Development Informatics Research Must Stop Ignoring ICT’s Downsides
The dominant narrative within ICT4D associates digital technologies with positive impacts, and has tended to underplay negative impacts. What are the implications for development informatics research?
There has been a recent cluster of global evidence about negative impacts:
- Economic: online retail models are precipitating closure of high street shops. This may be more economically efficient but it is also more ‘efficient’ in terms of employment numbers, it erodes both the sense and reality of community, and large ICT-based firms have been adept at avoiding paying corporation tax. (See attached ‘thank you’ note posted by staff of closed UK photographic retail chain, Jessops.)
- Political: the excitement of the Arab Spring and its supposed twitter revolutions has given way to a situation in which the autocrats have colonised cyberspace. Moving on from the simplicities of blocking and filtering, regimes are now monitoring online communications in order to identify and then arrest, intimidate or attack opponents. Paid commentators are spreading misinformation and pro-regime messages.
- Military: killing by drone is on the increase as are the concerns about autonomy, civil use, and accountability. It is now possible to manufacture your own gun using a 3D-printer. An undeclared cyberwar is already underway between global powers.
- Social: ICTs have propelled a hypersexualisation of young people and pornification of sexual relations.
We can begin to understand this via the ICT impact/cause perspectives diagram shown below.
Unless we adopt an extreme perspective, we can recognise that in terms of impacts, it would have been equally easy to pull out a set of positive evidence about ICT. But it is positive and negative together that tell the whole story. And in terms of causes, there is no simple relationship between the technology and the impacts identified above but, instead, a socio-technical foundation.
This leads to a number of implications for the academic field of development informatics:
Balance: are we balanced enough in terms of the impacts we associate with ICTs in our work? Pushing a largely positive narrative can have the effect of making our work seem like hype; a relentless monotone buzz to which those working in development become habituated, and start to ignore.
Preparation: are the policy makers and practitioners who use our work prepared for what’s coming? Development informatics research needs to engage with the negative impacts, providing research users with an understanding of those impacts and, where possible, some strategies for amelioration.
Analytical Tools: do we understand what is behind these ICT trajectories? ICTs are not the direct cause of the impacts outlined above; they are an enabler of particular economic and political interests. Development informatics needs to ask the age-old question: cui bono? Who benefits when high street shops close? Who benefits from cyber-repression? Who benefits from printed guns? Who benefits from pornography? Cui bono is answered by the analytical tools of political economy. We need to be answering those questions and using these tools a whole lot more in development informatics.
Advocacy: how do we engage with ICT4D innovation trajectories? Even as it becomes more open and more decentralised, the trajectory of innovation can still be shaped by debate, by advocacy and by activism. Development informatics has always been an engaged area of academic endeavour, not stuck in the ivory tower. We have often worked with those seeking to deliver the positive impacts of ICT4D. The challenge now is to work more with those seeking to avoid the negative impacts of ICT4D.
If you see other implications, then let us know . . .Follow @CDIManchester