Tag Archives: Internet

The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D

I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:



Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, language

Partnering to protect children and youth online

I am so delighted to have been asked by the ITU and Child Helpline International to moderate their important session on “Partnering to protect children and youth” at the ITU’s Telecom World gathering in Bangkok on 15th November.  The abuse of children online is without question one of the darkest aspects of the use of ICTs, and it is great to see the work that so many child helplines are doing globally to counter and respond to this.

The main objective of the session is to highlight the work done by a range of ICT stakeholders to initiate and support child helplines in various parts of the world.  The session will begin with introductory remarks from Houlin Zhao (the Secretary General of the ITU) and Professor Jaap Doek (Chair of the Board of Child Helpline international).  This will be followed by a short video entitled No child should be left behind, and then Jenny Jones (Director Public Policy, GMSA) will launch new child online protection guidelines for child helplines.  Following this, Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership,  ITU) will provide a short overview of the joint campaign being run by the ITU and Child Helpline International to protect children and youth.  She will also outline the process whereby case studies submitted to an online consultation organised by the ITU were selected by a specialist Jury.

I will then moderate what I hope will be a lively and useful panel discussion that brings together the following people and initiatives that were selected through the above process:

  • Anthony Fitzgerald, Kids Helpline Manager, representing Optus from Australia;
  • Ola-jo Tandre, Director and Head of Social Responsibility, Telenor Group;
  • Mofya Chisala, Strategic Analyst, Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority; and
  • Enkhbat Tserendoo from the Communications Regulatory Commission of Mongolia, Mobicom

As moderator, I hope to be drawing out general conclusions about what works, as well as the pitfalls to avoid, from the experiences of these examples of good practice from many different parts of the world.  I very much hope that this will help those in other countries who are thinking about setting up child helplines, and that these experiences will also help those already running such helplines to improve the services that they offer children and young people.

Working together in partnership, we must do much more to counter the abuse of children online, and child helplines are an important element of the overall package of initiatives that must be implemented to achieve this.

1 Comment

Filed under Development, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Inequality

My keynote address at CTO Forum 2013 in Abuja

The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation is convening its Annual Forum and Council meeting in Abuja, kindly hosted by the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology and the Nigeria Communications Commission on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria, on the theme of Innovation through Broadband.  This is something I care passionately about, and my team permitted me to give a keynote opening address.  Several people have already asked me for the text – and so provide an abbreviated version below, which omits the diplomatic niceties and my heartfelt thanks to all who have made this event possible.

“Over the next few days we address critically important themes, and I specifically wanted to say a few words to challenge us all now, at the beginning of this event.  Quite simply, we cannot deliver on the title of this Forum, “Innovation through Broadband” unless we actually have broadband.  Many of the CTO’s members have less than 5% of their population connected to the Internet; my own country, the UK, still has 17% of its households not connected. For those of you from the corporate sector, this is indeed a great market opportunity!  However, the case I want to put before you is that, more importantly than merely the economic agenda, is a moral agenda.  These technologies are so important, so powerful, so life-changing, that we fail our brothers and sisters if we do not ensure that they too have access to broadband.

There are three simple things I would like you to take away from what I say this morning:

  1. Boy on streetFirst, the expansion of ICTs over the last decade has made the world a more unequal place.  Put simply, these technologies are hugely powerful.  Those who have access to them, and know how to use them, can benefit immensely.  But those who do not have access, who only have an old style mobile ‘phone, who cannot afford the costs of connectivity, are becoming increasingly disadvantaged.  This is not only a moral agenda, but also a very practical social and political one, because sooner or later, the disadvantaged will – and I have no doubt about this – seek to redress the balance by taking action into their own hands, as we see across so many parts of the world today. We must, and again there has to be no doubt about this, ensure that everyone has access to the Internet.  I am delighted to see that we have a session specifically on women and children at this Forum, and that (for a change) we do indeed have a distinguished woman on the platform here at the start.  But this is not enough.  As most of you know, I champion the use of ICTs by people with disabilities – at least 10% of the world’s population; we have to do more for them, so that they too can benefit from the use of ICTs.  Access for all is therefore my first point.
  2. Wheelchair computer technicianSecond, we need to develop new models through which such access can be provided at an affordable price to those who do not currently have access.  This is an immense challenge.  Put simply, the market will deliver solutions for many of our peoples.  We must therefore ensure that regulatory environments enable the market to deliver for the greatest number possible.  Regulators and companies must work together in an environment of trust to ensure that this happens.  However, the market will not deliver for everyone – for those living in the most peripheral rural areas, for the elderly, for those with severe disabilities.  Here, I believe passionately that we need to craft innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships to ensure such delivery.  These need to involve governments, the private sector, civil society, international organisations and bilateral donors in providing solutions that will serve the needs of everyone in our societies.  This is not easy.  Everyone talks ‘partnerships’ but few ICT4D partnerships have truly been successful.  It is here that the CTO can offer much in terms of partnership brokering, and working with all of our members to deliver such partnerships practically on the ground.  As many of you will know, broadband is one of the CTO’s six priority areas, and it is highly appropriate that we are here in Nigeria shortly after they have published their national broadband plan. … This emphasis on partnerships is also why I am so delighted that the CTO has joined the Alliance for Affordable Internet, and that they have privileged us by launching this very important initiative here in Abuja.My second point, is thus the need for carefully crafted multi-stakeholder partnerships to help deliver affordable broadband for all those for whom the market itself will not deliver solutions.
  3. children 2But third, providing broadband connectivity is only a beginning.  If we do not work with the poorest and most marginalised in our societies, truly to understand their needs, and then develop solutions that will be of explicit benefit to them, as much as to the privileged rich and elites, then the divisions within our societies will only increase yet further.  This is why this Forum focuses on “Innovation through Broadband”.  These innovations must not just be concerned with how to make yet greater profits from the telecommunications sector, or for governments to raise yet more revenue through levies and spectrum auctions – however important these are.  No.  This is only part of the story.  We are simply failing in our duties as responsible citizens, and indeed decent human beings, if we do not enable everyone to benefit from broadband: the young orphaned girl, bringing up her younger brother in the slums; the widow, gleaning an existence in the forests far from the capital city; the child soldier who had his arms lopped off and is now begging on the streets…

 My three messages are, I hope clear:

  • Enabling everyone to have access
  • The importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships to serve the most marginalised, and
  • Working with the poor and marginalised to enable them to develop solutions that are fundamentally in their interests

Distinguished colleagues and friends.  My final thanks are to you for being here.  We have a packed programme of inspirational speakers – I often think our events are far too packed!  Take time to talk with each other.  Use Wednesday morning to hold bilateral meetings and engage in productive discussions.  We are the privileged.  We are the elite – whether we like it or not.  We therefore have immense responsibilities.  The CTO has brought us all together.  But this is not enough.  I want every one of you to make a commitment – here and now in this room – not just to listen, not just to speak, but to act.  The time is almost too late.  The inequalities generated by ICTs have almost become too big for us to overcome.  Now is the time to make a difference.  Now is the time to turn rhetoric into reality.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Commonwealth, ICT4D

The Internet and Development: a critical perspective

9780199589074_140I am delighted to see Bill Dutton’s magisterial edited The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013) just published.  This is a really excellent and authoritative review of current research on all aspects of the Internet, with some 26 chapters from leading figures in the field.  The 607 page book is divided into five main parts:

  1. Perspectives on the Internet and Web as objects of study
  2. Living in a network society
  3. Creating and working in a global network economy
  4. Communication, power, and influence in a converging media world
  5. Governing and regulating the Internet.

Two of the real strengths of the book as an introduction to the field of Internet studies are the very readable style of most of the chapters, and the comprehensive bibliographies that accompany them.

I was delighted to have been asked to write the chapter on the Internet and Development, which Bill suggested should be sub-titled “a critical perspective”!  As I write in the summary, “This chapter explores research on the complex inter-relationship between the Internet and ‘development’, focusing especially on the effects of the Internet on the lives of some of the poorest people and most marginalised communities.  Much of the literature on Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) suggests that the Internet can indeed bring very significant benefits in the ‘fight against poverty’ (see, for example, Weigel and Waldburger 2004; Rao and Raman 2009; Unwin 2009), but other research is marshalled in this synthesis to challenge this assumption.  In essence, I argue that the expansion of the Internet serves very specific capitalist interests, and that unless conscious and explicit attention is paid to designing interventions that will indeed directly serve the needs of the world’s poorest people, then the Internet will only replicate and reinforce existing structures of dominance and control. This argument supports the need for more research that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about the Internet and development”.

In essence, the Internet is not some benign force for good as is so often supposed.  Instead it is being shaped and reshaped by a relatively small group of people with very specific interests.  It is absolutely essential that those committed to trying to ensure that digital technologies are used to serve the interests of all peoples in the world, and particularly the poorest and most marginalised, do indeed continue to challenge many of the all too often taken for granted assumptions that the Internet is necessarily automatically a force for positive “development”.

1 Comment

Filed under Development, ICT4D

Reflections on the Internet and Development

Just finished writing a chapter about the Internet and Development, and am surprised at the vehemence of my own conclusions:

In conclusion…

Three important and inter-related conclusions can be drawn from this short overview of research on the Internet and development.  First, it must be remembered that the Internet is but one of a number of new digital ICTs.  Whilst many have given it predominance, “Internet use has spread much less rapidly in low-income countries than other ICTs – notably broadcast radio … and television and, more recently, mobile telephony” (Souter 2007: 33).  As Souter (2007: 33) goes on to emphasise, ultimately “the potential of the Internet can only be achieved if effective access is available”, and this requires the availability of the ICT infrastructure and reliable electricity at an affordable price for the poor, and that it provides relevant information that is not available more cheaply through other means.  If the world’s poor are truly to benefit from the Internet, then far more attention needs to be paid explicitly to ways in which they can indeed use it to their real advantage, thereby enabling them to benefit at the expense of the world’s rich. Only then will relative poverty be reduced.

Second, the success of the Internet in delivering development objectives depends very much on how such objectives are defined.  Much research and practice has focused on the hegemonic notion that development is about economic growth, and there are convincing arguments that the Internet can indeed contribute to such an objective.  However, even here, it is evident that the presence of the Internet alone will not in most instances contribute to the economic well-being of the poorest and most marginalised. From a relativist perspective, focusing particularly on social equality, the evidence is far more uncertain.  Numerous studies (Huyer and Hafkin 2007), for example, show how women in patriarchal societies are increasingly marginalised by their exclusion from access to the Internet.  Likewise, if development is seen as being concerned with freedoms, then the ambivalent character of the technology of the Internet is once more revealed.

A final important characteristic of the Internet in the context of development has been its dehumanising and alienating effects.  Just as factory production in the 19th century made humans appendages of machines (Lukács 1923), so too in the 21st century has the Internet made people ever more the appendages of computers.  In so doing, users are becoming further alienated from the physical world of nature and creativity, and ever more constrained by those who design the virtual realities of which we are now part.  What is remarkable about this is that in the name of progress, such virtual worlds are accepted and applauded as being ‘good’ and where the future lies (Carr 2008). Such arguments need to be strongly countered if we are to retain the very essence of what makes us human.  By enabling people to work away from their offices, by dramatically reducing the constraints of time and space on production, consumption and exchange, the Internet has enabled owners of capital to exploit their workforces far more efficiently and effectively than ever before, whilst at the same time making them think that they are enjoying it.  Imagine a world where one was not expected to answer the hundred or so e-mails that arrive every day, and where one actually had time to think, be creative and enjoy the physical experience of being human!  Paradoxically, the poor and marginalised, those without access to the Internet, may ultimately actually be very much richer than the bankers, traders and business executives who have become the new proletariat of the digital age, quite simply because the poor without access to the Internet are not bound by its dehumanising, unspoken and constraining rules.”

I guess it is now time for me to take a digital break!

1 Comment

Filed under ICT4D

Are social networking sites encouraging infantilism?

A recent report in the Guardian has highlighted the lack of research and understanding of the impact of social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.  The report comments that:

“Social network sites risk infantilising the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist. The startling warning from Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, has led members of the government to admit their work on internet regulation has not extended to broader issues, such as the psychological impact on children. Greenfield believes ministers have not yet looked at the broad cultural and psychological effect of on-screen friendships via Facebook, Bebo and Twitter. She told the House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites ‘are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity’.”


Filed under Ethics, Social Networking