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Harvard Forum: ICT4D and, and, and…

Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.

Professor Mike Best of Georgia Tech is our host at beautiful Ames Courtoom on the Harvard Law School campus for a conversation on ICT, development and freedom. The panel is absurdly illustrious: Amartya Sen, Michael Spence, Yochai Benkler and Clotilde Fonseca. Mike Best points us to Publius, where the essays framing our conversation today and tomorrow live – you can also find them on Global Voices.

Colin Maclay from Berkman notes how much of the conversation about ICT and development intersects with work we do at the Center, and nods towards our co-hosts IDRC, who he describes as doing the best work in the field of ICT4D. IDRC’s president, David Malone, reminds us that his organization was founded by another Nobelist, and has a unique mission in development – conducting original research on what does and doesn’t work in combatting poverty around the world.

Professor Best’s introduction is interrupted by a (staged) phonecall from his mother. It leads him to declare, “This is an instrument of tyranny! Why do we celebrate the mobile phone as an instrument for human development in the Global South?” And he wonders if this is all we need to solve problems of communication in he developing world.

Dr. Sen notes that the mobile phone makes Mike’s mother freer to call him. And he notes that the mobile phone may be considered in the same class as better nutrition – something we consider as an expansion of freedom, even if we can concieve of cases in which these devices have negative consequences. Improved nutrition can lead to increased domestic violence. But you’d never use this as an argument against better nutrition. A woman with a phone is free to call and report domestic violence, as a woman with good nutrition is free to work harder and share the benefits with her family. In other words, answering the question, “Do mobile networks enhance capabilities for the poor, his answer is: “Yes, yes, and but…”

Dr. Spence points out that when this group last convened, six years ago, mobile phone penetration was quite low. We speculated that mobile phone networks might outpace land-line penetration, and this has, in fact, come to pass. Mobile phones have avoided some of the effects of the “dead hand of the regulator”. Phones are a tool to fight oppression, he notes, as well as a tool that can allow you to save, invest and build a business. The cellphone allows delivery of key services – safe savings, the provisioning of credit. And it delivers information (or information lite) efficiently, and allows us to solve coordination problems.

Is that the whole answer? No. There’s a whole set of answers about knowledge translation and learning which aren’t well answered by the mobile phone. In our sessions today, Dr. Spence tells us, we agreed that the mobile phone is probably not the key ingredient in delivering education and knowledge transfer.

Mike asks Dr. Clotilde Fonseca to address mobile phones and learning environments in Costa Rica. She offers that the mobile is not yet a powerful device for learning, drawing a distinction between voice and data. Most of the mobiles and cellphones in the developing world don’t carry data well.

Communication is complicated, she tells us. Parents give children phones, hoping for better communication… but kids view this as an invasion of their privacy, and often enjoy the phone for other uses – calculator, IM device, watch. Right now, these tools are most useful for communication, and not for learning.

Professor Benkler fields a question about the mobile phone and centralization – does the mobile phone centralize communications and knowledge, or does it open access to information? He points out that everything is relative. The mobile phone is enormously decentralizing as a tool for sharing information, he reminds us, noting the story of fishermen using the phone to seek the optimum price for their fish. He references mobile phone cameras and their power to capture protests in Iran, and the potentials of mobile banking through systems like M-PESA, these systems are radically decentralizing in relation to baseline structures of power.

But when you compare this architecture to the architecture to the internet, it’s found sorely wanting. There are certain things you can and can’t do with mobile phones. Brazilian software developers can compete as equals in the free software market, but not on a mobile phone – you need a much more complex machine and a more thorough set of skills. He references a story I told about Ushahidi and the ability of the phone company to slow the process with the issuance of a shortcode – the shortcode ends up being the bottleneck to certain types of innovation. Relative to the industrial economy of the 20th century – it’s decentralized. Relative to our new world of the internet – it’s weak, and we need to move more to this generative networks where new uses can be introduced without permission.

Mike celebrates the nuance of these answers, noting that there’s generally been mobile phone euphoria in the ICT4D community. He turns to our online audience for questions about mobile phones – one of our questioners wants to know what levers for pressure we have over mobile phone networks to improve our current capacities and abilities?

Dr. Spence notes that there’s nothing better than competition to create price pressure and increased quality of service. The worry we have is that regulators may now arrive and screw up what we’ve accomplished with this new network. Dr. Sen notes that there are situations where the market sends misleading signals – it’s worth distinguishing between activities that are profit-friendly and those that aren’t. Profits come in many different ways – lack of competition is one way to generate them, and that’s how some mobile networks generate profits. In the US conversation about healthcare, we’re experiencing fear about competition from a public competitor – apparently, that’s enough to terrify people, which seems a bit absurd from a human development perspective.

Sen tells a story told earlier today, about the impact of mobile phones in changing Pakistani opinion on the Swat valley – see my earlier post. The point is that a mobile phone photo of a woman being flogged by the Taliban managed to change political opinion about a deal with Taliban authorities. The ability to take photos – and pretend you were calling your mother while you took them – turns the phone into a very powerful device. Regulation is important, he offers, but doesn’t help us with these unexpected, unpredictable uses of these technologies.

Yochai points to the FCC Chairman’s announcement of a net neutrality policy, pointing out that one of the most surprising aspects was an extention of the net neutrality principle to wireless access, specifically along the non-discrimination of applications. If we don’t have perfect competition – a duopoly or similarly closed market – our next best bet is to ensure that these networks are open and behave much more like the internet. This is a step in the right direction – towards standards, habits and practices – which suggests you might create a more generative network in the US and the developing world. He point to networks in France and the adoption of wireless networks attached to a fixed wireless network to create a large, nomadic wireless network (ala Fon). If you push back a little on the idea that the solution all needs to be mobile, it’s possible to build better, more open, more functional networks.

Mike tosses the classic “either/or” question to Dr. Fonseca – does it make sense to give a computer or a mobile phone to a person who doesn’t have food security? This is a false dichotomy, she tells us. Development is not linear. We need to consider the capacities a person needs to be part of a new economy. Improving livelihood and access to better food, to the capacity to learn and to solve problems may all be connected. Mobiles are just devices that link to more powerful devices – if we just seem in isolation, we misunderstand the whole picture. They can be devices for capturing information and data, for communicating and connecting with objects. We need to think of these devices as ones that help solve problems in our community.

Sen echoes the skepticism about “this or that”. He feels like this sort of thinking plagues policy circles. “When I first came to India, someone asked me, ‘What three things would you do to better India?’ I answered, ‘Why only three things? Why accept those limits?’… Food first, freedom later is the wrong way to think about it.” Complexity can be a difficulty, and sometimes we need to simplify, but simplifying into “which first, which later” isn’t helpful – thinking about what the priorities should be is a more helpful way of simplifying.

Dr. Spence wonders about a dysfunctional propensity in debates over the developing world to look for silver bullets. The either/or question is a form of silver bullet – it’s not something we ask in Silicon Valley, for instance.

Spence wonders whether the ability of people in developing nations, like India and China, have an advantage in discussing these ideas because they tend to be more practical and less ideological – they tend not to have the religious attachment to markets we have in this country. In China, if the financial leaders think there’s a housing bubble, they go to the banks and increase capital markets for loans – we never do that in the US, because we believe the market takes care of it. It horrifies the purists – but we need to combine wise, analytical thinking with practical wisdom.

Yochai quotes Sen, saying, “I’ve heard democracies don’t have famines.” He notes that government matters – it’s possible to design ICT systems that help squeeze our corruption, as they seem to be in India as eGovernment systems come online. He references Ronaldo Lemos’s story about LAN houses, 90,000 mostly illegal cybercafes, housing musicians who distribute using Orkut – a market that’s entirely outside of existing market mechanisms, payloa systems for music. In a decentralized system, you get massive new opportunities for entrepreneurship, which leads to economic growth.

An online question focuses on the balance between preserving traditional knowledge and embracing remix culture. Questions from the audience concentrate on electric power, and reflect fascination with solar power charging battery systems? Another question wonders how governments can move from encouraging IT consumption to entrepreneurship. Mike asks Ineke Buskins to ask about gender – she asks what we can do in policy interventions to get rid of the mistake of dysfunctional “gender-blind” policies.

Dr. Spence warns us that decentralized energy systems don’t relieve us from the responsibility to spend 5-7% of our economies on building infrastructure. They’re transitional technologies. “If you want to enable rural people, you need to build roads so they can get in and out,” and participate in the market economy. You can work on these interim solutions, but don’t let them blind you to the need to spend – significantly – on infrastructure that enables growth. Outside of the 13 fastest growing countries, infrastructure investment gets crowded out and stalls development.

Spence argues that gender-neutral isn’t a good policy “in a world that’s not gender neutral now. He notes how hard India’s working on these projects – in India, he says, most people think that affirmative action to deal with systematic discrimination from the caste system, is a fair thing to do. Safety to and from school, appropriate lavoratory facilities are asymmetric interventions, but they make the process of education fairer for girls, making it possible for them to enter productive adulthood.

Yochai fields the question from the net on remix culture and cultural preservation. The ICT4D debate has been about distributing basic material capabilities to environments where they can be combined with human capabilities, increasing the potential for knowledge production and human development. The other resource beyond intelligence and creativity is culture – “we make new knowledge out of old knowlege, new culture out of new culture.”

We’ve had a parallel debate on open access to cultural materials. It’s been part of the generalization of the trade system, the creation of the WTO and the incorporation of intellectual property into the world trade system. That’s created a strong relationship between IP exporters (US, Europe, Japan) and IP importers (everyone else) where the exporters ask for their IP to be protected in exchange for opening their non-IP markets. The problem isn’t that you don’t have material tools, or creativity – the problem is that you can’t use knowledge or culture because it belongs to someone else.

In a case of intellectual jiu-jitsu, we can protect indigenous knowledge with the same tools we use to protect Hollywood movies. This may not be intellectually coherent – we might argue that patents aren’t useful for most inventions while trade protections are a way of protecting indigenous knowledge. Yochai worries this is a bad argument, a hard one to sell, and that we might be better off simply seeking complete open access to knowledge.

Sen notes that there’s not only no gender-neutral situations – gender dynamics are buried, and harder to identify than class-based dynamics because there are no class lines within nuclear families. He references an old study in India – if you ask men “are you ill?”, 45% confess to being ill. 0% of women offer that answer. There was a theory, briefly, that perhaps women were healthier than men based on a statistical illusion, which had to do with an overreporting of dead male relations over female ones. Now, we’re seeing in current studies in Calcutta similar health reports from men and women, suggesting that women are increasingly willing to grumble, which Sen takes as a good sign.

Fonseca references the OLPC and its experiments with powering computers via alternative energy sources. Alternative sources are important, but so is building extremely efficient computers and phones. On issues of technology literacy, she believes we need to look for technology fluency, the ability to understand the principles digital technologies interact within, and the existence of a cohort of young people who can move ahead, creating new applications, not staying connected to ones that will be obsolete in the short run. Finally on the gender discussion – she suggests we need to move beyond a purely policy-focused discussion, to a discussion about how men and women relate to technology. A Seymour Papert and Sherri Turkle paper identified diverse ways of interacting with programming and suggests we need to recognize different approaches, and not force a single mainstream approach.

And that’s where we end. Mike Best suggests there’s no way to summarize these discussions… but offers the observation that our field is filled with “ands”. Regulation matters, and technology matters, and capacity matters and government and infrastructure, and investment and women matter. “We need to embrace and and avoid or.”