Digital delusions in the South

Digital technology in its current corporate form is irrelevant to a wide cross-section of the populace. What can be done to salvage it and orient it towards the objectives of development?

The digital hype in South Asia has been around for close to a decade now and there is no end in sight. Institutions, agencies and organisations concerned with digital policy, implementation, lobbying, education and dissemination have mushroomed across the technologically-arid landscape of the Subcontinent, promising "giant leaps" and cutting-edge developments that claim to bring all manner of electronic conveniences to "village South Asia". The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), whose annual Human Development Reports (HDR) over the last few years have provided the clearest indicators of social and economic disparities between and within countries, is another recent high-profile convert to the digital cause. Thus, even those who deal in poverty eradication and sustainable development have now come around to accepting the technocratic route to their objectives.

Yet these grandiose digital dreams come up against some very real problems. Minimally, participation in basic digital activity requires an electric socket and plug, some electricity, a computer of any brand or model, functional literacy in English or another European language, plus a suite of software applications. If this participation is to be upgraded to the most rudimentary network activity, additional requirements include a modem, a phone line and an e-correspondent with access to the same facilities. As against these requirements, consider the actual realities of 'average South Asia', leave alone 'village South Asia', which harbours the bulk of the region's poverty and undernourishment.

In India, the most digitally advanced country in the region, as much as 42 percent of the population earns an annual income of only USD 365 a year (HDR 2001), which is approximately the price of a personal computer. When close to half the country's population just about survives a whole year on the sale price of one PC, for the average Indian even rudimentary hardware and software remain unaffordable. Electricity is a scarce commodity in the Subcontinent and supplies mainly urban and industrial regions. And, for a great many rural citizens, even getting hold of a remote e-correspondent is not as easy as it may sound to a habitué of the anonymous cyber-chat networks. Most rural inhabitants in the Subcontinent cannot digitally communicate even personal information for want of basic literacy.

Sanguine hopes of 'useful' information floating about freely through a wired world are therefore misplaced in an environment in which scarcity is both pervasive and unevenly distributed. Lack of access to current digital technology is an outcome of the failure of development. It is difficult to see how an arrested technology can root out its impeding circumstance. The aim of harnessing digital technology to the ends of development will be defeated by the cold indices of underdevelopment. For years now, the effort has been to peddle this technology to all corners of the globe, to achieve the dream of connecting every individual to every other individual in the world. Little attention is paid to the fact that "business at the speed of thought" is a concern that unites Bill Gates and Azim Premji, but is as inconsequential, as it is in any case impossible, for the tea-shop proprietor in the Indore municipality, the herdsman at Khyber Pass, the porter in the Nepali midhills, or the boat people of the Padma.

Despite seemingly insurmountable constraints, development and marketing professionals and national policy makers are all unanimous that greater doses of digital technology are what underdeveloped economies need in order to overcome their problems. The reason for this is not far to seek. A glance at some of the HDR figures is sufficient to explain this enthusiasm. In the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings for 2002, Maldives leads South Asian countries at 84, followed by Sri Lanka at 89. India ranks 124, Pakistan 138, Bhutan 140, Nepal 142 and Bangladesh 145. All of them have dropped in global ranking since the 2001 HDI. In most of these countries, between one-third and one-half the population lives on about USD 1 a day. In all of South Asia, about 45 percent of the population above 15 years of age is illiterate. 22 percent of the region's people are undernourished, 48 percent of its children are underweight, and 98 out of every 100,000 persons suffer from tuberculosis.

All this, despite the hectic development activity of the last half century. Influential participants in the self-perpetuating aid-and-development business, increasingly fed by corporate funds, are keen to endorse corporate technologies in the hope that these will quickly make up for the failure of the development models they have chaperoned over the decades.

Consider now another set of figures that will delight the corporate managerial class. The Big Five of South Asia have a total population of 1.4 billion. The depth of IT penetration is abysmally low. India has 32 landline telephones for every 1000 people, and Bangladesh has four per 1000. Mobile phones range from between four to one per 1000 in the whole region. Bhutan has 1.2 internet hosts per 1000 people. The others do not even figure. For the corporates this represents a potential market. They are no doubt aware that this large population does not by itself constitute an independent market. But when technology free-rides on development, the poverty-stricken masses can be converted into a substantial body of proxy consumers in the aid-generated market. When development funds are thrown in, the state's development bureaucracy jumps at the bait and starts to echo the same theme. Information Communication Technology (ICT) is therefore the current panacea for all maladies.

That ICT as currently understood will continue to bypass the majority of South Asians for some time to come is a foregone conclusion. The technology in its current form is irrelevant to a wide cross-section of the populace. Nevertheless, digital technology can be made useful in limited and clearly-defined ways. To do this it is necessary to identify the precise nature of the irrelevance, for which it is useful to look at the broad principles on which the technology is based, the driving force of the digital industry, the assumptions underlying global connectivity, and the development of standardised hardware and software. The concrete aspects of the technology as it is being developed and used are an indication of what it is useful for and why and, therefore by extension, what it is irrelevant to and why.

The world of obsolescence

Digital technology uses algorithmic procedures for problem solving. At its most basic level it can perform complex computing exercises at very high speeds. At its most advanced it can perform a whole range of esoteric functions that are incomprehensible and irrelevant to the average user. If it resembles human intelligence, it is with good reason, for it simulates certain aspects of the cerebral function that are related to problem-solving. Given its nature, it can be used to automate repeatable and predictable functions that are based on well-defined formulae, even if they involve a large number of variables. The wide range of its functions is what gives it potential relevance across a wide social spectrum, but the manner of its development is the key to its current mass inappropriateness in poor societies. Applications designed to address a certain range of problems cannot be used to solve problems that lie outside this range. The relative rigidities of its application require it to be oriented towards specified ends if it is to be useful.

The pattern of digital development is influenced to a great extent by some of its unique properties. Digital technology has a very low rate of physical depreciation. On the other hand, it has an inordinately high rate of obsolescence that is necessary for the industry's survival. This has implications for the patterns of current technology use and potential reuse. The industry is of course not a monolith and the patterns of end-use are not uniform. Even so, there are certain broad trends that are relevant to a discussion of the wider application of electronic technology.

Obsolescence afflicts users in both hardware and software terms. The very nature of developments in the industry restricts the purchase and use of the technology to those institutions and operations whose functioning matches the system principles on which the digital 'solution' is based. The process is somewhat circular. The large hierarchical organisation is the model for the architecture of the electronic system that manages information flows within and between such organisations. In turn, these organisations adjust the pattern of information flows to the possibilities and limitations of their electronic data management systems. In effect, electronic systems become, predominantly, the preserve of organisational systems wired into a global digital network of ever-upgrading machines.

Connectivity between machines stimulates, on pain of incompatibility, perpetual upgradation across organisations. To take just one example, many new computers do not have a parallel or serial port, so that users are forced to change over to the Universal Standard Bus (USB) port. This upgradation also promotes increasing standardisation. In short, the prevailing trend in electronic system designs is primarily oriented to a globally standardised enclave of end-users across the globe. This group of end-users is the electronic vanguard, who can take advantage of the many benefits that are designed in accordance with its needs. The global financial sector, bureaucratic institutions, large corporations, small businesses, universities and the professionals associated with them, all partake of the fundamentals of the "new economy" and its protocols of communication. The constant cost of upgradation is the first impediment to 'massifying' the technology.

The second obstacle is that the technology's real utility is limited by the first principles of its design, which is confined to standardised formats based on demanding preconditions — including a reasonable base level of familiarity with office technology, fluency in at least one of the major languages of the developed world, and an ease with the procedures of modern organisational systems (such as filing and document management). In other words, it suits people who are potentially employable in a modern workplace, i.e. people who are products of 'development'. It is not difficult to see why a majority of such individuals are at the forefront of the campaign for digitally-led development despite the fact that it has no mass affinity in its current form. The specie tries to expand its habitat, and the utopias that have been barred from politics have returned, with modified agenda, to roost among the technocrats.

If there are good reasons why the technology cannot sink roots naturally, there are also equally sound economic reasons why it should not be thrust on people who have no use for it, which is what is being proposed. Upgradation to ever more advanced levels of computing, storage and communication outruns the average real utilisation of available facilities even among high-end users. As a general rule, upgradation creates idle capacity since, typically, only a fraction of a digital system's full capabilities is utilised and the end-user has no choice in the matter. For prosperous societies, this superfluous capacity may not represent a major burden, but societies that continuously face resource and allocation crises ought not to be investing in high-cost idle capacity. The attempt to foist high-end technology on users with an entirely different set of priorities subverts the basic principles of development accounting.

Software bugs

If these are just a few of the generic problems of the technology that constrains its generalised assimilation, there are also specific constraints related to the software. Software has its own peculiarities that make it almost completely marginal to much of the underdeveloped world. Hardware, being just the medium, is relatively more passive and lends itself to some degree of useful adaptation. Software, on the other hand, offers very little possibilities, since its creation involves a greater number of rather specific end-use assumptions. Software can potentially be developed by much larger numbers of individuals than hardware can be. Yet, the way in which the industry has evolved has prevented this potential from being realised, arresting in the process greater diversity of products and functions, and impeding the emergence of packages more customised to local requirements.

The tendency to integrate different kinds of functions, and the high degree of duplication within the industry, has not been conducive to providing low cost, affordable options. Given the high cost of developing and marketing software in the corporate environment, it is evident that functions that are meaningfully related to each other in some way should be grouped together in a single package. Unfortunately, where such integration does take place, the end-product is usually an extravagantly expensive bundle of functions with high hardware requirements. Typically these bundles tend to be geared to a particular kind of clientele that passes under the description "knowledge workers". This is the fundamental problem of software as it is being currently developed. Its assumptions are invalid for the vast majority of non-knowledge workers.

Take the case of the set of applications that is most widely familiar to the average computer user, both in offices and outside, i.e. the Microsoft Office suite. Office, as its name suggests, is limited to a certain set of functions that are of little use to those who do not belong to the "knowledge economy". Its wide range of functions, coupled with Microsoft's monopoly in the software market, has given the company what, by industry standards, can be considered a mass market. The Office package includes the word-processing application Word, the spreadsheet application Excel, the Access database application, Power Point, Photo Editor, and a host of other paraphernalia.

Given such a wide range of functions, which could very easily have been made available as separate applications, the end user has no choice but to pay for those components. Microsoft's position as a market leader gives an indication of corporate software development trends. The tendency to manipulate end-users by large corporates who have gradually come to occupy near-monopoly positions does not inspire any confidence in the industry's capacity to provide software solutions oriented towards more diversified needs. The current philosophy of developing solutions is to devise packages that assume the needs of as wide a set of people as possible within a limited and common spectrum of activity.

This approach to designing software solutions raises some important questions relating to the willingness of the industry to develop applications more relevant to users with far less standardised needs. The informal, unorganised, non-regulated "chaotic" world of underdevelopment does not easily lend itself to a bundled set of applications designed for cognate sets of activities. The assumptions of integrated solutions fall apart here and more context-specific software has to be created if it is to meet the objectives of economic development. But the financial incentive simply does not exist, if the example of the Microsoft Office package and the general inclination to "bundle" software is any indication.

The mass market is the main aim of such integrated packages. However, where social and economic agenda are the objective, macro-level solutions applicable to the entire developing world, or even to specific countries, are futile. The disaggregated approach that effective development requires automatically reduces the scope for bundling software applications. Software corporates are unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of having to produce niche commodities, which will require high levels of preliminary research on unfamiliar societies and their varied needs. The costs are too high and the market too small. Clearly, under the present digital regime, software development and social development are very different issues. As the 2001 HDR notes, "Technology is created in response to market pressures – not the needs of poor people, who have little purchasing power". What is puzzling is that, having acknowledged this fairly well known fact, development agencies have still gone ahead and endorsed it as the agent of development.

The cause of adapting the technology to social needs is not helped very much by the fact that advocates of digitally-led development have not been particularly forthcoming in spelling out how precisely it is to be applied. With the existing global gusto for bringing digital technology to the forefront of the development agenda, it would only be reasonable to expect some minimal but concrete recommendations. But this has been a vain expectation. The last four years or so has seen a high level of rhetoric from various quarters but little else, and more than a hint of malafides must be attached to the corporate sector's sudden interest in alleviating poverty.

A great many international fora have been established to foster all-round electronic development, and these have met and issued statements so often that it is now possible to detect a uniformity in their conduct. The Group of Eight (G8) initiative is a case in point and worth examining. When the G8 economic powers met at the Kyushu-Okinawa summit in Japan in June 2000, they adopted a charter on Global Information Society ("the Okinawa Charter"), and agreed to establish a special task force to study the subject. As a result, the Digital Opportunity Task Force, or the DOT Force, was formed soon after, "with a mandate to work with partners in a manner that would be responsive to the needs of developing countries".

The composition of the DOT Force as outlined in the Backgrounder to its Report Card is revealing. It has officials from the G8 governments, seven representatives from multilateral organisations, 11 leaders from the private sector, and eight representatives from the nonprofit sector. Its only concession to the under-developed world it has been mandated to work with are the "representatives from 8 developing countries", presumably numbering eight in all. This is one of the world's expert groups that will "do development".

In pursuit of its mandate under the Kyushu-Okinawa Communiqué the DOT Force proceeded to have three plenary meetings and six international "forums", and it also conducted an internet survey. It then formulated a nine-point Plan of Action (the Genoa Plan of Action) "to provide a basis for developing economies to achieve sustainable social and economic development enabled by information and communications technologies".

Shorn of the verbiage, all that the DOT Force did was to constitute a cabal of technocratic, managerial and development professionals which, in the course of travelling around the world, came to the unanimous conclusion that the digital industry must be developed by pouring its products into the underdeveloped and "emerging" economies, and reorienting international aid for this purpose if necessary. The G8's digital experts had no concrete suggestions on the deployment of IT for development, barring some confidential hints that "ICTs offer powerful tools to address and improve health and fight against HIV/AIDS", besides being useful to "foster e-literacy". Instead, between the lines of the incessant e-chatter of its Report Card can be found the lynchpin of the new agenda, viz connectivity.

Utopian connectivity

How connectivity is even conceptually a factor in development merits some consideration. The emphasis on connectivity comes from the laissez faire assumption that information is a key variable in the creation of perfect markets. And with market failure becoming an increasingly persistent fact of economic life today, the techno- managerial utopia takes the form of facilitating perfect markets. The premise is that with the free flow of information market participants can take rational decisions, armed as they are with all the inputs necessary for decision-making.

Relevant information is necessary for any kind of economic activity. But when the scale of the activity is circumscribed by factors other than information, no amount of connectivity can fetch the produce a worldwide market. The picture, in the DOT Force Report Card, of two happy girls with a laptop in the wilderness of some "emerging economy" makes a powerful impression no doubt (see icon at top right). And the odd entrepreneurial success story of an artisan striking it rich, or a fisherman doubling his catch through connectivity, which have fuelled a new genre of e-fairy tales, do not add up to much more than exceptions in an otherwise grim saga of developmental stagnation. Besides, they represent individual successes, which may fit in well with the new model based on individual entrepreneurship, but for these to be treated as symbols of the unfolding future is somewhat premature. The sample size is far too small and possibly a tad too contrived for it to ring true.

In any case, connectivity on the scale that is being implied is hard to come by. The staccato manner in which e-connectivity was established in South Asia is an indication of the potential problems facing digital infrastructure development. This has partly to do with the fact that governments were slow to react to the technology as it emerged and, consequently, it was policy that for long obstructed connectivity. In India, academic networks like ERNET were the first to connect to the internet. In Sri Lanka, the internet became available through university initiatives. In Pakistan and Bhutan, donor assistance was the stimulant, while in Nepal, private internet providers had to prove the viability of the market before the state-owned telecom monopoly entered the fray. In South Asia, where the state's role in infrastructure development is still crucial, governments are notoriously suspicious of the free exchange of information, and all countries have at some point or the other witnessed curbs on the conventional media. Consequently, even though South Asian governments enthusiastically echo the virtues of connectivity, it is unlikely that they will actively participate in its genuine dissemination. This is something that development professionals have clearly not understood, or prefer not to.

Another constraint is that the global structure of connectivity is likely to impede more optimal solutions from emerging in the immediate future. Take, for instance, the most basic of all forms of internet communication, e-mail. This essay, to reach its editor a few kilometres across Kathmandu Valley, from the writer's resident at Koteshwor to Pulchowk, first went all the way to San Francisco by one channel before returning via a different channel. The sheer enormity of providing connectivity will be evident from the reported data which shows that trans-Pacific bandwidth connecting Asia to North America is a mere 25 percent of the trans-Atlantic bandwidth connecting North America with Europe.

With such constraints, deficiencies in the level and quality of existing and likely future connectivity can be imagined. The fact is that connectivity involves not just software and hardware, but a whole range of investments in infrastructure, which makes clear why it has become the focus of multinational corporate attention. The only problem is that for poor countries to make such consolidated investments amounts to gambling on an outside chance. It will either create excess capacity in small countries like Nepal, where capacity absorption is currently very limited, or it will simply be used by already 'developed' and connected sections of the populace in large countries like India. Whether such investments need to be made in the name of development is the pertinent question. la infrastructure on such a stupendous scale is best left outside the rubric of development.

The second-hand solution

Development is the key issue before poor countries, but this does not necessarily call for investing digital technology with any special status. Development involves hard choices. But it would seem that the question of choice of technique is no longer available for developing countries. Under corporate pressure, the choice has already been narrowed down to the intensive application of digital technology. The fact that it is a purely imported technology, more or less under the control of network engineers, to whom differences in socio-economic environments have no particular value, is largely overlooked. As the scientist and author Arthur C Clarke told the United Nations, "the debate about the free flow of information which has been going on for so many years, will soon be settled – by engineers, not politicians".

This new corporate-driven agenda, surprisingly, has evoked very little protest from civil society organisations, despite the fact that the Southern societies on which this technology is being imposed neither have any inputs in it, nor any real degree of control over it. In the last decade or so, instances of inappropriate imported technologies, ranging from dams to genetic modification, have attracted vociferous criticism from local organisations and pressure groups. The reason why the digital solution has escaped any activism is that, barring its corporate sponsors, no one else involved in promoting the technology, including governments and development agencies, has a clear idea of what it is all about.

This is a technology to which all kinds of magical qualities have been attributed. The cult status that has been granted to it is based on the assumption that it is an independent solution. If the real potential of electronic technology has to be salvaged for the purposes of development, its limitations have to be kept in mind. Digital technology can neither identify the problem nor generate the solution. It can only be used to implement already identified solutions. Put very simply, digital technology can regulate an automated process by which a car is made, but the car itself cannot digitally be made. Likewise, it can be applied to execute solutions to poverty, but it cannot remove poverty.

The potential of the technology to achieve the objectives of development can, therefore, be realised only if it is streamlined and the superfluities of its current structure are eliminated. If it is to be of any use, the idea of connectivity as a solution must be discarded. Connectivity may be generally useful, but it has no particular value in reducing poverty. The operational modalities of development work need to be digitised into local languages, if connectivity-based development can work at all. But as the foregoing analysis shows, localising software is not about to happen under corporate auspices.

Therefore, what is required is the judicious application of digital technology, without any emphasis on its communication aspect. The routine computing process, using minimal hardware and relevant software, is more than adequate for the present. Hardware, for all its industry-driven problems, does not present obstacles in the way of minimising investment costs. In fact, the advantages of minimal depreciation and high obsolescence can be used to the advantage of poor societies. Upgradation of hardware creates wasted capacity in the form of computing equipment that is phased out of networked organisations. These machines are obsolete only because they are connected and not because their inherent utility has been made redundant. As independent machines, reoriented to appropriate ends, they constitute cost-effective and durable resources. Given the steady flow of such equipment that is made available by constant obsolescence, there is little point in developing countries investing in cutting-edge hardware. So long as connectivity is not an issue, reusing discarded equipment is a feasible option. The first step towards the appropriate use of "future-proof" digital technology is, therefore, to exit from the connectivity loop.

This option also dispenses with the need for incurring huge expenditures in research and development that are necessitated by the search for indigenously developed, specialised hardware resources, which in any case might lead nowhere. Take the case of the Simputer, or the simple computer developed in Bangalore. Its value lies in its attempt to synthesise vernacular dialect into text, and it has been built keeping in mind developing country situations. The Simputer also makes provisions for connectivity. But, the question that arises is whether this effort and investment in research was not wasted. Last year, its cost crossed the USD 200 level. At this price, it begins to lose its attraction since a higher capacity, refurbished, personal computer can be had for less than USD 200. The lesson is fairly obvious. There is scarcely any point in developing alternatives to feasible and cheaper options that are already available in the market.

The main constraint to the extended use of information technology in the developing world is therefore appropriate software. This is the key area of concern since no second-hand solutions are available. Developing software is particularly difficult. The irony of South Asia is that it provides software professionals at all levels to the global industry, but does not have a single major application in any of the local languages, let alone a programme geared for local needs. If development funds for ICT are to be invested anywhere, it is in software creation – and let the donor agencies hear this loud and clear.

This involves two related issues, namely the principles of using programming code and investment in training, research and development. The only way towards the creation of less expensive software technologies that are not based on the assumptions of the networked world is to participate in the arena of non-proprietary code. Globally, programming runs on two different principles. There is the proprietary system generally adopted by large corporates, wherein the original code of the programme is not available in the public domain. Against this, there is the principle of open-source development, according to which, whoever develops a programme releases its code in the public domain, for use in whatever form by other software developers.

Open-source is about the free development of software that is based on design ideas that have been collaboratively developed. This considerably reduces the time and effort spent in developing programmes and is the key to generating locally adapted solutions. All this makes for a great deal of flexibility in creating software options, including the incorporation of local language computing into the system, which otherwise is difficult to do.

The other question to be addressed in the localisation of technology is the creation of facilities for training and research. This is by far the more expensive aspect, since it involves competition for human resources with corporate software developers. If development funds are to be genuinely spent in the pursuit of relevant digital inputs, the first task is to invest in training and research facilities that will reorient programming on the basis of open-source principles. But training alone will not be sufficient, since there is no guarantee that trained professionals will want to stay back and create development-oriented software when other opportunities abound. It is necessary, therefore, to also create centres of software development that have sufficient attractions and incentives to retain the interest of a critical minimum number of professionals.

The common denominator of all development is the management of resources to meet prioritised needs. Corporate-driven social development programmes are more likely to waste scarce resources than achieve useful objectives. Reused hardware, open-source software and content in local language employed in well-defined ways that do not exceed the capacity of the technology can facilitate development. For that there must be a clear recognition of the principle that digital technology is not an end in itself but an instrument to be usefully employed.

(The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any of the organisations with which he is associated.)

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Himal Southasian