Will Blogging and WiFi Save the World?
Writing in the latest issue of the New Republic, Christine Rosen takes on techno-utopians like Glen Reynolds and argues that blogging and WiFi will not save the world. As someone who ekes out an existence publishing online musings about new technologies and the developing world, I could not agree more. From my limited experience in the field, I have noticed that technological progress is all too often conflated with moral advancement. This is a mistake which must be recognized if new technologies are to be successfully integrated into the developing world.
In themselves, new technologies are neither good nor bad; it depends on how they are used. To illustrate this point, academics love to talk about Europe’s railroad system. Before World War II, railroads were seen as the engine of economic prosperity and political integration. But during World War II, they transformed into something grotesque–the engine of mechanized slaughter.In the world of international development, two examples, which illustrate the double-edged sword of technological development, come to mind. The first is a pilot program that DTE is working on, which involves introducing cellular and wireless technology into remote Vietnamese villages. Through these technologies, villagers, whose lives revolve around agriculture, can receive price information before bringing their goods to market. With this knowledge, farmers can choose when and where to sell their goods, thus, maximizing returns on their produce. In addition, cellular technology can bring together the different agricultural cooperatives in the region, enabling them to pool their resources and collectively bargain for higher prices.
Moving now to S?o Paulo, Brazil, the site of last month’s gruesome prison uprising, we find that not all cell phone users have their eyes set on next month’s farmers? market. Using cell phones from their prison cells, inmates orchestrated a revolt that engulfed dozens of prisons and left hundreds dead. The Washington Post quotes the chief of the police’s organized crime division, Godofredo Bittencourt, who explains that cell phones are now “deadlier than the gun” in Brazilian prisons.
But wait, cell phones reappear in this story and save the day! As the New York Times reports, ?the violence ceased after overwhelmed police authorities met on Sunday with the leader of the powerful organized crime group that orchestrated the onslaught, who reportedly ordered a truce by cellphone from his prison cell.?
To many of us, the lessons that these stories tell are painfully obvious. But as the New Republic’s Christen Rosen points out, they are often ignored by some of the brightest people. It is an irrefutable fact that technology has radically transformed the face of our planet. And in all likelihood it will continue to do so well into the future. But this alone is no reason to rejoice. We should be optimistic about new technologies but proceed with caution. In international development, introducing a new technology always has moral hazards. But just as technological triumphalism is not the answer to development challenges, neither is neo-luddism.