Technology mirrors the societies that use it

I recently attended the launch of the latest edition of the Gender and Development journal, which explores the impact of technology on gender equality.

At the start of the evening Amy O’Donnell, the ICT Programme Lead at Oxfam, said something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Technology is neither, good, bad or neutral. It mirrors the society that create and use it.

A lot of discussion about technology in ‘developing countries’ focuses on increasing access. But more attention is needed on power and agency - and what access really means. Access how, and to what kind of digital spaces?

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Image: Asian Development Bank, CC-BY

Access is not enough

At IF, we’re here to build a better, more ethical information society. To get there requires understanding that the social and political impacts of technology are different in different contexts.

Technology is often held up as a kind of magical power that can solve all kinds of social, economic and infrastructural challenges. And digital transformation is bringing positive change to lots of countries. Mpesa, the hugely successful mobile payment service in Kenya, has been credited for improving opportunities for small businesses, and playing a significant role in reducing poverty, especially in female-headed households. In Bangladesh, mothers can use Mama to access health information and services. And India’s Aadhaar is the world’s largest digital ID system, with over a billion users. There’s loads of things we can learn from these kinds of developments.

But there are also many examples of technology causing people harm. The full impact of Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of last year’s Kenyan election, for example, is still very unclear. And of course, there’s the much discussed privacy implications of India’s Aadhaar.

This event was great because it really demonstrated the importance of context to understanding how technology affects people’s lives. First, Shannon Philip explained his research which found that although new online spaces can help people challenge gender norms in India, there are deeper issues that need addressing around how gender is structured in society - which won’t be solved by technology alone.

Next, Ronda Zelezny-Green talked about the research she did in Nairobi. I found her work especially interesting because I studied the history of Nairobi’s political economy at university.

Opportunities for women and girls for self-empowerment in Kenya

Ronda’s work showed how technology can support the education of girls from low-income backgrounds in Nairobi.

She began her research in 2012, in a secondary school of 400 girls. Over 60% of had their own phones. She started by asking the girls what they wanted from their education. Their response was more access to books, which were too expensive in town. Ronda got the group access to World Reader for free and they were able to access the books they needed for school. But the girls soon moved on to reading about cooking, leisure, love, sex, self-empowerment and the history of Africa.

Increasing the use of technology in schools is central to the Kenyan national development plan. And some of the world’s leading work in education and innovation is happening in Kenya, specifically in Nairobi. But the government’s sole focus is on computers and phones are still banned in schools. This is a legacy of the 2007 election where phones were used to coordinate voter intimidation and violence. A lot of blame was directed towards young people, rather than political elites where I’d argue the responsibility really lies.

Using mobile phones in new ways allowed the girls Ronda worked with to move beyond a narrow school education, to one that is self-led and empowering. Her work shows that use of technologies in new ways could really improve girls’ education in Nairobi. But some of this potential is limited by the socio-political context, and attitudes of communities, governments - and parents.

What happens if you ignore context?

This event resonated a lot with me, and some things I’ve been thinking about recently. Technologies are shaping how we live, our relationships with each other, our understanding of the world and our access to opportunities. But the impact is different in different socio-political contexts.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook played a role in both the 2017 Kenyan election and the Brexit vote. But in Kenya, the impact was directly related to the country’s specific social and political history. Kenya’s political economy has a violent history. Violence has been led by elites but is often blamed on the young and the poor. Ronda’s research shows how this unique political economy has affected the way technology is accessed in Kenyan schools.

When trying to understand the impact of technology on people’s lives it’s important to critique blind faith in the power of technology - and avoid direct comparisons with the West. Technology alone cannot solve the problems that some countries face as a result of a lack of essential infrastructure, unstable government, or in the context of this event, gender inequality.

But when technology is created and used in a way that reflects the realities of people's needs and lives, it can be a powerful force for social and economic good.

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