"Irrational Exuberance" and the Information Technology for Development Boom
by Kenneth Keniston (MIT)
Abstract: Ever since the end of WWII, well-wishers, government policy makers and philanthropists have searched for a technological solution to the problem of “development”. After all, Technology -- in the form of innovations like radar and the A-Bomb -- had apparently “won the war”; so why not the peace, especially in the newly independent but impoverished nations of Africa and Asia? The last 60 years have seen a series of fashionable but failed technological projects to overcome the poverty and immiseration of the third world. Starting with agricultural innovations (e.g., tractors, hybrid varieties) and going on to mega projects (e.g., big dams) then to simple indigenous technologies (e.g., small is beautiful, pottery stoves), and including macro-structural reforms intended to let the Market solve the development problem (e.g., the Washington Consensus). Each of these booms has left a valuable residue, but none has “solved” the Problem of Development.
Lately, new hopes are being placed on the most radically transformative technology of our age, and perhaps of any age -- the revolution of information and communication technologies. What is called ICT4D is becoming the new mantra of NGOs and Governments that want to make a difference. It is often embodied in the image of (and plan for) village telecenters, each equipped with a high bandwidth connection to the Web, and each providing what is sometimes called a “bouquet” of services to rural villagers, thus improving health, education, agricultural practices, banking, commodity purchases and sales, and providing immediate access to government regulations, officials and documents like land records (e-governance) -- and a host of other services from wedding pictures to computer training for village children.
India, probably more than any other nation, by now has ten years of experience with such village telecenters. Hundreds of projects involving thousands of computers are -- or were -- in existence. Today, an ambitious new plan to create 100, 000 more village telecenters (called Common Service Centers) is underway with massive central government funding. But the lessons of the last ten years have not been studied. And in fact, of the hundreds of projects that I have studied, NOT ONE has achieved the objectives for which it was founded.
What are the lessons to be drawn from India’s rich experience? How can we understand the current ICT4D boom? And how should ICT professionals respond to the boom?
Kenneth Keniston is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Human Development, in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and Director of the MIT India Program. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College. He received his D. Phil. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He has taught at Harvard University, at Yale University; and at MIT, where he has been Director (1986-1992) and Director of Graduate Studies (1992-1996) of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society.
Professor Keniston is the author of nine books and more than one hundred articles and chapters. His most recent works are, with Deepak Kumar, IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide (2004); with Rohit Raj Mathur and R.K. Bagga, The State, IT, and Development (2005), and with V. Balaji, a study of rural information projects for the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of the Government of India (2006).
In recent years, Professor Keniston's research has focused on information technology and development. His research in India is focused on how computer technology is used for information and communication and how it is used in development, political transparency and social justice. He is engaged in comparative ethnographic study of sites that seek to use modern information and communication technologies for e-governance and the improvement of life in rural India.