Friday, October 24, 2003


Magic: “the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces,”
Miracle: “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Some years ago I compared the faith some people have in the power of ICT to promote development to that of the Cargo Cults of the Pacific, in which people believed that it they built landing fields on Pacific islands, huge metal birds would come from sky and deliver them wonderful gifts (as the cargo planes did for the U.S. troops in the Second World War). The faith in the magical power of computers, or the miraculous effects of the Internet seems still to be with us.

My last posting focused on the complexity of many of the social, economic, political and environmental systems that surround us. Most people don’t understand these systems, but have a touching faith, sustained by the unflagging efforts of political leaders and the media, that someone up there does. I suspect even the scientists, who generally understand the limitations of their own understanding of the specific systems with which they work, assume that others better understand the complex systems on which we all depend.

Perhaps it is not too surprising, therefore, that people believe that ICT will surely contribute to social and economic development and to the eradication of poverty, although the mechanisms by which such contributions will occur are not clear to them.

What is surprising is that this faith seems to persist in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. There are so many poor countries with failed governments, endemic and epidemic corruption, catastrophic public health conditions, engulfed by war, buffeted by famines and natural disasters, shackled by the ignorance of their peoples, and facing disastrous environmental problems -- countries where government officials can’t create adequate policies, and institutions are too weak for such policies to succeed even were they to be in place -- for us to believe that the information revolution will sweep the world and solve all our problems! These countries have failed to take full advantage of a wealth of technological opportunities in the past, and I see little reason to believe that they will fully benefit from computers or the Internet.

Rich countries are investing hundreds of times as much per person in information and communications technology than are the poorest countries. They are doing so in part because the rich have more resources to do so, but in part because they are better able to benefit from the ICTs that they buy. Some developing countries are able to get their policies and institutions in line in order to achieve rapid economic and social development, and these countries too tend to spend a lot on ICT, and to reap benefits commensurate with their investments. But many poor countries are still not developing, and telephones and computers are unlikely to prove a miraculous cure for their ills.

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