Category Archives: digital technologies

Computer learning in a girls’ primary school in England in 1984

Going through my mother’s many papers recently, I discovered this document – a 1984 summary of the computer training that she had introduced to the school in the early 1980s. The remaining pages that can be seen through the thin paper continue with details of the syllabus.

I’m sharing it here, because for me it reminds me of four very important things:

  • There is actually a long history of computer learning (and the use of digital tech for other types of learning) in schools, going back at least forty years. We should surely have learnt how to do this well in that time, and yet so many initiatives do not learn from the lessons of the past, reinvent the wheel, and make the mistakes that we made beforehand!
  • My mother taught at that time in a single sex primary school, and I have no doubt (from the messages I have received from those she taught at this time) that the girls she taught gained as good a digital training as any at the time, and probably very much better than most. We need to remember therefore that initiatives to teach girls to use digital tech have also been around for a long time, and yet we still don’t seem to have learnt the lessons well aboout how to do this!
  • Although my mother was a maths teacher, it is great to see that she was not only teaching the girls to use computers for maths, but also for music and writing, and that she was using quizzes and games in her teaching.
  • A final striking feature is that even back then she noted that about half of the girls had a computer at home (although I wish I knew whether this meant that it was their own computer or that they had access to a family computer). It remains essential for girls to have easy access to digital tech outside the school environment if they are to be able to use it effectively for their learning.

I hope others find this re-discovery as exciting as I do! The mention of BBC, Spectrum, ZXB1, Vic 20 and Commodore computers brings back so many memories of the early days of using computers in schools (and indeed in universities) at the time.

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Filed under computers, digital technologies, Education, Higher Education

“Climate Change” and Digital Technologies: redressing the balance of power (Part 1)

The Andes from the air between Santiago and Mendoza

“Climate change” causes nothing! Yes, read that again, “climate change” causes nothing. It is a result, not a cause. Yet, as delegates at COP27 continue to bemoan the impacts of climate change, promote ways of limiting carbon emissions, and redress the global balance of power and responsibility – as well as enjoying themselves, feeling important, serving their own interests, and basking in the glory of greenwashing (at last there is something on which I can agree with Greta Thunberg about!) – the adverse environmental impacts of digital technologies go almost un-noticed.

This series of three posts seeks to redress this balance, and argues for a fundamentally new approach to understanding and trying to improve the impacts of digital technologies on the environment. It situates the climate change rhetoric within the wider context of human impact on the environment (of which climate is but one element). The first of these posts provides a critique of much of the rhetoric concerning climate change, the second articulates the case for a new approach to understanding the relationships between digital tech and the environment, and the third provides positive suggestions for the next steps that need to be taken if we are indeed to use digital tech wisely to help manage our human relationships with the environment. Throughout it emphasises the need to understand the interests underlying the present rhetoric and practice around the interactions between digital tech, climate change and the environment.

The rhetoric of climate change: itself part of the problem

Changes in the earth’s climate are very real, and have existed since long before humans could appreciate them. The dramatic impact of humans on the world’s weather patterns and climate that have occurred over the last century, though, have only really been recognised and appreciated more widely in the last 40 years, in large part as a result of the dramatic increase in funding given to scientists working in this field. Climate activism and the UN’s interest in appearing to try to do something about it are relatively recent phenomena (the first COP meeting was held as late as 1995). It is fascinating to recall that ground-breaking works in the 1960s and early 1970s about human impact on the environment, such as Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and the Club of Rome’s (1972) Limits to Growth report, focused on a much more holistic view that paid surprisingly little explicit attention to climate. Five key inter-related concerns with the current dominant rhetoric about “climate change” can be teased out from these basic observations.

Over-simplified rhetoric of “Climate change” hides the significance of human impact

The term “climate change” has become so bowdlerized that is has lost any real value. At best, in common parlance it can be interpreted as being a shortened form of “human induced climate change”, but this shortening hides the fundamental importance of “people” as being the main cause of the changes in climate and weather patterns that are being experienced across the world. The expression “climate change” is actually just a collective observation of a series of aggregated changes in weather patterns across the world. It has no explanatory or causative power of its own. It is we humans who are causing fundamental changes to the environment, and these go far beyond just climate. We still know far too little about the complex interactions between different aspects of the world’s ecosystems to be able to predict how these will evolve with any real certainty. “Keep it Simple Stupid”(KISS) quite simply does not work when discussing human induced climate change.

Externalising “climate change”

The use of the term “climate change” also has much more subtle and malign implications, because it externalises our understanding of impacts and thus the actions that the global community (and every one of us living on this planet) need to take. Rather than human actions being seen as the fundamental cause that they are, externalising the idea of “climate change” as a cause means that the focus is subtly turned to finding ways to limit “climate change” rather than actually to change our underlying human behaviours. The classic instance of this is the focus on reducing carbon emissions by developing renewable energy sources – without actually changing our consumption patterns. The very considerable emphasis within the digital tech community on reducing its own carbon emissions and inventing ways through which digital tech can be used to contribute to “green energy” (typified by the ITU’s emphasis thereon) is but one example of this (see further in Part 2). Moreover, at a very basic level, the emphasis on carbon although important, has tended to reduce the attention paid to other contributors to global warming, such as Nitrous Oxide (N2O) which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 273 times that of CO2, or Methane (CH4) which has a GWP of 27-30 times, for a 100-year timescale (USA EPA, 2022).

The focus on climate means that wider environmental impacts tend to be ignored

Focusing on “climate change” in general, and rising temperatures (global warming) in particular, has had a very serious negative impact on the ways in which other environmental parameters are considered and affected. In essence, “climate impact” often trumps most other environmental considerations, even when at a local scale other environmental impacts may actually be very much more serious. In reality, climate is but a part of the wider interconnected world in which we live, and for a more sustainable future it is essential to adopt a comprehensive ecosystem approach to understanding the full environmental impacts of any intervention. But one example of this is the way that batteries are now required to store “renewable” energy from solar panels or wind turbines, and the resultant serious environmental degradation caused by mining for lithium in Chile, Australia, Argentina and China (note too that total global reserves of lithium in 2018 were only 165 times the annual production volume, and demand is increasing rapidly).

Sustainable development, climate change and economic growth.

I have long argued that the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction in terms, and that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside the UN’s Agenda 2030 are deeply flawed, not only in implementation but also in design (see Unwin, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2022). In essence, while development is largely defined in terms of economic growth, it is difficult to see how it can be compatible with sustainability when defined as the maintenance of valued entities. A deep flaw in much of the global “climate change” rhetoric about the use of renewable technologies to replace energy based on hydrocarbons is that it still tends to be combined with an economic growth agenda based on technical innovation. It does little, if anything at all, about changing global consumption patterns, the “perpetual growth” model, and the underlying capitalist mode of production (see Unwin, 2019). Indeed, elsewhere, I have often reflected on what a “no-growth” model of society might look like.

One of the core problems with the dominant global rhetoric around climate change (as expressed particularly in COP27, but also in much popular activist protest) is that it does not sufficiently tackle the fundamental challenge of population growth and increased consumption. The two simplified graphs below illustrate the scale of this basic problem.

The broad similarity in these two curves is striking. More than anything else, it has been the overall global growth in population over the last two centuries, enabled in large part by the enterprise associated with the individualistically based capitalist mode of production that has driven the environmental crisis of which “climate change” is but a part. The controversial film Planet of the Humans (Produced by Michael Moore) makes similar arguments, and it is unfortunate that its many critics have tended to focus more on some of its undoubtedly problematic points of detail rather than the crucial message of its overall argument (see Moore on Rising). The “capture”of the UN system by global corporations, exemplified by the large numbers of business leaders attending COP27, seems to confirm one of Moore’s core arguments that these companies are now driving much of the climate change agenda.

If the world’s peoples really want to “mitigate the effects of climate change”, there needs to be a dramatically more radical change to our social, cultural, political and economic systems than has heretofore been imagined, and this needs to begin with a shift to more communal rather than individualistic systems, a focus on reducing inequalities rather than maximising economic growth, and the crafting of a more holistic approach to environmental issues rather than one primarily focussing on carbon reduction to “solve” “climate change”.

Who benefits most: understanding the interests behind “climate change” rhetoric

Social movements, economic practices, cultural behaviours and political systems do not just happen, they are created by those who have interests in making them happen and the power to do so. This is as true of the “climate change” rhetoric and movement as it is of any other. Five particular groups of people have shaped and sought to take advantage of this. First, have been the scientists who have believed in the importance of this issue and have sought to build their careers around it. Academic careers are not neutral, and the story of how they built coalitions and peer networks, influenced research councils and political groups, and helped to forge a global “climate change” agenda that served their own interests is a fascinating one that remains to be told. Second, have been private sector businesses and corporations big and small who have sought to influence global policy and profit from a shift from hydrocarbons to renewable energy. This has been fuelled by the fetish for innovation, and the idea that technological change can inject a new impetus to economic growth. Their lobbying of governments to subsidise many of the start-up costs of renewable energy technologies, to overturn existing environmental legislation to permit the creation of new industrial landscapes in the name of solving”climate change”, and to enable consumers to afford to purchase them through further subsidising their energy costs, has been hugely successful. The global capitalist system, utterly dependent on economic growth, is ultimately leading ever more rapidly to its own environmental catastrophe. Third have been those who enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of political activism who have found in the simple “climate change” mantra something that will unite many of their common interests. Fourth, has been the UN system with all of its distinct agencies, each of which has found a cause around which to promote its identity as contributing in a worthwhile way for the benefit of humanity. Finally, have been the politicians, eaager to be seen to be doing “good”, and to contribute to a worthy international cause, in the interests of enhancing their own political careers.

The trouble is that it is not “climate change” itself that is the problem. Instead it is these interests, shaping the rhetoric of climate change, that have helped to exacerbate the very real environmental damage that is being caused to this planet. Self-interestedly promoting the rhetoric of “climate change” is of course much easier than it is to tackle the real roots of the problem, which lie in the economic, political, social and cultural processes that they too have crafted over the last half-century.


Part 2 of this trilogy of posts examines how these arguments apply in the context of the digital tech sector, and Part 3 calls for a dramatic new approach to balancing the environmental harms and benefits of the creation and use of such technologies,

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Filed under Climate change, digital technologies, ICT4D

Male Attitudes and Behaviours Towards Women and Digital Technologies in Pakistan

I am delighted to see the research practice paper that I worked on and wrote with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Akber Gardezi has now been made available within the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D working paper series. It is one of the most important pieces of research that I have ever done, but academic journals did not see fit to publish it. Perhaps this is because it is indeed worthless, and we have done a disservice to all those who contributed to our research, but perhaps it may also be because it challenges too many of the taken for granted assumptions about style and content of publishing in ICT4D academic journals in the 2020s. Both Akber and I are immensely grateful to the many people in Pakistan with whom we spoke for this reseach, typified by the group of amazing women illustrated in the photo above from 2020.

I wanted the paper to be published in a good academic journal to help Akber’s career, but in the end after journal rejections we decided that the messages were too important simply to be binned in the rejection folder. I will let readers judge whether it is indeed worthless – but for those of you who think it is, please at least take away some of the important messages contained within it.

Abstract

The full paper is available here, but the abstract reads as follows:

This paper reports on qualitative research undertaken to explore men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology in Pakistan (in Azad Kashmir, Islamabad, Punjab and Sindh) in January-February 2020.  It is premised on a concern that much research and practice on gender digital equality is based on ideas emanating mainly from North America and Europe, and may not be nuanced enough and sufficiently culturally appropriate to be relevant in different contexts, such as an Islamic state in South Asia.  It builds on our previous research on mobile ‘phones and identity, as well as the use of mobiles for sexual harassment in Pakistan.  Four main conclusions are drawn: first, wider aspects of Pakistan’s society and culture would need to be changed before substantial gender digital equality (as conceived in most “Western” literature) is achieved; second, there was considerable diversity in the views expressed by our participants about gender digital equality, and whilst we do draw some general conclusions these should not mask the importance of such diversity; third, despite the challenges, the last decade has seen substantial changes in the use of digital technologies by women, especially in urban areas and among the higher classes, with many more girls now studying STEM subjects and a small but growing number of women taking jobs in the tech sector; and finally, it highlights complex and difficult questions about universal and relativist approaches to gender digital equality.

Acknowledgements

Very many people contributed to this research, and it is their voices that we wanted to reproduce in the paper. Many of them asked to be named in anything we wrote, and so I reproduce the paper acknowledgements here in full:

We are extremely grateful to colleagues in COMSATS University Islamabad (especially Dr. Tahir Naeem), the University of Sindh (especially Dr. Mukesh K. Khatwani) and the International Islamic University Islamabad (Dr. Bushra Hassan) for facilitating and supporting this research.  We are also grateful to those in Riphah International University (especially Dr. Ayesha Butt) and Rawalpindi Women University (especially Prof Ghazala Tabassum), as well as senior management of those companies (Alfoze and Cavalier) who helped with arrangements for convening the focus groups.

This paper is above all, though, an expression of our efforts to share the views of the many people who contributed so passionately and openly to our questions.  These people (listed in alphabetical order of first names) are therefore, in practice, the originators of the views that we have sought to combine and share more widely: Aakash Kumar, Abdul Bari, Abdul Maalik, Abdul Manan, Abdul Rehman, Abdul Saud, Afsheen Altaf, Ahmed Bilal, Ali, Ali Shah, Dr. Alina Zeeshan, Amir Gohar, Amna Anwar, Anam, Andleeb Ismail, Anmol, Anzalna, Arslan Ahmad, Asad Malik, Atia-Tul-Karim, Awais Ahmed, Awais Rahat, Ayesha Kayani, Dr. Azhar Mahmood, Babar Ali, Balaj Chaudary, Bilawal Ali, Bushra Kanwal, Ch. Hussain, Ch. Murtaza, Danish Shoukat, Danyal Malik, Darima Habib, Darshana, Fahad Saleem, Fahim, Faiza Kanwal, Faiza Shah, Faizan Abrar, Fatima Seerat, Ghazala Tabbassum, Heba Mariyam, Habibullah, Hafeez ur Rehman, Hafsa, Hamid Nawaz, Hamza, Hassan, Hina Akram, Humna Ikhlaq, Ihtisham Ijaz, Kainat Aslam, Kainat Malik, Khuda Bux, M. Hamza Tahir, M. Hassan, M. Riaz, M. Wajahat, M. Hassan Zehri, Maira, Manzoor Ali, Maryam Rehmat, Mehmoona Akram, Memoona, Mishkat, Mohsin Tumio, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Sarwar, Muhammad Zeeshan, Munawar Gul, Muqadas Saleem, Muqaddas Abid, Noman Javed, Noor Nabi, Noor ul Ain Maroof, Osama Osmani,Paras, Qayoum, Rajesh, Ramsha, Rashid Ali, Rashid Shah, Raza Asif Ali, Rehan Arshad, Renuka, Rohit Kumar, Rumaisa Feroz, Saeed Ahmed, Saima Mehar, Dr. Sajjad Manzoor, Saleha Kamal, Sameen Rashid, Saqib Hussain, Sara Shahzad, Sarfraz, Sarmed Javed, Sarwan Nizamani, Shahid Sohail, Dr. Shahwawa, Sharjeel, Shehrol Asmat , Sonia Khan, Sumaira Tariq, Syed Ahmed, Talha, Tasneem, Tehmina Yousaf, Tehreem, Usama Basharat, Usama Nasir Khan, Usama Thakur, Usman Farooq, Waleed Khan, Waqas Masood, Yasir Iqbal, Yousif Khan, and Zahra Ali.  We hope that we have done them justice.  All of them ticked the box indicating that they wished for their names to be recorded in material that we wrote; those few who chose to tick the box saying that they did not want their names recorded are not mentioned here, but we are very grateful to them nonetheless.

Some of the brilliant people with whom we spoke are illustrated in the images below, and I hope that what Akber and I have written does indeed do justice to the time you spent sharing your thoughts with us, and that together we can indeed begin to change attitudes towards the interactions between women and digital tech.

All of the material resulting from our research is available on the TEQtogether site in the section on our research in Pakistan, including the guidance notes that have subsequently been produced in Urdu and English based on the research.

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Filed under digital technologies, Gender, ICT4D, Inequality, Pakistan

What if…?  [Thinking about first-mile connectivity]

It was great to have been invited by Aminata Amadou Garba to give the final talk in the ITU Academy’s training session on Last Mile Connectivity on 30th June. She was happy for me to be a little bit provocative, and so I returned to one of my long-standing arguments – that by using terms such as “the last mile” or the “last billion” we often denigrate the poorest and the most marginalised. If we really want to ensure that they benefit from the use of digital technologies, we should instead start thinking about them as “the first mile” because they are most important!

The session addressed seven main themes:

  1. The “last” mile in whose eyes?
  2. Parallels with the “next billion”
    • and the “Digital Divide”
  3. Whose perspectives matter most?
  4. The political economy of connectivity
  5. The fundamental role of regulation
  6. Global connectivity initiatives
  7. Environmental implications

I’m so glad that we were able to have quite a lively discussion both during and after the presentation – a copy of which is available here for those who might be interested.

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Filed under digital technologies, Education, Environment, ICT4D, inclusion, Inequality, ITU, My Lectures, technology

Goodwood Festival of Speed

I greatly enjoyed my first adventure to the Goodwood Festival of Speed yesterday, courtesy of a good friend on the Board of Lotus Cars. What an amazing day out! It was vastly more extensive than I had ever imagined, and apart from a rather circuitous (not well sign-posted) route to the parking, everything seemed to be highly efficiently organised. There was generally plenty of space, despite the many thousands of people there, and almost magically one didn’t even really have to queue to cross the bridges! There was so much to see, from the current F1 teams to classic cars, from the wide range of contemporary electric cars to the future of robotics (and even a glimpse of Nigel Mansell reunited with his F1 Title Williams FW14B). I hope that the pictures below capture something of what an enjoyable and fascinating day it was – culminating in an impressive display by the Red Arrows!

Thanks so much again for the Lotus hospitality (including a delicious lunch in good company). It brought back fond memories of regularly having to fix the starter motor in cold and wet weather on my original Ford Escort, and always wanting a Lotus Europa! It was a reminder too of how driving has changed over the last 50 years, with a large slice of sadness that much of the fun has now gone out of driving – at least in the UK. It’s rather good to think that I have been able really to enjoy driving in a world before a future when all cars are made to drive us around. Am I one of the last to believe that autonomous humans are preferable to autonomous cars?

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Filed under AI, digital technologies, Energy, Malaysia, Photographs, Transhumanism

Environmental impact of digital tech: spectrum environmental efficiency

It was a real pleasure to join the Wireless World Research Forum’s (WWRF) 47th meeting held at the University of Bristol today, where at the invitation of Knud Erik Souby I presented a short paper entitled “Environmental impact of digital tech: spectrum environmental efficiency“. This provided a broad introduction to the reseach agenda of the Digital Environment System Coalition (DESC) Working Group on spectrum environmental efficiency.

In essence, the paper

  • emphasised the substantial amount of existing research on spectrum efficiency and energy efficiency;
  • highlighted the lack of existing research on “spectrum environmental efficiency” (rather than just on energy);
  • reflected on the observation that, although 5G is widely seen as being more energy efficient, the total increase in traffic (and sensors) means that 5G systems as a whole require more energy than was the case with previous wireless generations;
  • emphasised the importance of future wireless generations being designed to reduce environmental harms;
  • outlined aspects of the future research agenda of the working group, including:
    • always taking environmental considerations (not just climate and energy) into our research practice;
    • what are environmental implications of using different parts of the spectrum?
    • how do different masts/antennae impact the environment?
    • new ways of assessing landscape impact
    • environmental implications of sensor network
    • recommendations for good practices by telecom/wireless companies – and regulators
    • helping develop a toolkit for the UN Partner2Connect digital coalition
    • how can future wireless generations minimise environmental harms?
    • links with DESC working group on satellites and outer space (with UNOOSA involvement);
  • recognised the importance of listening to and understanding alternative/indigenous knowledges about the environment (and digital tech);
  • noted that the WWRF is a formal partner of DESC; and
  • invited members of the WWRF, and especially those from the private sector, to join DESC and contribute to our future work.

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Filed under Climate change, DESC, Development, digital technologies, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, ICTs, research

On language, gender and digital technologies

I wrote a short post back in 2018 on the gendered languages of ICTs and ICT4D, and partly in the light of this I was very kindly invited to contribute to the fascinating collection of essays edited by Domenico Fiormonte, Sukanta Chaudhuri and Paola Ricaurte on Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The short chapter is divided into two parts. The first on language, gender and digital tech is based on the premise that in the broad field of digital technologies, most practitioners have been blind to the gendering of language and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualization of ICT4D. It addresses: the gendering of electronic parts, the use of language in ICT4D, digital technologies represented by male nouns, and computer code: bits and qubits. The second part explores some of my thoughts on the use of the term “frontier technologies”, building on another 2018 blog post.

Male & Female Connectors

I’m delighted that the publishers have now shared a copy of this with me, and have also given me permission to share it here. The chapter is only seven pages long, but I hope that readers may find that it challenges some of their existing thoughts about aspects of gender and digital tech. I would be delighted to carry on the conversation with anyone who mght be interested…

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To app or not to app? How migrants can best benefit from the use of digital tech

This post was first published on the OECD’s Development Matters site on 7th February 2022, and is reproduced here with permission and under a slightly different title

Introductory

UN agencies, donors, and civil society organisations have invested considerable time, money and effort in finding novel ways through which migrants, and especially refugees, can benefit from the use of digital technologies. Frequently this has been through the development of apps specifically designed to provide them with information, advice and support, both during the migration journey and in their destination countries. All too often, though, these initiatives have been short-lived or have failed to gain much traction. The InfoAid app, for example, launched by Migration Aid in Hungary amid considerable publicity in 2015 to make life easier for migrants travelling to Europe, posted a poignant last entry on its Facebook page in 2017: “InfoAid app for refugees is being rehauled, so no posting at the moment. Hopefully we will be back soon in a new and improved form! Thank you all for your support!”

However, new apps continue to be developed, drawing on some lessons from past experience. Among the most interesting are MigApp (followed by 93 668 people on Facebook) developed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a one-stop-shop for the most up-to-date information. Another is RedSafe developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which enables those affected by conflict, migration and other humanitarian crises to access the services offered by the ICRC and its partners. Other apps seek to be more local and focused, such as Shuvayatra (followed by 114 026 on Facebook), which was developed by the Asia Foundation and its partners to provide Nepali migrant labourers with the tools they need to plan a safer period of travel and work abroad.

Our work with migrants nevertheless suggests that in practice very few migrants in the 12 countries where we are active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, ever use apps specifically designed for migrants. Moreover, most of those who claim to use such apps name them as Facebook, Imo, or WhatsApp, which were never originally intended as “migrant apps”. A fine balance therefore needs to be made when developing relevant interventions in combining the professional knowledge (often top-down) of international agencies with the more bottom-up approaches that focus on the digital tech already used by migrants.

Our wider research goes on to highlight four broad areas for action to complement the plethora of activities around app development:

1. Information sharing and collaboration

First, there needs to be much more information sharing and collaboration between international organisations working in this field. While an element of competition between agencies may be seen as positive in encouraging innovation, there remains far too much overlap, duplication and reinventing the wheel. The creation of a global knowledge-sharing platform on digital tech and migration could provide a first port of call that any organisation considering developing a new initiative could go to for ideas or potential collaborative opportunities.

2. No one-size-fits-all: diversity in the use of digital tech by migrants

Second, our research has shown very clearly that use of digital tech by migrants varies considerably in different areas of the world and between different groups of migrants. There is no one-size-fits-all, and context matters. Hence, practitioners should be careful when making generalisations about how “migrants and refugees” use, or want to use, digital tech.

3. Developing digital tech with migrants not for them

Third, it is important to remember that actions and policies are much more likely to succeed if they are developed with rather than for migrants. This fundamental principle is too frequently ignored, with well-meaning “outsiders” too often seeking to develop digital interventions for migrants without fully understanding their needs and aspirations. As our own research has shown, though, it is far from easy to appreciate and understand the underlying needs that different groups of migrants prioritise and how best they can be delivered.

4. Assisting migrants to help each other in using digital tech wisely and safely

Fourth, it sadly remains as true today as it was twenty years ago that many of the poorest and most marginalised still do not know how to use digital technologies effectively, appropriately, securely and safely. Many migrants contributing to our research own a smartphone or have access to one, but frequently they only have a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it optimally. Some aspire to use digital tech to learn and acquire skills, while others wish to enhance their business opportunities; in both cases, many do not know how best to do so. Few also sufficiently appreciate the very significant security, privacy and surveillance issues associated with using digital tech. The development of basic training courses – preferably face-to-face – may be one of the best investments that can be made in assisting migrants to help themselves when using digital tech.

Looking to the future

Looking to the future, the power relationships involved in the migration process mean it is likely that migrants will become increasingly controlled and subject to surveillance through the use of digital tech. In some circumstances, it might even be wiser for migrants to avoid using any form of digital tech at all. However, there are exciting opportunities to develop novel ways through which migrants might benefit further from digital tech. One of the challenges faced by many migrants is the sadness associated with being away from family and friends. While video calls can go some way to mitigate this, new developments in haptics may soon enable us to feel someone’s touch or hug.

Likewise, inserting microchips into our bodies is becoming increasingly widespread, and in the future this practice could offer real potential for migrants for example to have their qualifications and other documents actually within their bodies, or for their families to be able to track them on the often dangerous journey to their destination. Countering this, of course, is the likelihood that most authorities would use such technologies for surveillance purposes that would threaten migrants’ privacy.

As with all digital tech, it is important to remember that it can be used to do good or to harm. Many migrants are especially vulnerable, and it is incumbent on those seeking to support them that migrants are able to make their own informed decisions on how they choose to use digital tech. Often, the best interventions might well be built around improving existing ways through which migrants use apps and other digital technologies, rather than developing entirely new solutions that may never be widely used.


I am particularly grateful to G. Hari Harindranath and Maria Rosa Lorini, as well as the many other people and migrants with whom we are working, for their contributions to the ongoing research practice on which this post is based.

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Filed under Apps, digital technologies, ICT4D, ICT4D general, Migration

The advantages of being unconnected to the Internet: a thought experiment

The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?

Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.

Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:

  • Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
  • Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
  • The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
  • Being unconnected means not harming the physical environment through the heavy demands digital technologies place on our precious natural world (see the work of the Digital-Environment System Coalition – DESC)
  • Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
  • The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
  • Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
  • The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
  • The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
  • Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?

Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.

I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.

We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.

And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!

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Filed under Africa, digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D, United Nations

“We’ve seen it all before”: sketches about why so many digital tech for development initiatives fail

Clearing out boxes of old books and reports recently, I was struck by how many ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) initiatives there have been over the last 20 years, many of which have simply repeated the mistakes of their predecessors. Most have failed to make real and significant improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. Quick looks at Weigel and Waldburger’s (2004) seminal book, and the ICT4 all Exhibition catalogue for the 2005 WSIS Summit in Tunis, remind us that most of the problems we are addressing in 2021 are broadly similar to those that were being addressed 20 years ago: how to enable the most marginalised to benefit from digital tech; moving from rhetoric to action; how to deliver effective partnerships; the importance of local languages; financing challenges; or how to ensure access…

An invitation to give a lecture at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan as part of a Master’s course on Learning and Teaching with Technology later this week provided me with the opportunity to reflect at some length on this thorny issue, and to come up with some suggestions as to why we continue to reinvent the wheel, and what we need to change if we really want to work with the poorest and most marginalised in delivering effective ICT4D initiatives that will help to empower them.

It also reminded me that even when I first started teaching in universities in the mid-1970s I used multimedia technologies such as slides (diapositives), aerial photos, film clips, overhead transparencies – as well as books. There is very little fundamentally new in the use of ICTs in education; it’s just the detail of the tech that has changed. As long ago as the early 1990s I thus enjoyed delivering lectures to students across London through the University Live-Net TV network, and in the middle of that decade enjoyed participated in the work of the Computers in Teaching Initiative in the UK. Hopefully we had learnt by then many of the challenges and success factors that previous colleagues involved in delivering education at a distance had shared with us.

Why are we failing so badly to learn the lessons of the past?

Reflecting on this simple question, I came up with six main suggestions as to why valuable lessons from previous ICT initiatives, especially in the education sector, do not seem to have been sufficiently learnt:

  • Lack of background research
  • Increased emphasis on innovation
  • The problem with “self”
  • Short-termism
  • Commercialisation and marketisation of education
  • Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

I am sure there are many more, and I look forward to exploring these ideas further with interested colleagues. Each needs to be fleshed out in much more detail, but the following brief notes cover some of the aspects that may be of particular importance.

Lack of background research

  • The Google (or DuckDuckGo) first page syndrome
    • only following up links on the first page (or two)
    • only reading the most recently published material
  • Too many people failing to explore and learn from what has been done before
  • Too much of a hurry?
  • Believing only the latest is best?
  • Nothing old is worthwhile?
  • A strong sense of self-belief, and that there is no need to read (see further below)
  • Past research and practice are inaccessible or unavailable
    • but this isn’t really true – many of us have written at length about our previous experiences

Problems with innovation

  • It is well known that most innovations fail
  • Overcoming failure often seen as being essential for subsequent success
    • But surely it’s best not to make the well known mistakes that others have made before?
  • So why is innovation (scientific and business) usually seen as being such a good thing?
  • Many governments (and donors) are increasingly focusing on funding innovation to drive economic growth – should they use taxpayers’ money to fund failure?
  • Might it not be wiser for donors and governments to spread what we know works, say for 60% of the population, to everyone?
    • Reducing inequalities rather than maximising growth

The problem with “self”

  • Self(ish) individualism
  • The need to be first
  • Overconfidence in own excellence
  • Having great qualifications so must know the truth
    • But perhaps the qualifications are not so great after all!
  • Unwilling to be self-critical
  • Brought up within the power and culture of non-self-critical scientism
  • A self-congratulatory culture (illustrated by awards processes)
  • Competitive rather than communal culture
  • Enjoys making mistakes in the belief that they will learn
    • Very expensive for others, especially in the international development context

Short-termism

  • Short-term job delivery and then move on
    • It’s always good to be seen to be bringing in new ideas
    • You don’t have to pick up the bits because you’ve left by then
  • The world of 140 characters
  • Project cycles often very short
  • It’s important to show success even when you’ve done nothing
  • Those who shout loudest tend to get heard
    • Even when there is little substance behind the claims
  • Short term is much easier than doing something long term
  • Perhaps “Agile” also has something to do with this?

The commercialisation and marketisation of education

  • EdTech is about the technology not the education
  • Everything is about expanding the market
  • Sales driven, with short term targets
  • Pitching to donors
    • A different skill set to delivery
  • Donors have large budgets and also have to show quick gains
  • Unrealistic target setting
  • Pilots where it is easiest
    • Instead they should be done where it is most difficult
  • We are measuring different success factors
    • Connecting a million children
    • But are they the most marginalised, and do they learn anything?

Insufficient intergenerational dialogue

  • “Youth have all the answers”
    • Older people have wrecked the world and so should now listen to young people who have all the good ideas
    • Much political posturing
  • The old have no idea how to use digital tech
    • Really?
  • Little priority given to mentoring
    • Especially 360o
  • Even fewer initiatives specifically designed to be inter-generational
    • Youth political institutions often replicate existing flawed global institutions
    • Especially within the UN system

Moving beyond a sketch

I have frequently been frustrated when I hear exciting new ideas being advocated about ways through which the latest generation of technologies (be it AI, AR, blockchain, or the Metaverse) can transform global education for the better. More often than not, the technology is the easy bit. It’s everything else that’s difficult. As a contribution at least to what governments need to get right, we collectively crafted a report on Education for the most marginalised post-COVID-19: Guidance for governmetns on the use of digital technologies in education (freely available under a CC BY licence at https://ict4d.org.uk/technology-and-education-post-covid-19, and https://edtechhub.org/education-for-the-most-marginalised-post-covid-19) which I hope goes some way to sharing global good practices at least in this area. Perhaps we should do similar reports for the private sector and for civil society, although those in these sectors could still learn much from our report for governments.

The above six sets of suggestions are just a beginning, but I wanted to share them here to provoke discussion. Everyone will have their own list of suggestions. What’s missing from the above? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might like to explore this theme further! I need to learn more! At the very least, I hope that future colleagues will address these suggestions head on and thereby no longer repeat the same mistakes that so many of us have made in the past.

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Filed under digital technologies, Education, ICT4D