Palliatives Considered Dangerous

Recently the Indian Postal Services have started offering a service which can be characterized as “mediated email services.” You write out a message on a piece of paper and bring it to a post office and they will transmit the information to an email address after any required translation. On the return route, they will print out an email and a postman will deliver it to the addressee who does not have direct access to email.

I subscribe to an email list where matters relating to India’s progress down the information highway is discussed. One member, Mr. S.N.Rao, wrote in response to the postal department’s scheme. I find Rao’s comments very pertinent and with his permission I quote him for the record.

I can see that this is a very useful thing to have and that it benefits large numbers of poor people who cannot afford to own computers or learn how to operate them or speak/write English.

That brings me to the frighteningly palliative nature of this kind of solution. It attempts to provide a workaround – causing the real problems to be ignored along the way. I hope I am not the only one to see the striking parallels between this solution and the “good old days” solution to illiteracy where the postman often read out incoming letters to his customers and scribed outgoing mail on their behalf!

The basic problems that need to be solved are

a. Computers and technology are still bewildering and sometimes threatening in their cost and complexity of use. The platform that is used to develop and test software is basically the same as the platform that is used as a home PC…with all the attendant disadvantages of a user interface geared for essentially production/office environments.

There are some products that make sending email simpler by providing a dedicated email station that does nothing else – but that again is a point solution. There is a sorely felt need for a home platform. Sending email/voice/photos via the internet should be at least as easy as turning on the TV and switching between Z-TV and CNN (if not as easy as switching on a light).

b. Local language support is nearly non-existent despite large cumbersome frameworks and customisation options being built into operating systems. As a result it is almost imperative that the user be comfortably familiar with English. Oh! wait – that’s only true for India and a few other countries – in Japan, the computers, UI, keyboards are all in Japanese (I think you might be even able to select between two different scripts – kanji and the more common mix of katagana and hiragana). Now wouldn’t it be nice for the old man in Alleppy if we had a computer with an interface and markings entirely in, for example – Malayalam?

Band-aids, palliatives, patches, workarounds — are dangerous when they mask underlying problems. They work in the short-run and appear to solve the problem but in the long-run, they indirectly contribute to the persistence of the problem. They often address symptoms rather than causes. I am not advocating the abandonment of band-aids. My insistence is on making sure that even as we are busy putting on band-aids, we should spare some time and effort to address underlying causes.

Computers are complex beasts because of the evolutionary pathway they have traveled. Made by techies for techies. For them to be useful for the unwashed masses (such as yours truly), they have to be transformed into easy to manage domesticated animals. Some people are working on that domestication.

The availability of computers for the masses is of course increasingly becoming a necessity. But that is far from sufficient. For us to have a reasonable shot at development, we need to have a literate population. Palliatives that mask that underlying deficiency should be considered dangerous.

God-realization Through Technology

On the launch of the Simputer, a sort of Palm clone meant for the poor, PicoPeta chairman Prof. Vinay said: “Amida allows people to share information, stay connected and bond emotionally. It does these by breaking the fear of technology.”

Damn, now I know what was preventing me from bonding emotionally with people — my fear of technology. Now that Simputer is here, I will get over my fear of technology and bam! I will be bonding emotionally with people. Now I will finally get a life!
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Why Telephones, Radio, and TVs Don’t Make The Conference Circuits

In late February, immediately upon my return from my brief trip to California, I went to attend what is called the Baramati Conference in Baramati. Baramati is a small town in Sharad Pawar’s constituency. The conference was on “Information Kiosks and Sustainability”. I sat through the presentations. After a while it gets mighty boring to hear about ICT-this and ICT-that and all the wonderful things that computers and the internet are going to do for development of poor people. My mind wanders when I get bored. So I sat there wondering what motivates these people who wish to push computers and internet as the solution to all problems. Why?
Continue reading “Why Telephones, Radio, and TVs Don’t Make The Conference Circuits”

Misconception #3: The Digital Divide

Here is an example of muddled thinking from an article titled India Bridges the Digital Divide. The article is about computer kiosks. At one point it says:

Over the past decade, the Internet has been touted as a powerful engine that could raise living standards in poor and remote communities of the Third World by opening up new avenues for education, commerce and participatory democracy.

So far so good. Then it goes into the usual whining about the digital divide.

But the reality is a growing digital divide that is preventing the poor from sharing in the benefits of the Information Age. The gap between digital haves and have-nots is especially wide in India, where a national survey last year revealed that fewer than 1 percent of adults had used the Internet in the preceding three months.

OK, let’s get one thing clear. It is not the digital divide that is preventing the poor from benefiting from ICT. It is the fact that they are poor that is preventing them from benefiting from ICT. Not just benefiting from the use of ICT, the poor also are not benefiting from the advances in medical technology, in cosmetic surgery, in plasma TV technology, ad nauseum. It is not the digital divide, stupid, it is an income divide, it is a wealth divide, it is an opportunity divide.

If the poor had money, they would not be poor, and like all non-poor, would be able to buy all sorts of stuff — including, but not limited to — digital gizmos. They would buy education, clothes, food, houses, cell phones, cd players, DVD players, plasma TVs, and computers. There would not be a digital divide. It bears repeating: the digital divide is not the cause of poverty nor is it the cause of the persistence of poverty. The digital divide is a result — an effect, a consequence — of poverty.

Now coming to India: India does not have a digital divide. Let me put that in bold.

India does not have a digital divide.

If a vanishingly small number of people have something, there is no divide. For instance, it is pointless to talk about a BMW divide: we are all in the same boat when it comes to having BMWs and therefore there is no divide. So also, to a first approximation, Indians don’t have access to the Internet, except for a few million people. And the few million who do have it, have to pay inordinate amounts of money to get a slow uncertain connection.

I hope that we can put that myth to rest one of these days.

The Information Divide

We have been discussing the so-called digital divide in the recent past and generally reaching some tentative conclusions that the focus on it is misplaced and that resources are largely misdirected in that regard. What is important is for us to remember that ICTs merely give us a tool. And like all tools, if our focus is on the tool rather than the end for which the tool may be appropriate, we could end up doing silly things. To use an old saying, it is like the finger pointing at the moon. If we focus on the finger, we will miss all the beauty and the glory of the moon.

You may ask, what is the goal? And how is the focus on ICT distracting us from recognizing the goal? Or, what is the real divide that we should be concerned about if not the digital divide? What is the reason for the apparent confusion of means and ends?

No one can argue that the digital divide does not exist, just as one cannot argue that the Rolls-Royce divide does not exist, or that numerous other divides don’t exist. (More on my view of the digital divide.) One is only arguing that bridging the digital divide is not the end, but it is a possible (and one of many possible) means to an end. I will argue here that the end is to bridge information divide and that the tool could be provided by digital ICT. In some applications, digital ICT could well be the answer, while in others, other technologies may be more appropriate. In some cases, ICT for development goals may be an entirely inappropriate tool. We need to think very carefully to avoid the pitfalls some of which I have identified in a previous post Misapprehansions, misconceptions, …

What is the information divide and why is it relevant? The information divide is important because it empowers people. It empowers people not just in the marketplace but also in the political arena. Vested interests are threatened by an informed citizenry. So you would not hear too much noise about bridging the information divide. Bridging the information divide is likely to run into political opposition. There is a hoary history to the deliberate maintenance of an information divide. That is another story that we can address in a separate entry in this blog.

The Digital Divide : Causes and Symptoms

Bridging the Digital Divide appears to be the stock in trade heading these days of too many reports and conferences and meetings. Every blessed project name seems to have a e- prefixed to it. From e-governance to e-learning to e-this, e-that, e-the-other. It is all very e-boring. One wonders as to the e-cause and therefore I think we should do a bit of e-seeking for some e-explanation.

The next time I see another e-scheme, I will be ready to e-scream.

Seriously, here are what I believe to be the reason for this fixation with the so-called digital divide, in no particular order. First, it is a simple case of ‘to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’

Practically everyone involved with anything to do with development (except the direct beneficiaries of development) has some facility with ICT. So therefore they start to believe that every problem has a solution that is ICT related.

The next explanation is what I call the bank robber phenomenon. When some famous bank robber was asked why he robbed banks, he simply replied because that’s where the money was. ICT projects are the most lavishly funded. And therefore, it attracts the most attention from people who would like to get a piece of the action.

Another part of the explanation is what I call the drunk looking for his key scenario. A man evidently drunk was seen searching for something under a lamp post. When asked he said that he lost his keys under the trees over there. But why was he searching for them under the lamp post? “Because,” he said, “it is easier to look for it under the light.”

Definitely, part of the explanation has to involve simply not recognizing that the digital divide is merely symptomatic of some other underlying cause. But it is too bothersome to seek to understand that cause. And even if the cause is as plain as daylight, it may be too difficult to deal with the cause. So one gets busy addressing the symptom.

Addressing only one symptom (the digital divide) while neglecting to understand the causes leads to spectacles that are reminiscent of the south seas cargo cults.

During the war, the natives of some South Pacific islands had noticed a curious phenomena. They had witnessed some people prepare a long piece of land and mark it with flares and fires. Then someone with cups on his ears would talk into a device and soon planes would land in the clearing and disgorge cargo. When the war was over, the natives decided that they needed cargo. So they made headphones out of coconut shells and radio receivers out of bamboo and lit the fires around the clearings. They haven’t had much sucess in getting cargo yet, but they believe that the cargo would appear just as soon as they can duplicate the equipment better.

I do not believe that merely going through the motions, however sincerely, of bringing ICT to rural populations would magically transform the rural economy. Focusing on the digital divide could indeed be counter productive in that resources that could have been better employed would be wasted in inappropriate ventures.

I should hasten to add that there is indeed a digital divide. But we must also recognize that there are other divides as well, such as a nutritional divide, a gender divide, an income divide, an education divide, and so on. All these divides are interrelated and there are strong dependencies. It is a second best world out there and it is easy to fall into the trap of seeking first-best solutions in a second-best world.

I will discuss why I believe that ICT tools are most suited to address the complex set of problems which cause all the divides, including the digital divide. My contention is this: we need to focus on the understanding the underlying reasons for the underdevelopment of rural areas. Having done that, we then need to figure out the best use of our limited resources to bring to bear the most appropriate tools for addressing the causes. If we do that, then we would have bridged all the divides, including the much talked about digital divide. It may turn out that ICT tools are the most appropriate in many areas. But a priori assuming that ICT tools are always appropriate is silly and sometimes tragically too expensive.

For now, I cannot find a more succinct depiction of the misplaced emphasis on the digital divide than this cartoon by the incomparable R K Laxman.
“I am hungry … if we had a computer, we could have ordered food through a website.” }