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'In technology we trust' is not the answer to social inequality

January 16, 2022 | 02:39 am PT
Dang Nguyen Researcher
There is one common thread that binds together the infamous "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) initiative in 2005, Facebook’s controversial "Free Basics" program in 2015, and HCMC Department of Information and Communications’ recent proposal to give its low-income residents free smartphones in 2022: the debunked belief that technology is a silver bullet to our social inequality.

Scholars who study the social implications of technology usually refer to this belief as technological solutionism – the ideology behind the reductive thinking that recasts all complex social problems across domains such as public health, governance, education, or law enforcement as merely computable problems with computable solutions. Technological solutionism is costly even when the costs aren't obvious to those who subscribe to this ideology; these costs are not just economic, but also social and political.

When the OLPC initiative was first established, its goal to transform education by creating and distributing low-cost and low-power laptops to children in developing countries was met with enthusiasm.

The articulation of problem was simple: children in low-income countries lacked access to the content, media, and computer-programming environments that were becoming increasingly integrated to the education of children in developed countries. This posed a worrying gap in the digital literacy of children across the income divide, which could further entrench existing social inequalities.

A similarly simple solution was then proposed: let's build cheap laptops and give them to children in the developing world. In 2005, the typical retail price for a laptop was around $1,000. OLPC aimed to build a laptop as cheap as $100, powered by turning a hand crank that extended from the hinge between keyboard and screen, ruggedized so that it would withstand children's explorations, and sold directly and exclusively to governments.

OLPC failed spectacularly on every single one of its promises. The OLPC XO would eventually ship with an AC adapter like any other device rather than a hand crank, eclipsing OLPC’s original and most compelling vision to overcome infrastructural deficiencies in developing countries. Known colloquially as the $100 laptop, the OLPC XO ended up costing almost $200 – excluding infrastructural costs such as power and internet access. The laptop also did not sell well: far from the hundreds of millions that Negroponte envisioned, the laptop sold less than three million units, most of them to projects in Latin America. The OLPC foundation shut down in 2014.

OLPC provided a hardware solution to a problem that revealed itself to be more than hardware: it is, at the very least, also infrastructural. This is where the Free Basics program came in. Formerly known as by Facebook (now Meta) in 2013, the initiative was rebranded before it was launched in India to avoid fierce criticism from Indian internet activists who gathered under the label Save The Internet (STI).

Why the controversy? It all started with a white paper written by Mark Zuckerberg in August 2013, titled "Is Connectivity a human right?" At the time, one-third of the world’s population was online; about 5 billion people did not have access to the internet. Zuckerberg’s strategic echoing of a 2011 UN report linking connectivity and human rights framed Facebook’s initiative to give internet access to the poor as a moral imperative. He then proposed before the 2014 Mobile World Congress a version of an "emergency internet", where, like dialing 911, people would access Facebook’s version of the internet for free as basic human necessities. This basic version would include things like food prices, health information, Wikipedia, and Facebook messages.

To achieve this goal, Zuckerberg proposed partnerships with telecom operators in India. These partnerships are anything but philanthropic: Zuckerberg argued that eventually these partnerships would prove profitable to his partners, because people will eventually pay to access the whole internet once they have got a taste of it through the limited version provided by Facebook. The reasons why the unconnected remained that way, he argued, were due to high data costs and lack of understanding of the benefits of connectivity. And because the free services offered by Facebook would be entirely text-based, shouldering the data costs would be reasonable for telecom partners as customer acquisition costs. Like a gateway drug, was designed as a habit-forming service that gave way to "full" internet consumption down the road.

STI criticized as a faux philanthropic mission that pretends to give first-time internet users access to the internet rather than a Facebook-centric walled garden designed to serve its interests, while sounding like a formally registered non-profit (".org") instead of the multi-stakeholder business venture it was.

Under the rebranded Free Basics, the initiative was blocked by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, who subsequently devised regulations to ban all zero-rated services in the country in 2016 on the grounds of protecting net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers must treat all internet communications equally and free of discrimination. This principle stipulates that under an open internet system, the full resources of the internet and means to operate on it should be easily accessible to all individuals and institutions.

The success of STI in stopping Free Basics is thanks in no small part to India’s strong entrepreneurial IT sector, robust anti-colonialism sentiments, and the social positioning that STI members embody as India’s new, digital, globalized middle class.

Peple use smartphones for medical information declaring at a checkpoint on Dinh Bo Linh Street, Binh Thanh District, HCMC, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

People use smartphones for medical declaration at a Covid-19 checkpoint on Dinh Bo Linh Street, Binh Thanh District, HCMC, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Closer to home, the HCMC information department’s proposal to give low-income residents free smartphones should learn from the cautionary tales about the technology hype that underpinned the failures of OLPC and Free Basics in India. Technology carries an enduring charisma that makes it compelling as an agent of positive social change even in the face of evidence to the contrary: policymakers, educators, and technologists continue to be moonstruck by its supposed potential to facilitate social transformations.

The charisma of technologies imbues mundane technological artifacts such as the laptop or the smartphone with feelings of awe, transcendence, and greater purpose. This charisma is sustained by the collective belief that technology carries with it extraordinary powers; adoption of technology, therefore, is usually understood as inevitable.

But technological adoption and social change are complex and fraught with choices. Learning from the cautionary tales of failed technological adoption to ‘fix’ social inequality means that HCMC policymakers should ask, and come up with accountable answers to, the following three questions.

The first question is about the technology itself: what sort of smartphones is the city going to give out to its low-income residents? There is politics in the type of smartphones that is accessible to the poor, as opposed to more expensive smartphones such as iPhones. Last year, research by a team at Trinity College Dublin examined the data sent by six variants of the Android OS developed by Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei, Realme, LineageOS and /e/OS to find that even when minimally configured and the handset is idle, with the exception of e/OS, these vendor-customized Android variants transmit substantial amounts of information to the OS developer and to third parties such as Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook that have pre-installed system apps.

When compared with, for example, Apple devices, Google collects a notably larger volume of handset data. Research by the same team shows that during the first 10 minutes of startup, the Pixel handset sends around 1MB of data to Google – compared with the iPhone sending around 42KB of data to Apple. When the handsets are sitting idle, the Pixel sends roughly 1MB of data to Google every 12 hours compared with the iPhone sending 52KB to Apple. This means that Google collects around 20 times more handset data than Apple.

Given that the average price of an Apple device is much more expensive than an average Google device, this effectively creates two data regimes – one for the poor, and one for those who can afford expensive devices. In other words, the poor pays for their digital access by being perpetually extracted from, profited off, and acquiescing control over their own privacy.

The second question is about money: who is going to finance the costs of these phones? If the city government is going to spend its budget on buying and distributing these phones to its residents, could this money be better spent on something else? If a corporate partner is going to step in and finance these costs, what kind of profit do they stand to gain from doing so, and is this profit made transparent to the public?

The third question is about utility: what is the expected use of these smartphones among low-income residents once they are provided? Who will shoulder the costs of connecting these smartphones to the internet? What kind of digital literacy training is in place to ensure that these smartphones are of service to the everyday lives of city residents? Without a consultative mechanism in place, these free smartphones risk ending up with a fate similar to OLPC.

Answering each of these questions means considering technological adoption in all its costs – economic, social, and political. It also means imagining technological presents and futures together, so that our collective actions can be directed towards common goals. As technology scholars Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim put it, technological imaginaries have a normative side that shows us "how life ought, or ought not, to be lived". While a technology might promise to transform its users’ existence for the better, there is no guarantee that it will do so.

Failing to recognize this means leaving ourselves ignorant of lessons already learnt the hard way elsewhere.

* Dang Nguyen is a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making & Society. The opinions expressed are her own.

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