Reexamining Assumptions About Technology and Social Change Through a Development Lens

This pdf by Evgeny Morozov provides visuals for evidence that undermines or calls into question three common assumptions regarding technology and social change (assumptions I didn’t know or think about until now…go figure). Several of the points raised have interesting implications for development.

One assumption is that online data will organize itself, and Morozov casts doubt on this by referencing the growing availability of user-contributed data sites—Ushahidi among them. One must ask, can this user-contributed data be trusted? How can submissions be verified and protected from manipulation in real time? This is especially critical for tech tools meant to protect against impending crises. Yes, its great to have widespread community participation, but in many instances, data submitted will be incomplete or flat out inaccurate, or worse, manipulated by parties with less-than-benevolent motives. What to do?

The second assumption is that technology will democratize our public sphere. However, there is some evidence suggesting that the internet can breed extreme polarization (a negative for a healthy democracy), and participation is clearly not equally distributed in most open-source data hubs. Assuming we want “democratic” participation in sharing ICT4D info. via the internet, how can we account for the practitioners who are so engrossed in their work that they aren’t taking time to blog or tweet? What lessons are we missing out on?

Finally, there is a third assumption that civil society, a necessary condition for a sustainable democracy, will flourish on the web. Please take a moment to check out the (in my opinion) horrifying examples of extremist government use of the web to promote ideologies and/or maintain control over society. One such example is Thailand’s crowd-sourcing approach to censorship.

Of course, most of these assumptions and my IDev interpretations of the evidence eroding them assume a particular western political and societal ideal, which is up for debate just as much as any of the above mentioned points. Ah, the interdisciplinary, multi-perspective nature of IDev….never a straightforward answer.

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