Sunday, 17 February 2013

Where does change come from?

"Tech is a tool.  Change happens through people."

I was asked to chair a panel at a recent event.  The whole evening was themed around "tech for good".  While preparing my notes, the above phrase came into my head.  During the sessions, Mohamed Bouazizi's name came up (invoked by some breathtakingly trendy hipsters).  It got me thinking:

  • That's where the original spark (forgive the horrible pun) came from.  It was his desperation that drove his action.  Tech had nothing to do with it.
  • In the weeks that followed, plenty of other frustrated - and usually ill-educated - people around the region also self-immolated.  Those were their actions.
  • Then came those who eventually protested on the streets - not knowing what the crackdown would or would not be.  Those too were their brave actions.

This was where the catalysis & drive for the change came from.  To the extent that tech was involved in dissemination of news or views, it was purely a transmission mechanism.  No different from the wires that used to carry the telegraph signals.

So why then do people hype tech & social media as a force for good.  They're just tools.  As tools - as transmission mechanisms - they are as likely to be used to try and preserve and sharpen existing inequalities and repressions as they are to try and reduce them.

Ok, so far so un-revelatory - why am I stating the bleeding obvious?

Because the vast majority of the tech for good space seems to be blissfully blind to this.  It seems to be focusing on the tools, but not on the underlying power inequalities.  The people involved are too clever to be doing this accidentally - so are they doing it wilfully?

As an example, take  This website has had so much money and attention thrown at it.  What does it do?  An English-language website allowing Indian citizens to report cases of petty bribes they have been asked to pay.  Last time I checked: 22,000 reports uploaded across 500 cities.  Do the math: that's an average of 44 bribery reports per city.

Now think to yourself.  What sort of people in India would be educated and affluent enough to be accessing a website in English to upload reports of bribes they have paid?  And, leading on from that, what sort of people would be the petty officials asking for these bribes?  (The highest officials are creaming off hundreds of millions in strategic corruption).  And as a coda, ask for yourself whether the type of structural injustices that the lower classes (and castes) have to confront are captured or logged...

So all this noise, attention and money (from big corporate funders) to a platform that is largely irrelevant for the significantly larger and more disadvantaged groups of Indian society?  Either the funders, and media, involved are stupid - or are they more interested in promoting the interests of the middle classes, and not the poorest?

Tech absolutely does present a potentially useful tool - a transmission mechanism that is capable of hitting the trifecta of reaching more, quicker and cheaper.  But as a neutral tool, for this to be deployed in a way that does lead to "good", you have to pick, engage with and support the users of this tool.  These are the people who are mobilising and trying to drive social change.  Those are the people that the funders and media need to support.  Not glorify or fetishize tech as an automatic tool for good.

And here's the rub.  I don't think the funders and media are fetishizing tech out of ignorance.  But I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that they're doing it to distract people from the underlying politics of the choices they make in selecting the organizations they support.

The sector is not interested in making all voices count - it is interested in making the voices that it finds agreeable count (more on this another day).

Another interesting feature of this new philanthropy is its focus on leadership of this social change - portrayed as a hallowed, exalted virtue or skill.  The funders talk about looking for, and supporting, such fabled leaders (who are often, of course, "entrepreneurs").  Hmmm, an astute observation by Freire comes to mind: “The oppressors do not favor promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders.” 

So, as the title of this post asks, where does change come from?  To my mind, it comes from shifting 'power equations' (where such 'equations' are the competitive tension between different norms and interest groups).  And while some power equations can change through the change in transmission costs that tech can deliver, there is no guarantee that such changed costs won't actually work in favour of those with the upper hand already.

To my mind, to really drive change, you need to engage with the fundamental components of power equations.  That is to say, with the norms.  If the norms don't change, tech won't actually lead to any change for good.

And tech itself doesn't change norms.  In countries where ethnic tensions are sharply felt, it should be no surprise that tech could be used to group and mobilise along such sharper lines, or provoke backlashes, or be linked to intolerance as a recent paper notes.  (Btw, this should not be a surprise - there is evidence that shows that simple gender-enabled policies, such as girls' education, can also lead to surprising adverse social consequences among such educated girls.  People are embedded within, and emerge from, their social milieu, and will therefore reflect the biases and value preferences of that milieu.  Why would that automatically be a progressive preference?)

But who - in these days of social entrepreneurship, investment-led development models, tech glossiness etc - focuses on such old-fashioned, boring work as local grassroots groups working through offline networks where norms really are shaped and reinforced in real-time visceral emotions?

...Interestingly, there are of course groups that do exactly this.  Faith-based groups (of all faiths).  And its interesting that these are on the rise - for example look at pentecostalism in Ghana, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islam in many parts of traditionally Christian Africa, or .

These groups are emerging as at least as powerful a new wave as tech.  In fact since they are mobilised around specific things, even if tech is the background tool in everything, by being the unashamed users of these (and other) tools, such groups are actually arguably much more driving forces in the types of change happening than tech per se.

If "tech for good" was viewed as a potential pentecostal mobilisation (which the devotion of some its acolytes would sometimes make it look like), then its actually a rather poorly performing one.  Because the grail is being taken by groups that are unabashedly engaged directly with the people.  Theirs may be an aeons old charm and strategy, but that's why its working better than sterile superficiality.

For the funders behind this glossiness of leadership (and tech for good and social entrepreneurialism etc) to not get this doesn't smell right.  That would make them stupidly naive, and they're too canny for that.  So that can only mean that the choices of leaders that are being backed and organizations that are being supported reflect the political preferences of these funders and promoters.  In other words, their revealed preferences.

And that is worth remembering, because the one thing these folks cannot then claim to be is neutral or non-partisan.  I'm again reminded of Freire: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Something to keep in mind the next time you read something gushy like this, while reading comparatively less about things like this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good piece. Agree that tech-utopia is distorting reality. Tech is clearly a powerful tool for social change, With that in mind we need to give more attention to the lack of equity in access to tech rather than extolling the virtues of a chosen few (male) entrepreneurs.

Something you do not mention is the significant gender gap in access to tech. GSMA Women concluded that worldwide a woman is 21% less likely to own a cell phone than a man. And men have double the access to technology, broadly speaking, that women do. So all these mHealth initiatives (the vast majority of which show no demonstrable results anyway), may actually be deepening existing gender equalities. As you say, tech tends to work in favor of those who already enjoy the upper hand.

Thanks again for a great piece.