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. 


Jay Ulfelder said...

I thought the argument was that ICT potentially accelerates growth by reducing transaction costs, not labor costs.

boredinpostconflict said...


Andres Gramajo said...

Interesting approach. There might be some degree of importance of technology . . . may be technology for mathematics is not as important for some aspects of development, as testing technology for tuberculosis, for example. There is also the time horizon . . . some technologies might have a short term impact, while others might have a long term impact. In any case, thanks for the idea! 

boredinpostconflict said...

Availability heuristics in this sense would be more like, "Because I know a guy/country that crawled out of underdevelopment with the help of technology, it must mean that technology will help development"......because your experiences are the knowledge most available to you. 

Nonetheless, Im with you on this one. While technologies can be important in facilitating development, some people have gotten overly excited by the idea and have begun to border onto SWEDOW. There are some cool developments in this movement though as shown by this event: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/sep/08/appropriate-medical-devices-poor-countries

Also, in regards to your 1st hesitation: One thing I've noticed in the developing world is that a lot of jobs that seem almost unnecessary. The only example that comes to mind right now is a bus conductor. An occupation that is unseen in the developed world as they have been replaced by a tray you put your money into or a machine that reads your card. In places where they might not seem to be so many jobs, it seems that society likes to create additional jobs, as unnecessary as they may seem. So even in situations where there is already technology available to replace these jobs, it might be sometime before people are ready to let go of that human experience. I would say the economic benefits of said additional job, but I don't know enough on the issue to say so. 

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