Posts Tagged ‘Development’

Whose code counts? The Future Implications of Technological Abundance

Futurist Roy Amara once observed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. This quotation, which came to be known as “Amara’s Law”, seems to hold true as one ponders the implications of the increasing technological profusion of our world, where connectivity and accessibility continuously proliferate. The Internet was (and still is) heralded as the great flattener, and yet systemic inequality still seems to be the defining characteristic of our world. To understand why Amara’s Law can be a useful future heuristic for thinking about the relationship between technological change and international development, consider the following two examples:

Example 1: Access to academic knowledge

The Internet provides the perfect knowledge sharing and distribution platform, yet the true potential for a revolution in academic openaccessknowledge production and sharing (despite the growing popularity of the Open Access movement) continues to be hamstrung by the regulatory hegemony of aging knowledge distribution business models conceived – and were valuable and important – in a world that pre-dates the Internet. Herein lies the rift between what could be and what is, as evident in the first half of Amara’s observation. We have the technological tools, platforms and infrastructure necessary to revolutionise how knowledge is created, shared and accessed, yet our business models and intellectual property legislation are lagging. Technology’s fullest potential is not being realised. The promise of an egalitarian ethos of knowledge starkly contrasts with the current reality.  Stanford scholar Lawrence Lessig’s observations on the legislative properties of code (software), especially with respect to copyright law, ring true.

Example 2: 3D Printing


Low cost prosthetics made possible by 3D printing. Image credits:

There is a quiet revolution happening in how we design and create things, and it is called 3D printing, which is the process of creating a physical model from a digital file. The technology itself is not very new, but the cost of making and buying 3D printers has massively gone down in recent years. The implications of this for democratising innovation are enormous. There is already talk of 3D printed housing for rapid-response to disaster stricken areas, and the technology is already helping people in developing countries create innovative solutions to meet their local needs at very low costs. For Sci-Fi fans, we are one step closer to Star Trek’s famous replicator. The barriers of prohibitive cost and access to tools for creativity and innovation are collapsing rapidly. In a way, we are indeed living in the future and we’re not even noticing. When it comes to 3D printing, the second half of Amara’s Law holds true.

Critically investigating the promise of Digital Abundance

The above two examples in relation to Amara’s Law bring us to the following question: How can we conceive of the social, economic and political implications of an exponentially accelerating pace of technological change in a hyper-connected world? Our laws and regulations as well as values and ethical considerations evolve much slower than technology, and thus gaps emerge between technology’s potential and the extent to which this potential is realised in ways that provide tangible and measurable benefits to people around the world, especially the most marginalised. We could pose this question differently: What are the parameters necessary for understanding our future of computational and technological abundance? As digital networking and ubiquitous computing permeate politics, economics and culture, new forms of power are normalised. The late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz cogently noted that “On the Internet everybody is entitled to speak, the question is: Who gets Heard?” In a world where (immaterial) software has significant (material) consequences, which define who gets heard, who produces knowledge and under what assumptions, not only do we have to engage in critical examinations of the realities that shape processes of development, but we also need to ask: Whose Code Counts?

On Openness: What’s holding back efficient collaboration on complex issues in international development?

This post was previously published on the IDS Participation, power and social change blog on 23th January 2013. 

It is high time the development research community started learning from computer scientists, who have long realised that tackling complex problems is most optimally done by distributing effort and resources. In the computing world, the term ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving‘ (CDPS) refers to a system whereby, a network of independent, often geographically distant, computing devices can work together to solve a given problem.

In my research, I look at how some of these new modes of technologically-catalysed collaboration influence relationships in spheres of political contention, specifically in environments experiencing tempestuoustransitions and high degrees of uncertainty. Networked communities and the exponentially evolving information and communication technologies are increasingly providing better means for:

  • collaborative knowledge production
  • distributed problem-solving
  • flattening hierarchies of leadership and decision making.

Disciplinary islands

Development academia is cognizant that adapting to an increasingly complex world requires tapping into new, or at least unconventional, approaches to participation. There is no shortage of studies on addressing complexity, participatory knowledge creation, and technologically-facilitated collaboration in contemporary development literature. There is also plenty of innovative thinking going on, but the problem is that this thinking often seems to be happening in disciplinary islands without much interconnectedness, which is something that I have alluded to in aprevious blog post. Yet I want to highlight that the greatest limitation to the formation of such networks of collaboration is not a dearth of willingness of those concerned, but restricted access to the necessary channels of knowledge.

picture of lonely island

photo credit: Sinead Friel, creative commons license

Research behind paywalls
As much as the notion of ‘openness’ pervades contemporary discourses in development, there is perverse, almost deliberate, disregard to the fact that much of the research on ‘open development’, open data, access to knowledge and other relevant themes is, paradoxically, behind paywalls. A researcher succinctly bemoaned this in this recent tweet. Indeed, there are increasing voices of discontent, but what is still missing is a more vocal critique of this glaring dissonance.

Amartya Sen observed that the main culprit of food shortages is not the lack of food, but the inequalities inherent in how food is distributed. The same observation rings true if we consider the problem with the economy of ideas in international development research. Innovative thinking and possibilities for collaborative research and knowledge production are not scarce, yet the disconnected knowledge silos in which bits and pieces of the puzzle are scattered, largely due to the outmoded academic publishing systems, are  holding back the realisation of a big part of this potential. That is, the aging and now irrelevant distribution channels of knowledge are the main problem. The elephant in the room of development research is the false openness which is only starting to be, somewhat timidly, acknowledged by a small but increasing number of academics.

So, the main constraint-to a truly inclusive global collaboration on the world’s most pressing issues-is access, not willingness. To further illustrate this, let’s extend the parallel between distributed computing and emerging paradigms of knowledge sharing and collaboration. For a ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving’ system to work, the most fundamental requirement is openness. That is, inputs to the system must not be centrally stored or controlled. Applying this imperative to collaboration in development research, it quickly becomes obvious that the inputs (mostly western-produced research) are heavily centralised, mostly behind publishing paywalls. While there is a rapidly growing interest in open access publishing, the fact that restricted access to research is probably the largest bottleneck to a true co-production of knowledge still doesn’t seem to be adequately recognised.

Complicity in upholding the walled gardens of knowledge
I believe that we, as development researchers and academics, should actively advocate the open access movement and staunchly champion a more rapid shift in the aging paradigms of academic publishing. Otherwise, we concede an undeniable (if sometimes indirect) complicity in upholding these walled gardens of knowledge. We also risk letting ‘openness’ become yet another buzzword with a diluted, nebulous meaning. Choosing to publish your research in open access journals does not only facilitate the creation of new knowledge, but also has been shown to amplify research impact. The emerging technological facilitators of our hyper-connected world are rapidly relegating conventional modes of institutional knowledge production and brokering, which are not only restrictive but also resource-draining, to obsolescence. The desirable path forward is one where the notion of ‘openness’ oft advocated in contemporary development discourses is mirrored in the knowledge pathways through which such discourses flow.