Fostering ICTs: reasons why and reasons to doubt

There still are voices that claim for the usefulness of fostering ICTs, specially amongst those who consciously refuse to use the Internet or refuseniks. Most of the arguments can be grouped in two categories:

  • If they don’t use the Internet, who am I to tell them to: they know better!
  • They’ve been living for ages without the Internet and they surely can carry on living without e-mail or Facebook.

Both arguments can, at their turn, be embedded in a major trend now stating that ICTs have neither (positive) impact nor will solve any human problem (economic or not).

After a first era of e-enlightenment were the magic wand of ICTs would eradicate hunger all over the place, now ICTs have become almost useless and, according to some, the drivers of all sorts of evils.

Though pendulums finally reach their points of balance, the problem is that, while swinging, many arguments are centrifuged out impoverishing the debate. I would like to point out why I believe ICTs need being fostered and, more specifically, why we should encourage people to adopt them and use them intensively. At the end, some shades of meaning — and shadows of doubt — will be provided too.

Aggregate economic positive impact.

At the aggregate level — that is, I have to apples, you’ve got none, we’ve got one apple each in average — ICTs have already proven to have a positive impact on the Economy. There is plenty of literature about the economic benefits of ICTs: growth, efficiency, efficacy, productivity, direct impact on employment…

Is economic growth a synonym of development? Certainly not. Will a positive impact on the Economy reduce poverty? Maybe. I believe the Economy to be a means, not a goal. Thus, economic growth (or productivity or efficiency) will just tell us that we’ve got more tools to potentially achieve higher levels of what’s (to me) really the goal: more health, more education and more democracy.

An example? FrontlineSMS:Medic is saving lots of money (and time) by using mobile telephony in the healthcare system. And yes, cost is an important part in the equations of economic productivity and efficiency.

Aggregate and disaggregate non-economic positive impact.

Oh, but not all is about money.

Agreed: Fundación EHAS are contributing to save lives by dramatically reducing the time of reaction to a medical emergency by using wireless technologies between healthcare centres. My own University is providing online education to circa 50,000 students, many of them just able to get their diplomas because they can study from their own homes (or workspaces, or wherever they may roam).

Many people can, for the first time, follow online the plenary sessions of their city councils or their Parliaments, sometimes even being able to have their say and even decide in e.g. participatory budgeting initiatives.

Disaggregate levelling impact.

Of course, the disaggregate level is much harder than the aggregate one. As Matti Tedre put it, the fact that plumbers now attend their customers on their mobile phones won’t rocket the demand up: the demand will remain stable and the mobile phone a cost to kill competition.

Though I mostly agree with this point of view (i.e. ICTs are no magic wands), at least Three comments can be made:

The first one is that, for many knowledge economy jobs, ICTs allow for a leapfrogging strategy, where a minimum investment in capital (technology… we’re taking human capital for granted here) can have high potential returns of this investment.

The second one is that while it may be true that demand can remain stable, diminishing costs of transaction can also and actually trigger some dormant demand. Revisiting the example of online learning, I wouldn’t enrol in a University whose courses I cannot physically attend, but I may consider enrolling in an online one where presence is not due.

The third one is that, even if considering a perfect zero-sum game, where no-one can win without worsening someone else’s condition, the fact that the barriers of entering the knowledge market are much lower than e.g. entering the steel market, make worth considering fostering ICTs an option. I’m here suggesting that fostering ICTs may be good as to level the economic ground we’re all competing in.

Micro level negative impact of non-access.

The last statement is closely related to what is to be stated here: most of the times it is not about the benefits of ICTs, but about the negative impact of no ICTs.

I am convinced that ICTs can make a change, and increasingly convinced that many things have to change for ICTs to make this change. As catalysts, as multipliers, they need an initial effect which to boost or accelerate.

But even to keep the statu quo will need a major adoption of ICTs: if education won’t provide a job, but the lack of education will decrease your chances to get one, ICTs may not improve your well-being, but the lack of physical access to ICTs, lower digital skills or the difficulty to retrieve and produce digital information will certainly increase your risks of being excluded (and not only e-excluded). Like it or not, ICTs have become mandatory even if for staying in the very same spot.

Summing up.

So, in an ideal world, higher efficiency and higher productivity and higher everything would free resources so that more rewarding tasks can be performed. The Agricultural Revolution enabled the creation of civilizations and the Industrial Revolution made possible education and health for all. In an ideal world, the Digital Revolution should be able to provide more for more.

In a real world, promoting the adoption of ICTs is, at least, a way to stay where you are and not seeing your position getting worse. Not surprisingly, the only ones I heard or read talking about the needlessness of ICT adoption were the ones whose odds to get worse were already small if anything.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Fostering ICTs: reasons why and reasons to doubt” In ICTlogy, #84, September 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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