those with little social and educational
capital are meaningless.
I saw this firsthand when I moved to
Bangalore in 2004 to start a new research
group at Microsoft. I explored how digital tools could support education, agriculture, and healthcare to alleviate poverty. However, projects that worked well
as research pilots failed when we tried
to scale them up. The problem was that
in our research, we could control the social context. But in scaling up, if implementing institutions were ineffective,
or if potential beneficiaries lacked basic
skills, new gadgetry just did not help.
more than you or I with a week’s unlimited use of the Internet. Similarly,
most Communications readers can do
more with connectivity than someone
in rural Uganda who has not completed primary school.
This is what I call technology’s
“Law of Amplification,” and it is exactly what MOOC completion statistics
and Braff’s use of Kickstarter bear out.
Technology is a tool; it amplifies existing human capacities. This means
that if anything, indiscriminate dissemination of digital technology
tends to aggravate inequalities. Technology helps only when there is firm
culturally—to push against the gradient of inequality.
“Not so fast!” you might say. We cannot know what the U.S. would have been
like without Silicon Valley, so we cannot
know digital technology’s actual impact
with certainty. That is true, but it does
not change how we should respond.
In any country where there is rising inequality, the possibilities for technology’s role must be one of the following:
˲ Technology is making inequality
˲ Technology has little or no effect
on inequality, but other forces are increasing inequality.
˲ Technology is actually alleviating
inequality, but other inequality-caus-ing forces are so powerful as to overpower it.
The first two options imply technology cannot solve inequality by
itself. The third option might suggest doubling down on technology.
But consider again that in the U.S.,
talented, well-funded entrepreneurs
have been working as hard and as fast
as they can to churn out new products in a culture that supports them.
If tech innovation at full speed is not
enough to counter bad socioeconomic forces, maybe those forces need to
be addressed directly.
Incidentally, what about the con-
vergence among countries alluded to
earlier, the one that causes commen-
tators like New York Times columnist
Thomas Friedman to argue “the world
5 Individuals in developing
countries that have a good education,
a hefty inheritance, or strong political
ties are able to use technology to their
advantage and catch up with their de-
veloped-world peers. Most of the de-
cline in global inequality is generally
attributed to the growth of China and
India. But while technology has played
a role in their rise as nations, its value
is unevenly distributed among their
citizens. Digital tools have helped the
Indian elite become an IT superpower,
but cellphones for India’s underedu-
cated have done little to enrich them.
In a country of 1. 25 billion people and
900 million mobile accounts, three-
quarters of the country still struggles
on less than USD$2.50 a day.
10 In and
of themselves, digital platforms for
Digital Green’s video production technique as demonstrated in Jharkhand, India, in 2013.
Digital Green produces participatory localized videos for farmers in India, Ethiopia, Ghana,
and Afghanistan; http://www.digitalgreen.org/.