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?

Jessops Amazon

There has been a recent cluster of global evidence about negative impacts:

We can begin to understand this via the ICT impact/cause perspectives diagram shown below.

ICT Impact Cause Diagram

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 . . .

7 thoughts on “Development Informatics Research Must Stop Ignoring ICT’s Downsides

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the arguments in this post. Without a doubt, the negative aspects of ICT have been neglected from ICT4D discourse.

    There are a several other negative implications that could be added. Probably two of the most important are the environmental issues (e-waste, energy consumption – follow the e-waste trail here) and ethical production issues (slave miners in the DR Congo and high-profile worker-issues at Foxconn are just two examples).

    These issues are not isolated to ICT4D, but are larger global issues, which impact more negatively on the developing world.

    Two other important issues which are worth mentioning:

    Surveillance – good or bad, depending on who is watch who
    While we have become acutely aware of surveillance issues only recently, it is something that has been most likely, one can assume, taking place in developing countries also. While a lot of us have been promoting the benefits of ICT4D it seems some governments, corporations and security agencies have been occupied with the surveillance capabilities offered by greater use of ICT. On the other hand, in many ways it is the strongest tool yet for ‘citizen journalism’ or ‘policing the police’ and facilitating activism. The balance between benefit and negative in this context is extremely delicate.

    Another relatively unnoticed implication worth considering is the cognitive-cultural changes resulting from fast and easy (and often unrelenting) access to information. Research suggests heavy use of ICT has led to cognitive changes such as how we search for information (power browsing as opposed to reading) as well as who we turn to for information. Others warn of a culture of distraction, disconnectedness and even harmful effects such as “continuous partial attention”. These areas are all contested and complex. But, they do point a need to better understand some of the cultural-cognitive affects – and the implications of these on the cultural norms.

    There are probably more…


  2. Not sure what happened to my other comments.

    I want to add that gender imbalance is deserving of special mention as ICTs can exacerbate existing inequalities with women and girls being more vulnerable.

    cyber stalking (with the perpetrator able to track someone from the security of their home), cyber bullying (with female bloggers receiving death threats via YouTube and twitter not being taken seriously because they are online), and limitations on access (anecdotes of women and girls being prevented from getting mobile phones or full access to the Internet to “protect” them aka their sexual purity) are all forms of gender based control using icts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.