Seduced by ICT

Yesterday I started writing about the ICT for development meeting I was at held at ICRISAT at Hyderabad earlier this week. The usual suspects were in attendance. I had met many of them at the MS Swaminathan Policy Makers’ Conference at Chennai a few months ago. One face new to me was Prof Ken Keniston of MIT who gave an opening address.

He made five cautionary points which are worth noting. They are:

  • Do not get seduced by ICT
  • Localize, localize, localize
  • Do realistic cost projections
  • Given the complexity of systems, choose operators with extreme care
  • Be patient

The use of ICT tools for development is a no-brainer. But it is a mistake to think that a Pentium4 in every village will solve India’s developmental problems. The point one has to pay special attention to is to examine the entire set of ICT tools and then choose ones that are appropriate to the task. Information and communications technology tools are not limited to PCs and internet connections. There are many other tools such as radio (both FM and shortwave), ham radio, and TV which may be more cost effective and relevant in a given context.

Recently I came across a news item which said that they are looking at solving Mumbai’s traffic problems by making Mumbai roads “electronic intelligent roads.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would involve huge outlays to the tune of millions of dollars and lots of people will make lots of money up and down the line providing expertise and hardware and software for this hi-tech venture. I am also convinced that it will not make the slightest effect on the congested Mumbai roads because it is not the roads that need the intelligence but the people designing the roads that need to be intelligent.

Close to where I live in Kandivali, a suburb in North Mumbai, there is an intersection that is almost always caught in a grid-lock. The intersection is like an “H” with bi-direction flow of traffic along all the sections and it has one traffic signal at one of the points where the horizontal section meets the vertical sections. Traffic gets log-jammed around 300 meters of this intersection and it takes about a half hour to cross this bit every evening. Hundreds of autorickshaws, buses, cars, trucks, two-wheelers, and whatnots spew exhaust fumes and honk continually and people suffer. It is astonishing that the traffic people have not figured out that the simplest thing to do would be to paint some part of this intersection with the “KEEP CLEAR — DO NOT BLOCK” sections and put a couple of traffic cops to teach the people to keep off these sections. It would be a simple effective system which would cost very little compared to the enormous price that everyone pays throughout the day due to the congestion.

Instead, the Mumbai municipal corporation is investigating ways of using electronics. Why not better road markings and so on? Because there is not much money involved in a simpler but more effective system. Simpler may be better but there is not much profit in it. A blackboard, a teacher, and a dozen slates and some chalk may be simpler and better for adult education, but there is not as much profit as in putting PCs with literacy programs to teach adults how to read in rural areas.

PCs have powerful lobbies to promote their use. Chalkboards, radios, TVs, etc, don’t have that. Put it this way: the manufacturers of expensive shiny new hammers need people to be convinced that every problem is a nail and that everyone should have a shiny new expensive hammer. Never mind that sometimes a rusty screwdriver is better at a particular task than a shiny new expensive hammer.

HP, Microsoft, Intel and others of its tribe have to keep pushing their products. For impoverished people who can barely afford food, finding the most cost-effective solution is more important. But doing that involves much hard thinking and for those who make the decisions, there is not as much money in it. So the poor get saddled with expensive but ineffective solutions.

I should hasten to add that I am not a Luddite. I don’t need to be convinced of the extreme utility of computers and connectivity. Not only am I a user of these technologies, I have studied computer science and have worked for computer corporations. Some of my best friends are computer geeks (there but for the grace of god go I.) My concern is that PCs and the internet are crowding out the other more effective technologies that could help India develop.