Communication and Human Development: The Freedom Connection?

l_1600_1200_AB318421-02B3-435B-824E-1E1A696E1F54.jpegTake-aways from a public discussion hosted by the Berkman Center and IDRC on the role of communication and ICTs in human development, growth and poverty reduction.

[Note: This isn't perfect, and please add your take-aways to the bottom!]


Amartya Sen (AS) is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.

Michael Spence (MS) is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Philip H. Knight Professor Emeritus of Management in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and the chairman of the independent Commission on Growth and Development, focusing on growth in developing countries.

Clotilde Fonseca (CF) is a Founding Director of the Costa Rican Program of Educational Informatics, and has been Executive Director of the Omar Dengo Foundation from its founding in 1987 to 1994 and from 1996 to present.

Yochai Benkler (YB) is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Michael L. Best (MB) Moderator Dr. Best is an assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

[Dr Best's mother calls on his cell phone]

Do you feel that mobile phones have freed people from negative situations? (AS)

  • One of the downsides of expansion of freedom is that it takes away the freedom of someone else (from freedom studies).
  • Mobile phones may have negative impacts on certain parts of the society (increased domestic violence)
  • It would be hard to find a case that doesn’t have a trade-off.  There will always be that complexity

Does the mobile phone enhance economic situations for the poor? (MS)

  • We had been speculating that mobile would be the answer to a lot of the problems that we were seeing.
  • It has low start-up costs and that it was able to be used under some of the oppression governments.
  • It offers a supply of many of things you need to function (as investor, as entrepreneur).
  • What people are working on are a set of “inputs (law, etc) that allows for everyone to be able to use the mobile phone.  It delivers “information-light information” (coordination).  Is it perfect?  No.
  • We’re looking forward to the information and knowledge wave that’s happening, and we think the mobile will be a large part of that

Does the mobile create a powerful learning environment, especially in the global south? (CF)

  • It is not yet a powerful device.
  • The difference between voice and data is an issue.  It allows you to have more freedom in linking to people, social connections, etc.  However, most of the cell phones in the developing world do not carry and transfer data very well.
  • There is a great generational dilemma that is confronted.  Adolescences are given cell phones as a way to connect to them, however, the younger generation is socializing to the mobile phone much differently than the older generation (peer-to-peer, texting, etc).
  • Right now, its still too limited.

Is there something about the architecture of the mobile phone that biases it against central control? (YB)

  • Everything is relative.
  • Relative to what was happening six years ago, all of thse technologies are definitely decentralized.
  • However, compared to the internet, with it’s degree of flexibility, computational power, etc. you will see that there are certain things you can do with a mobile phone, and certain things you cannot.
  • It needs to reach the point where everyone can use the technology without getting permission from anyone.

What downward pressures can be placed to make mobile phone do more, or is it limited to SMS and limited interactions?

  • (MS) There’s nothing better than competition, for pricing and delivery of services.  The dynamic competitive process should create a growing set of services.  There are remote areas where the density is low, and the economics don’t work.  That is a legitimate place for subsidies to step in.  I wouldn’t write the government out of the script.
  • (AS) Issues of misleading signals from the market.  Problems come in many different ways, such as lack of competition.  Mobile phone companies have an interest in minimizing competition.  How would we regulate it?  A lot of the advantages that come from mobile phones will not have a predictability feature: we wont know if it will be a huge benefit to society.  Regulation is not the only way to think about it.
  • (YB) I’m going to push back a little.  Once we think of the cost curves of sophisticated phones change in five years, a lot of what we’re talking about moving towards may be happening.  One option to lack of competition is a rule that says it’s fine for you to sell a phone, but you can’t say I will carry this application and you won’t.  Then you’re starting to create an environment that looks much like the net, with standards.

Is focusing on one device really the right way to talk about it?  Aren’t we talking about human development?  Are we talking about an entirely wrong question? Is human development really about food security, health, etc, and never about technology?

  • (CF) Placing the emphasis on either or is wrong.  We have to overcome the linear view of development that leads people to believe there are phases or steps that must be gone through to develop.  We must deal with the capacities that people need to be a part of a new economy, theyre all part of the nature of what development is about.  The importance of the mind is fundamental, and education must be focused on, with technology as a major resource.  Mobiles are just an example of a smaller device that can link to more powerful devices.  If we see them as part of a network of devices, as an integral issue, we can add it to part of a larger picture.
  • (AS) Development before democracy is the wrong way to think about it.  Complexity is a difficulty, sometimes we have to simplify.  But simplifying by what comes first, what do we do later is the wrong way to do it.
  • (MS) In the developing world, there’s a powerful dysfunctional propensity to look for silver bullets: looks at “either or” instead of “and.”  The successful developed countries, thinking is coupled with a good dose of skepticism.  Sometimes, people act and don’t stop when they’re worried unless there’s concrete evidence or a downfall to prove it.

How do we strike the right balance between protecting indigenous knowledge and allowing open dialogue?

  • (YB) Distributing a basic set of material capabilities into places where they can be used to improve the situation of a certain population.  The other major resource aside from human creative is the universal culture.  As the focus on distributing materials, there’s a parallel debate on open access to new cultural materials and old cultural materials (IP).  This has created a very strong trading relationship between the IP exporters and the IP importers in terms of “you will respect our IP rights, we will open up our markets to your non-IP based good).  This creates a tremendous barrier to access on the state-of-the-art.  The problem is that youre not allowed to use it because it belongs to someone else.  However, in that context, indigenous knowledge has been treated as part of the IP system.

How do the small-scale opportunities that happen in developing countries that don’t happen in developed countries because we’re on the grid come into play?

  • (MS) There are a lot of entrepreneurs developing useful technologies.  If things go well, you won’t need that stuff, and there’s not an alternative growth plan.  If you want to help entrepreneurs, you’ll build roads for them.  So just acknowledging those efforts isn’t enough.

Is there any information on being able to effectively run computers out there without a full infrastructure?

  • (CF) Two aspects to the discussion.  One is alternative sources, the other is a move towards very efficient energy use.  The research has been moving in very important directions for both issues.

How can people go beyond engaging people in technology use to leverage it for issues like entrepreneurship etc?

  • (CF) The movement is towards technology fluency, the capacity to be able to engage with the technology in very fluid, effective ways.  To be able to have a cohort of young people that can actually move ahead, with the way, and not tied to applications that will be useless in 5 years.  Being able to use technology is crucial.

Are there any ideas about what policy-makers can do about gender-blind policies when the landscape is not gender-neutral?

  • (MS) React by leaning against the non-gendered neutrality.
  • (AS) Gender issues are in every aspect of life.  When you’re looking at gender research, you need to flip it on its head.  This is where the complexity of this issue comes from.  What is the amount of information we can use?
  • (CF) There is a dimension that has to do with policy.  There is another that relates to the ways in which technology is understood and the ways in which boys/girls and men/women relate to technology.  Different people have different ways of interacting and learning from technologies.
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