October 28, 2008
The landmark settlement between Google and a group of authors & publishers looks like a de-facto victory for Google and those of us with an interest in searchable books online. Other than putting themselves on the right side of history, what’s the upside for the publishers here?
September 29, 2008
This is a shameless cross-posting of my contribution to the Berkman Center’s Publius Project. In the essay, I respond to a piece published by Ken Banks last week (“One Missed Call,” see link below). If you have time, I highly recommend reading Ken’s piece first. I also recommend checking out the other excellent contributions to the project, which enjoys the expert guidance of Caroline Nolan at Berkman (thanks, Caroline!).
Ken Banks’ provocative contribution to the Publius Project, “One Missed Call” boldly urges the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community to look beyond bureaucracy-heavy, top-down solutions to global poverty and inequality. In a similar spirit, my response to Ken’s piece will take the form of a question, critique, and complementary challenge to the ICT4D community that runs somewhat afoul of the Easterly-Schumacher-inspired vision he offered.
Ken echoes William Easterly’s disdain for bureaucratic, large-scale approaches to global poverty, calling instead for the adoption of small techno-centric solutions based on principles of Human-Driven Design and deployment by “grassroots” NGO’s. Like Easterly, he encourages us to bet on the ingenuity of small-time entrepreneurs to break the world’s persistent cycles of poverty. If we identify these entrepreneurs, the theory goes, we can eliminate poverty without the immense waste and inefficiency that plague so-called “Big-D” development projects.
While both Easterly and Banks present compelling, attractive claims, they leave a key question unanswered: how can ICT4D advocates effectively confront the systemic and structural aspects of poverty or inequality within this framework?
Easterly’s argument takes for granted that well-positioned innovators can overcome institutional constraints at the regional, national and global levels. Indeed, his arguments in The White Man’s Burden closely resemble the work of free-market ideologues Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek insofar as he objects to all forms of developmental “planning” as fundamentally misguided. Empirical research in Development Studies contradicts this position, suggesting that the ability of grassroots NGO’s and others to deploy technological solutions effectively is overdetermined by the institutional environment within which they act (for a recent example, see Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism). Of course, to adapt Margaret Mead’s much abused phrase, I do not doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And yet, such changes are bound to be fleeting in the absence of broader interventions.
The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that Easterly’s proposition is free-market economics with a friendly face – compassionate conservatism in the truest sense of the phrase. Embracing Easterly’s vision entails a radical denial that broad political, economic, and cultural structures determine developmental outcomes in any way. The history of global development since World War II offers numerous grounds on which to reject this claim. First of all, the emergence of the United States as a superpower influenced the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the primary institutional frameworks within which development projects took place (until recently). Secondly, the concomitant dissemination of U.S. culture, values, and products has also shaped the ideals and aspirations through which people across the world understand what it means to be “developed.”
As a result, we cannot talk about “development” without referring to the broad political, economic and cultural currents that defined the late 20th century and the processes of globalization. All contemporary development projects operate in the institutional space defined by this history – and in many cases it is the space itself, rather than the any individual bureaucracy or top-down vision of change that determines what is and what is not possible for the poor and middle income populations of the Global South.
Contemporary global development paradigms (ICT4D among them) bear the traits of organizational and philosophical predecessors. The Millenium Development Goals represent a continuation of the Big-D development schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where gigantic multilateral institutions like the United Nations dictated the terms on which the world’s poor would modernize. Similarly, the small-d development ideal proferred by Easterly and others places great faith in the ability of unregulated markets and small-scale entrepreneurs to bring widespread economic growth “from the bottom up.” This represents a scaled-down version of the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980’s and 90’s that saw the dismantling of social welfare systems and the deregulation of financial markets around the world. The results of such “structural adjustment” were catastrophic for the poor, as local elites and multinational corporations extracted spectacular profits at the expense of less-empowered populations.
Both approaches – the big-D and the small-d – are stained by fundamental shortcomings that no amount of revisionism can wash away. On their own, neither will bring about sustainable widespread enhancements in the quality of life for the chronically poor and unstable regions of the world.
As a result, I challenge the ICT4D community to confront the contradictions of these competing paradigms of poverty and inequality alleviation.
At a practical level, we cannot simply abandon participation in (or engagement with) large national and multilateral political institutions. Access to fantastic gadgets and services will mean little in the long-run without a corresponding framework to support sustainable improvements in “human capabilities.” Likewise (and here I agree completely with Ken), the best intentioned multilateral efforts will fail unless they are grounded in the sort of modular, experimental approach embodied in Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ideal.
Therefore, the ICT4D community (along with fellow travelers like myself) must find ways to split the distance between the Big-D and the small-d. We must reach out to the small grassroots NGO’s and innovators at the same time as we pursue less glamorous forms of political transformation and institution-building. We must design brilliant, appropriate gadgets and cultivate strong, accountable institutions. Together, these digital and social technologies will enable more people around the world to thrive, facilitating access to knowledge, networks, sanitation, water, and healthcare.
The need for broad political engagement has rarely been more apparent than in the present context. The collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations and the current global financial crisis provide textbook examples of institutional failures that grassroots intervention alone will not resolve. The lack of consensus at Doha reveals the extent to which existing global governance institutions have failed to meet the needs of low and middle income countries. Meanwhile, the implosion of the housing and credit markets in the United States has illustrated the risks of insufficient coordination between government and the private sector in the face of an obvious, long-standing threat to the collective interests of society. In the absence of sustainable solutions to these overlapping problems, rampant inequalities will likely reproduce and spread, leading to further financial and political instabilities.
In this setting, ICT4D advocates cannot afford to turn their backs on global institutions as critical mechanisms for achieving lasting techno-social change. Of course, analyzing and participating in big bureaucracies such as national states, multilateral governance forums, and international standards committees entails a distasteful degree of compliance with abusive forms of power. In this regard, Easterly’s claim that we must be wary of the tendency for these organizations to deliver corruption and inappropriate technologies is on target.
Nevertheless, if we want to avoid “missing the call” for technologies that have the potential to facilitate enhanced access, equality, and prosperity, such political and institutional engagement is more necessary than ever.
September 24, 2008
Some interesting research just released by Pew analyzes polling methods and the political preferences of people who only own cell-phones.
(hint: they tend to support the candidate who uses a blackberry on a regular basis and knows how to email).
The big question remains: can these so-called “Cell Onlys” be translated into votes on election day?
I have a somewhat smaller question which is how the cell phones themselves could be better used as get-out-the-vote tools?
In a putatively democratic country where people my age tend to vote in absolutely dismal numbers, this seems like an area that should have already attracted a lot of attention.
What projects are doing this well (or at least experimenting in similar areas)?
August 25, 2008
August 19, 2008
Following up on its more industry-centric work in the Wireless Innovation Alliance, Google is heading up an effort to solicit signatures via a new site called Free the Airwaves intended to generate public pressure on the FCC to open up more wireless spectrum.
If the US is ever going to escape the current failed market duopoly for network service provision and carriage, efforts like this need to succeed.
Who opposes opening spectrum to increase competition, innovation, and access? Incumbent telecommunications firms with dominant market shares and well-entrenched advantages over their competitors.
Here’s the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) FUD-spewing website featuring “Wally the Unlicensed Wireless Device.”
Once you untangle the actual ideas from the pretty pictures and high-flown rhetoric, the NAB’s call to retain strict oligopolistic control over the airwaves is based on the underlying assumption that “networks need an owner” – some firm(s) to be accountable for its failure, maintenance, and improvement.
Problem is, the Internet as a whole has already de-bunked this half-baked argument. Well-designed and implemented protocols (or standards) can overcome the hypothetical tragedies of the networking commons. Governments and large private firms play a crucial role in preserving the Internet, but one of the reasons ithe Internet has spawned so much creativity, wealth, and participation is that the underlying protocols are basically device-agnostic (although U.S. ISP’s like Comcast are trying to undermine that too). The Internet does not care if you are using a desktop, laptop, PDA, etc or if you are sending an email, a chat message, voice data, pictures, music or movies.
Returning to the wireless spectrum case, though, it’s important to note that existing government concessions to large telecommunications firms in the U.S. have stifled broadband speeds and access as well as the growth of wireless communications as a whole.
This market needs more competition, not less. The sooner the FCC (and other firms in this market) can recognize that, the better.
(H/T JW, SS, and other Berkman Center Fellows)
Update: Check out Lessig’s video contribution to the Free the Airwaves campaign – he elaborates further on the idea that the history of innovation on the Internet provides a useful example for thinking about the future of spectrum.
Great video tutorial on this “Selectable Output Control” (SOC) nonsense. The video was created by Public Knowledge. SOC is brought to you by the lovable, hugable, folks at the MPAA.
H/T Gigi Sohn
As of July 1, Spain’s controversial “digital canon” law will impose a tax on any gizmo that can record, copy, or store digital media.
In theory, this is a tax on “piracy” that goes towards supporting artists.
In reality, the cash goes straight to the “collecting societies” that represent artists and collect royalty payments on their behalf. The law apparently makes no provision as to how these societies must distribute this revenue.
The collecting societies’ survival depends on the preservation of restrictive IP regimes and royalty-based business models in creative industries. As a result, they have historically acted to constrain artists’ and users’ ability to opt out of IP-based remuneration schemes.
With the passage of this law they have successfully imposed the cost of their existence on consumers and producers in an entirely separate industry. Not surprisingly, the electronics equipment manufacturers and re-sale firms (not to mention consumer advocacy groups) are furious.
Declining sales across many of the content industries will continue to lead increasingly desperate firms (and their lawyers) to seek ridiculous regulatory interventions like this one. The results are expensive, inefficient legal instruments that will prove even more costly to overhaul as the digital economy continues to evolve.
Instead of more laws like this one, regulators should seek to incentivize alternative business models that capitalize on the network effects of costless digital reproduction. In the case of music, I’m thinking of something along the lines of VODO and other schemes that capitalize on what Doc Searls has called “the volunteer economy“.
If I were a Spanish citizen, investor, or entrepreneur I’d wonder why my elected officials weren’t willing to make a more far-sighted investment in the future of my culture, my technologies, and my economy.
The paper builds on Ned’s work at Mathworks developing collaborative programming competitions for the MATLAB community. Adopting “the perspective of the code” it analyzes what happens when you set a horde of geeks loose on a fun, challenging programming problem in a networked collaborative environment.
To sum up my reactions really briefly, I thought the paper was an exciting step in the process of looking under the hood of collaborative knowledge production. Gulley and Lakhani argue that as programmers improved the performance of code relative to a discreet problem, they did so through “tweaks” and “leaps.”
“Tweaks” represent small refinements that improve the performance of existing code; “Leaps” represent more sudden and large-scale advances in performance (usually driven by introducing a more substantive or extensive change in the code).
Tweakers and Leapers benefit from each other’s work, but the biggest beneficiary of their combined interactions was the code itself. Within one week of the competitions, thousands of eyeballs had produced startling solutions to complex algorithmic problems.
There’s a lot more to be learned from this kind of work – especially from the sort of experimental data created in the setting of these sort of large-scale collaborative games. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about how programmers (whether as individuals or communities) adapted to the challenges over time. It seems like it might be possible to design a game that could test whether efficient collaborative problem solving techniques “evolved” over the course of the game(s). In addition, it would be fascinating to test the results of this kind of collaboration against those produced by more hierarchical or individuated models of innovative work.
Look for links to the soon-to-be-published version of the paper on the “publications” section of Karim’s HBS faculty page.
In the meantime, I’m told that video and audio of today’s presentation should be available on the Berkman Center’s “interactive section” by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.
June 16, 2008
More depressing, but important news passed along from the EFF:
It looks like Sweden is on the verge of passing some spectacularly invasive legislation allowing large-scale web traffic data-mining. This is a surprise to me given Sweden’s history of protecting digital freedoms.
Here’s the EFF article.
Here’s the Facebook Group opposing the agreement.
Here’s the official protest site (in Swedish).