Exporting Technology, Exporting Ideas

July 21, 2005

Summary: There is a new, exciting model for programs exporting technology to the developing world. But the real issue is about education, not just setting up a rural network.

Here's the scene: A decade after the technology-sector collapse in the highly industrialized world, a humbled tech industry has begun to take interest in exporting basic technologies to extremely poor countries.

Here's an example: Geekcorps, founded by techie Ethan Zuckerman with his cash-out-quick money from now-defunct Tripod.com (remember them?), is sending folks to Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America to live out a kind of Peace Corps for nerds.

It's ... exactly like that, actually, so much so that the Peace Corp reportedly has plans to create a nerd project sounding very similar to Geekcorps. Likewise, Carnegie Mellon University is starting a Technology Peace Corps, and so is the UN, which has a three-year-old ICT (Information Communication Technology) Task Force.

Contemporary communications technology is central to the process of international development because it is effective — and damn efficient. Communication systems can organize political movements, prevent humanitarian disasters, strengthen communities, streamline markets and enrich education. In fact, they will do these things.

Here's the point: These new groups are doing good work. Technology can work for people. It can work wonders for really poor people. Communications technology, in particular, has the potential to connect and empower places that you have never heard of, perhaps in poor parts of your district, perhaps in Africa or Asia. Just like it connected you.

But perhaps that's a problem. Do we want the Ugandan internet to look just like the US internet? Are we capabale of taking a critical approach to the way that we are teaching people to use the internet? Will the internet of 2030 connect communities or consumers? Will it empower or merely reinforce existing power?

Information technology is a virtually limitless resource. A single telephone (or perhaps a bicycle-operated VOIP system, if you prefer) is a surprisingly powerful vehicle for community development. Installing a single, inexpensive server can support the communication needs of an entire village, just as digging a well can support a village.

But ICT (Information Communication Technology) is not just a commodity, it is also a system. It requires a market, consumers and investors. Which means, I think, that there is a lot more than just altruistic service-giving, training and infrastructure development going on here.

The effort to grow ICT in the developing world is not just a "new model of volunteerism," as the Peace Corps describes it. Because the power of technology is social. Tech training is an intervention in society akin to grassroots organizing. In this way, teaching technology is a political movement, a movement primarily toward open expression of ideas, in whatever form they may come.

Or it can be, at least.

We (the ICT development community) recognize that we have to train people, not just build phone booths. This has long been seen as the difficult side of exporting technology, but I think it's important that we value the process of teaching that is at the core of this process.

And teaching has its attendant concerns. Teaching can be progressive, or teaching can recreate the ways of thinking that have led to our current crisis of poverty. Those who are involved in the transfer of technical knowledge for the sake of human development need to think about their method of creating this change, their pedagogy.

Education, not technology per se, is the only sustainable path out of inequality, and we would do well to be appreciative of the fact that we are teachers.