28 September 2011

ICT for Development and the Availability Bias

With apologies to all of the wonderful people who work in ICT4D, but is it possible that actually new technologies aren't all that important, but we focus on them because they are so important to our lives, because it gives us a sense of optimism and hope, and because we like new shiny things? If my amateur psychologising is correct, this is a version of the availability bias.
Essentially the availability heuristic operates on the notion that "if you can think of it, it must be important."
And because we spend all day on our macs and ipads, well surely these things must be able to revolutionise poor countries too right? And not only that, but the idea empowers us to think that we are able to make a difference.

I have a couple of hesitations.

1. One of the chief functions of modern technology is as labour-saving device. Wages are high, so cutting out a worker can really save money. That's why we have to scan our own shopping in the supermarket these days. Well guess what, in most developing countries, wages are not high. That is kinda the definition of developing country. So, the labour-saving device isn't quite so relevant. (I'm thinking of this JPAL project in India. Computer-assisted learning works, but person-assisted learning is more cost-effective).

2. There are already a TON of amazing technologies we already know about that just aren't being used. Fertilizer, vaccines, bednets, chlorine tablets for drinking water. The challenge is getting existing technologies to scale.

I know mobile phones are cool and important. But maybe the really important technologies are the hardest ones. Getting democracy and the rule of law to work. And those are technologies that we really don't know how to transplant to new places.

Anyway, just thinking out loud, let me know why I'm wrong. 


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