Last Friday’s Asian WSJ, and the online edition (subscription only, I’m afraid), published a feature I’d been working on for a while: The digital divide. I focused on Newmont’s mine in Sumbawa, in eastern Indonesia, and the company’s limited success in introducing e-business to the locals:
Newmont’s supply-system project is typical of many around Asia — by the private sector, by governments, by grass-roots organizations and international agencies — that attempt to improve the lot of ordinary people by giving them access to technology. But some people are skeptical that top-down projects like this give the people what they really need. In particular, can the dreams of big organizations really match the needs of ordinary individuals, especially when, as is often the case, those individuals aren’t asked what it is that they actually want? The digital divide often reflects wider social issues, and bridging it may represent little more than applying a Band-Aid to a deep-rooted problem.
Of course, Newmont and the company that is responsible for the technical side of the project feel it is a success, which is why they pointed me to it. But it was clear from what I saw on the ground that it has a long way to go to achieving the goals I had been told it had already achieved. A great example of not believing a press release. You have to see it with your own eyes. But not everyone can afford the airfare. Luckily the Journal shelled out for me to go down there and see for myself.
The story took me in all sorts of different directions, though far too few to get a real picture of things. I was quizzing one guy and being somewhat skeptical, I suppose, of the claims made by what I’ve heard call “photo opportunity projects” — big money spent by companies on telecentres in the bush — usually a room with lots of new PCs, the air-conditioning to keep them cool, a big mast to carry a fast Internet connection to a village that doesn’t even have water or basic sanitation. The guy’s answer surprised me.
He said I was the first journalist to ask him more critical questions: “It’s interesting you called us,” he said. “In the past a lot of calls from reporters who are very excited about the technology and want to write about ‘technology saved the world’ type articles, you’re the first to come to us with [questions like] “Are these projects really working”?’
He went on:
In the past you saw a lot of hype about the potential for technology. It’s a very seductive story – the idea that technology like the Internet can fundamentally change the lives of people who are bringing in a $1 a day. But that needs to be mediated with a certain amount of realism… There might be a sudden kind of backlash against these projects. Although I do think there’s lot of potential for technology, it just needs to be done in a very careful realistic way.
(He was speaking on the record but I’ve not done a detailed check on my notes so these words may not be a verbatim quote, so I won’t name him.)
He concluded that my questions were “an indication the worldwide community is becoming more mature about these kinds of projects.” I would be flattered to think so, but I’m not so sure. Most of these projects are in faraway places — even ones in Indonesia I wanted to check up on I couldn’t reach, either because of cost or time. When they’re opened, with great fanfare, journalists are flown in at great expense and everyone involved gets the press they want. But who goes back to check?
One conclusion I reached from doing the story is that not enough people write about what is a huge topic. Technology permeates our developed (and developed pockets of the developing) world lives in ways we rarely stop to count or critically evaluate. Another is that when we do cover it we journalists tend to assume it’s all good — as if any kind of new technology is better for everyone than no technology, and that the intentions, the motives, behind any such introduction are good.
Well, frankly, they’re not. In most cases the company or institution behind it has much less interest in the suitability of the project than their own internal goals — publicity, places to dump money that’s already been earmarked for corporate social responsibility, even just testing out technology in new environments. Rarely, if ever, are the local people consulted and their wishes really listened to and taken into account. Of course, knowing whether these projects are worthwhile in the long run would require independent folk — journalists, academics — visiting them and measuring their progress or lack of it against the original targets. But most of us can’t afford to do that, so we rely on the companies or institutions themselves to post updates.
It’s telling, to me, that most don’t. I found it very hard to get a sense, an honest appraisal, of what had happened to the projects I looked at. Which to me is evidence that a lot of these projects can’t be considered a success.