What Computers Can’t Do

Sorry to rain on your parade, but computers can’t transform education any more than social media can depose dictators.

This blunt response is directed at US IT guru Nicholas Negroponte following the announcement of his latest hair-brained scheme to organise helicopter drops of laptops to remote villages.

As any IT manager will tell you, in any corporate change project hardware is only 10% of the overall cost. So imagine what tiny percentage hardware costs make up when the change project that you’re trying to pull off is entrenched poverty or political despotism.

All of us get sucked in by sensationalist stories about how a $100 laptop will revolutionise education in Africa, how telemedicine hardware will transform rural healthcare, or how social media can sweep away dictatorships. We really want to believe it’s true.

I confess that I too am easily led by talk of how great gadgets or amazing apps might solve some hitherto intractable area of inequality, exploitation, or injustice. In our defence I might point out that, despite the global economic meltdown, there have been some pretty ginormous marketing budgets at play working to sustain the illusion that there is no adversity over which technology cannot triumph.

Emotion aside, we all understand perfectly well that technology is inanimate: nuts and bolts, chips and wires. We all know that it’s not the technology on which we rely, but the ingenuity of the people that conceive of, create, and creatively apply technology to society’s for-profit and not-for-profit challenges.

Technology does not have a life of its own. Technology can’t end poverty; oust dictators; heal the sick; or educate the illiterate.

It can certainly assist us in our efforts in all of these regards but – and here’s the rub – only in proportion to the non-technical capabilities that we must first put in place. As Kentaro Toyama, an expert on technology and international development, has clarified, technology can only amplify pre-existing human capacity and intent.

If we succeed in hiring, training and developing a world-beating workforce, motivated to deliver against clear organisational objectives, then we can expect their skilful use of IT to add real value. No question.

People can use technology to amplify their capabilities in many respects. Mobile phones and Twitter were clearly useful to the young radicals in Tahrir Square – yet Egypt remains a military state. Since former President Mubarak retired to his Red Sea resort, many thousands more activists have been jailed, tortured and subjected to military trials. Realising a genuine transfer to democracy, it seems, cannot be accomplished by tweets alone.

Hopes of true democracy in Egypt still rely upon the courage and vision of the young people of that country; on their capacity and intent – as well as on their ingenuity in using technology to amplify their message.

In rural healthcare, information and communication technologies can greatly amplify the reach of public health information but healthcare professionals must still be adequately trained and paid, and clean water and sanitation systems must be put in place.

Delivery of rural education and healthcare is, first and foremost, the task of thousands of dedicated but under-paid and poorly trained nurses and teachers. The inadequacy of their training and of the schools and health centres that they staff is something that we should all lament.

What Negroponte needs to appreciate is that you can rain computers on remote populations all you like but if you are not prepared to invest the other 90% of the necessary funds in training, planning and coordination you are certain to stunt development.

Even assuming rural kids were able to teach themselves some subjects from the helicopter-dropped laptops, who would be responsible for ensuring they received the kind of well-rounded and balanced education they need to make a real difference to their lives and to that of the community?

Any IT professional could tell Nicholas Negroponte not only does he need to budget for technical support and end-of-life recycling, he also needs to invest in the best training and support staff.

If you want to drop laptops from helicopters into remote villages you had better be sure that all your previous year’s budget was spent on teacher training, curriculum development, staff retention, and so on – you know, the 90% of stuff that technology just can’t do.

 post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in January 2012


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