A Buddhist Philosophy of ICT4D?

A Buddhist Philosophy of ICT4D?

The Buddha would have a serious problem with some ICT4D.

Given his philosophy of interconnectedness, the Buddha might be reduced to smiling compassionately at the technologically deterministic claims of some ICT4D folk that their ICT is the sole cause of a particular development outcome.

The Buddha taught that everything in the universe is caused by and conditioned by other things; that every phenomenon and thought is in some way related to everything else, through a web of cause and effect stretching back to the beginningness. To this way of thinking, assigning sole causation for development change to a single technical artefact sounds like a crude over-simplification.

From the Buddha’s perspective, even the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the planet might be implicated in your ICT4D project outcomes! Whilst metaphysics and quantum mechanics offer comparable explanations of universal interconnectedness, here I’m gonna stick with the Buddha’s version because … well I just love all the smiling and red robes.

What got me started on this line of thought was something that Jenna Burrell wrote in an article in a recent edition of ITID journal. She suggested that Actor Network Theory might be a good discipline to help avoid the kind of mono-causal thinking about the relationship between ICT and Development that we often see in headlines like ‘mobiles empower women‘.

What’s ICT got to do with the Price of Fish?

Even supposedly high-brow publications, such as The Economist, love to lead with these attention-grabbing headlines. “Mobile Phones Promote Economic Growth” was the technologically deterministic claim made by The Economist in 2007, citing Robert Jensen’s, now famous study of cell-phone adoption in India as evidence. Jensen’s study of mobile use by Kerala’s fishermen has been cited more than any other piece of ICT4D research. Its popularity and influence led to a flurry of interest in the development of market price ICT4D initiatives.

However a follow-up study by Janaki Srinivasan and Jenna Burrell identified significant limitations to Jensen’s study including its narrow econometric focus and its reductive claim that mobile phones alone caused price changes. The follow-up study found that the price of fish in Kerala was determined by a wider web of social and political factors than mobile phones alone. It also showed that fishermen had a broader concept of development than income alone; they valued mobile phones for development benefits other than profit-maximisation. I have written more on these two studies here.

World Wide Web of Interrelatedness

So what does this mean for ICT4D practice? In her new paper, Jenna uses her Buddha wisdom to suggest that we view all of our ICT4D initiatives as part of the broader ecosystem in which they reside. In that wider ecosystem various historical, political, social and cultural factors shape each technology and are shaped by them. Jenna suggests that we might use Actor Network Theory as a practical way of mapping out the world wide web of socio-technical interrelatedness in which all ICT4D is inevitably embedded. Actor Network Theory provides one possible method for tracing the complex lines of cause and effect, which co-determine the design of any specific technology, as well as mapping its effects in the world.

By revealing this wider network Actor Network Theory is one means by which we can resist the constant pressure to provide simplistic, technology-centric explanations of social change. Over-simplifying explanations of ICT4D are not only motivated by the desire to produce punchy research papers. Funders and journalists also demand neat solutions and catchy soundbites. Pete Vowles has blogged about how, too often, it is politically and operationally unpalatable to be honest about how complex development realities are (even to ourselves).

What’s the downside? For me the challenge of Actor Network Theory (and other systems and networks approaches) is how far to pursue their logic; where to stop when detailing the extent of the network.

I believe in the Buddha Philosophy of ICT4D. I accept that existence is a world wide web of causal dependencies extending backwards and forwards throughout all space and time (linking every atom in the universe back to the Big Bang). The challenge is that I do not have an infinite amount of time (or a big enough piece of paper!) to chart the full actor network. A spiralling vortex of all thoughts and things hurtling through time and space in an infinite network of networks is difficult to nail down.

So, for me, the question becomes on which network elements to focus our finite time and energy?

I wonder what the Buddha would advise?

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