Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been seen for some time now as saviours-in-waiting for a world whose priorities have brought great deprivation to many and enrichment to an already privileged few. Partly, this reflects the relative strength of new technologies as forces for the public good. Other claimants to this role - public trusts, politics, corporate responsibility, community organising, the media - have proved either inadequate to challenge the prevailing inequities, or have been co-opted by the powerful few and no longer even profess their original roles. But technology, and especially the open-source tools available in the software world, may yet be able to engage this battle, and not always with a severe handicap. Hence the great expectations placed here.
This is not without merit. It is certainly true that the knowledge economy has made it possible for ideas to do battle on their own merits, rather than be limited by the financial and other resources they can gather in support. Email, messaging, mobile telephony, and other capacities have elbowed their way into the mainstream of developed nations, and appear poised to do likewise in the developing world too. The potential for awareness and response inherent in them is orders of magnitude greater than was available as recently as, say, in 1985. It is not too wild, therefore, to hope a better world can be created by harnessing these technologies in ways that empower ordinary people.
But that still leaves unsaid how information technology can be empowering. Actual progress does not result simply from using tools that contain the potential for development; additionally these tools must be used properly. If ICTs aren't already on the road to radically altering the social, economic and political landscapes of many societies - other than in consumerist ways - this is because of three failures, above all.
One, too often advocates of information-led development are fascinated by the technology itself, and focus on its capabilities for communication too deeply. For people not already comfortable with technology as a social tool, this results in a heightened barrier to their use of it. What is needed instead is simple technology that addresses the first-level needs of people. A weather-watching system to enable farmers to strategically plant their crop is a powerful tool, no doubt, but it is a terrible first use of technology for the small farmer whose technological literacy is mediocre at best. Technology advocates can be forgiven if they're excited by the most powerful tools at their disposal, but it's not the technology itself that is transformative. The real goal is to get people familiar - and comfortable - with informative tools. A wind-wane is a good start; forecasting can wait.
A third failure relates to the different lenses through which advocates of development continue to see those who are deprived. Their good intentions notwithstanding, the progressive elite are prone to imagine that the economic and technological forces that have dramatically shaped their own lives might also do likewise for the poor. But the more typical uses of technology among the urban elite are individually empowering, whereas in our society of strong identities and labels, the reasons for deprivation are often related to the fact that the disenfranchised poor belong to particular groups. The privileged elite's independence from the identities of their birth or the historical occupations of their ancestors bears no resemblance to the situation among the poor - where destinies are often tied deeply to identities. To add to this, the romanticisation of rural conditions inhibits the advocacy of ideas that might help individuals among the rural poor break free of their environs.
ICT or TCI?
So, where does that leave us? ICTs certainly have the potential, but grand doses of these are just as likely to make matters worse as better. And it's not even clear that the sort of benefit you or I might accrue from it is just as easily obtained by the poor, to whom the promise of development through technology is made.
Is that it? Thankfully not. But to move forward, we must adjust our efforts in line with what the early years on the Internet have taught us. The key to understanding information and communication technologies is that their potential for development does not lie in their electronic wizardry, but rather in the information that is communicated by their use, and the subsequent informed actions of citizens. This point is too easily missed. The sheer novelty and capability of the new technologies is incredible; this leads us to believe that it is the new capability at our means that is empowering, but in fact it is the information - and awareness - obtained by deploying the technology to advantage that has really helped.
The challenge now is to build upon the capabilities already noted, and to deepen our use of those already in use. This is also the key opportunity inherent in the information and communication technologies now enveloping our lives. The hope that ICTs will be effective tools that promote development can be fulfilled most easily by thinking of the abbreviation as Technologies for the Communication of Information. This places the emphasis on information, relegating communication and technology to facilitating elements. The technologies relate to the methods we employ to create and disseminate messages, and communicating them widely spreads their appeal and potential for change.
A good example of this different emphasis is seen in community radio. The establishment and use of small radio stations is rarely thought of as a particularly innovative step in technological terms, and radio itself is by now an ancient mode of communication. But the informative power of a radio broadcast, especially of programs that interest local communities, is indisputable, and each step towards freer use of community radio stations is rightly hailed as an important victory for society.
This different view leads to another distinction. The development lens in most ICTs is forward-looking; we tend to ask how various technologies can promote or support development efforts in society, and thereafter seek to apply them as imagined. That's not bad, but if development is the goal, then that's also the answer to the wrong question. Beginning with the assumption that activism for the public good happens independently of technology, and thereafter trying to identify how ICTs can engage it, is a quest that runs the risk of being unproductive from the beginning. What's more meaningful is to turn the lens upon ICTs themselves - by first asking what communication technologies would look like if they were deeply engaged in development, and thereafter building them in that image. Technology can itself be a form of development too, not simply an instrument for the public good.