flesh out this idea, which I raised in a blog post a few weeks ago, that major infrastructure projects in developing nations can be built through small (under $10 million) investments from private entrepreneurs, and can come to market faster than well-financed, government-backed projects. It’s great fun to give a talk on a subject you’re just starting to think about. I got a good deal of pushback on the market focus of the idea, and questions about whether there are appropriate roles for the government in building infrastructure. The answer is, obviously, yes, but there are lots of terrible examples in an African context of governments failing to build infrastructure and blocking the private sector from building it in their stead.
Mike Best had an excellent response to that line of inquiry, suggesting that the appropriate role for government in infrastructure, especially technical infrastructure, is to regulate as independently as possible. (This means, to the extent possible, regulators need to be independent of both government influence and relationships with private companies. Joseph Wafula, presenting some of his research from the University of Nairobi later in the day, suggested that independence is incredibly difficult to achieve in developing nations given the limited technical population and the likelihood that knowledgeable regulators are going to be connected to relavent business entities…) Mike also had excellent questions about whether the “increments” I’m talking about aren’t huge ones in African terms. His recent research on connectivity for coffee cooperatives in Rwanda suggests that infrastructure costing more than a few thousand dollars is going to be out of the reach of almost all Rwandans, and pointing towards some much cheaper connectivity options using new 3G phones. Always good to get pushback from one of the smartest guys in your field, a man who believes in testing lofty creative ideas with real projects in the field.
I will admit, I still find something a bit disorienting about trying to advise PhD students. It’s become increasingly clear to me that I won’t be able to convince myself to return to school and complete a degree any more advanced than my BA. I find myself wondering, as I sit down to offer suggestions to soon-to-be-doctorate-holders whether I should preface my comments with, “You probably shouldn’t listen to a word that I’m saying, as I’ve never attempted to get research past an advisory committee, never structured a dissertation, and have almost no academic publications to my name.” I’m perpetually thankful that Berkman creates an academic environment where these issues almost never surface, but there’s nothing like a building filled with smart, young doctoral students to make one wonder about one’s own academic path not taken.
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When the Web starts awarding honorary doctorates, you’re sure to be among the first, Ethan.
Great post on the summer program, btw. I’ve dropped in on the program a little bit, and it’s very exciting. What a group!
I agree 100% on the importance of private enterprise in building infrastructure, as well as independent regulation.
About seven or eight years ago, I tried to coordinate an IXP in Lagos. After getting some interest from a few other ISPs, I contacted the NCC (Nigerian Communications Commission) to see about licensing. We were shot down immediately- we would need an ISP license, but ISP licenses were only available to companies that provided Internet services to the public. No amount of arguing or faxed diagrams explaining the concept of an IXP would do. Recently, the NCC themselves set up an IXP in Lagos, and it appears to be doing well.
When it comes to issues of technology, I think entrepreneurs are going to be thinking one or two steps ahead of the government. In 1999, government regulators didn’t have the slightest idea of what an Internet exchange was or what it could be used for. They only knew that it was something different than they were used to regulating, and automatically said “no way”. And of course, there are issues of corruption to deal with. In my consulting life, I’ve always preferred to deal with local businesses rather than with the government. Businessmen are concerned with getting things up and running properly and quickly… while I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been *headdesk* because of getting endless requests for cash under the table from government officials.
Actually, for me it’s the other way. Hearing people who have taken a different path is a real eye-opener, and a reminder that “getting to PhD” is not the only way to investigate an issue or make a contribution to knowledge…although sometimes within the bubble it feels like that!
Look at it from the opposite point of view: ‘You probably shouldn’t listen to a word that I’m saying, as I’ve never attempted to get practice past an advisory committee, never structured a project, and have almost no field experience to my name.’
Yin-Yang, hot-cold… ebony and ivory ;) all that stuff, you know? :)))
Thanks for coming and sharing… no, wait, you already share on your blog since long ago. Just thanks for coming then.
I can’t help thinking that the whole debate that was started at TED is a rediscovery of the debate started by Ghandi.
I have been rereading recently a whole lot of books of the last generation of Development people, all of them give some ideas in what can be tried for Africa.
The Development Economist Peter Bauer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thomas_Bauer “Aid is a good way for the poor in rich countries to give to the rich in poor countries”.. He is really worth reading… His book Dissent on Development….. ” It is more meaningful to say that capital is created in the process of development, rather than that development is a function of capital.”
Then the other person that is well worth reading from opposite political side is E. F. Schumacher… Schumacher book refutes everything that Bono said at TED, in his first chapter of his book “Small Is Beautiful” …. and he should know as he was the Economic adviser for the rebuilding of Germany…
What is amazing is how much they agree on, even though politically they where opposite and how much there advice has been ignored by the development camp.
Then of course Ghandi… Ghandi kept going on about the importance of Production for Masses not Mass Production.. That everything needed to be human scale. Power / control / etc…
Surely the path you’ve taken to be involved with Internet & Society is one of the most interesting ones!
I enjoyed your presentation and feed back to our work and thoughts a lot. Hope to learn more from you in the future.
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You mightn’t be such a creative thinker if you’d done seven or eight more years of formal school, and we’d all be the poorer for it. So personally I’m glad.
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