Harvard Forum: the complex world of ICT and gender

Canada's International Development Research Center and Harvard's Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who's around the table and what we're planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We're here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we'll try hard to work those questions into the conversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman's “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.

Clotilde Fonseca of Fundación Omar Dengo urges us to broaden our vision of technology and look at the potentials of technologies, not just how we believe they're best used. She starts with a story about Avancemos, a foundation that provides small grants to children and youth. Many of the kids of received these grants went off to buy mobile phones. This led to debates about whether this was a good or bad usage of funds. Adults analyzing the situation thought that it was troublesome that the children were spending so much money on phones. But kids saw them as watches, calculators, messaging tools,and resources for community building. They weren't especially interested in them as telephones.

Quoting Marshall McLuhan, she suggests that we face the danger of “looking at the future through the rear-view mirror.” Instead, we need to look at larger potentials of technologies. We have to avoid reductionist thinking, overly centered on the Internet. The revolution we're experiencing is a digital one, not just an Internet one – we can see the potentials of these tools, beyond uploading and downloading into the cloud, the potentials from productivity and communication tools.

We need to look forward because we need to make decisions about prioritizing investment. Otherwise, we end up with a deeply shortsighted strategy. This means addressing not just digital divides, but the cognitive divide: the intellectual gap to be able to profit from these technologies.

In the wake of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), it's disappointing that our plans continue to be so limited and technocentric. We need digital visions that focus not only on the technology but on bridging the cognitive gap that allows people to fully participate in Telliard de Chardin's noosphere. We need to consider the power of social netorks and the challenges to ensuring full access for developing world communities to these spaces. And we need to be careful to look for indicators which can actually capture the impact of these new tools.

(Fonseca's paper is here.)

Sabri Saidam (his paper), the advisor to Mahmood Abbas on telecoms and IT, suggests that we need to talk to the man and woman in the street about their perceptions of ICT. Based on his conversations, Saidam tells us that there are six key concerns he's developed:

- Lack of leadership – most leaders in the Arab world – and the world as a whole – don't understand the power of this technology and how it can help lead or impede development

- Senior citizens are rarely included in thinking about ICT

- Nations tend to be deeply allied with donor communities, and sometimes act against their own interest to satisfy donor needs

- The legal environment isn't conducive to technology development. Sabri has been working on the tender for a new mobile phone network. He tells us “I've been threatened with assasination so many times … people tell me, ‘The cost of getting rid of you is only a dollar or two, and you're costing us millions of dollars.'”

- Our educational system is weak, and it's dominated by Microsoft – we aren't getting exposure to other ways of building software and information systems.

- There isn't sufficient market competition – that competition only appears to be fierce.

He offers a demo of a statical tool developed to analyze IT usage in 10 Middle East markets. He shows a strong correlation between underlying literacy rates and the spread of ICT systems other than mobile phones, like Internet penetration.

Ineke Buskens (paper) wants us to consider the power aspects that underly our use of ICT. “The top of the pyramid is a problem as well as the bottom.” She warns us that “separation is an illusion” – problems like global warming and financial decline show us that we're all connected.

She warns that deep dynamics underly our assumptions about technology and power, citing a tension between Darwin and the church that doesn't rely on scientific timelines (creation within seven days) but on the idea of the fall. If there's evolution, perhaps there's no fall, and therefore no path towards redemption. She notes that the fall is inevitably blamed on women, in all three religions of the book.

ICT can “become the handmaiden of the systems, replicating the divisive characteristic of the systems”. She references a case in South Africa (I believe) where
mobile phones create a class system within a women's group, a division women who could afford to make calls and those who could only afford to beep.

“People adapt their preferences to a power-imbalanced world in order to survive in it.” This explains what happened in Zimbabwe at a computer lab where students were given time based on a first come, first served basis. Men gained almost all the access, and women were pushed away. When female students were asked why they weren't using the machines, they “spoke about their duties of wives and mothers at home keeping them away from the computers.” She argues that the students didn't have a conceptual framework to understand the access dynamics – when a researcher's intervention gave them a conceptual framework to question their role, they were abel to address their lack of access.

“There is no neutral space when it comes to knowledge and knowledge construction. I see a minefield of power dynamics everywhere,” and if we don't analyze this minefield, we only discover the mines when we step on them. She suggests we engage in “continuous and endless questioning of the concept of openness.” She suggests that Harvard's decision to publish academic papers on the university website will likely force other academic institutions to do the same – this technique will increase openness at the same time as it expands Harvard's prestige and influence, a virtuous cycle. She sees in open source “a dream for a more egalitarian society.” Our challenge is to ask what openness will be used for, what the intents behind the decisions to be more open.

Nancy Spence (paper) suggests we broaden our search for what matters most in considering gender and the digital divide. Millions of Bangladeshi women have become mobile users and providers. This isn't just about economic empowerment – it's also about relationships. “Family and social relationships are the highest contributors to well-being,” in human development – if mobile phones strengthen our interpersonal ties, that might be a benefit for human development.

We also should consider ICT and personal security, as well as ICT and disaster recovery – these subjects are of major importance for women.

When we consider ICT challenges that matter, we need to think about women as ICT producers, developers and decisionmakers, not just as consumers. This doesn't remove the need to consider access – there are vast challenges in this space – but our consideration needs to move farther and wider.

Spence tells us about a group called Asia Pacific Women's Watch. This group closely monitors a set of trade issues that affect women. These aren't just traditional literacy issues – these are issues about the WTO and the implication of power structures for women. She reminds us that we need to consider a very wide range of issues when we consider how technology affects women – when we think of girls education, we've learned to think about the importance of separate latrines, women teachers, incubation centers that help women's businesses. We need a similarly broad and complex set of understandings of women and ICT.

I apologize for not capturing the full dynamics of our discussion in this session – I was one of the discussants, and spent the discussion dodging extremely difficult questions about technological determinism. For a sense for what I said, here's my paper. I will mention a lovely joke from Sabri Saidam, about three dictators who love technology:

One holds two fingers to his ear and starts talking – the other two ask, “what are you doing?” He responds, “I'm receiving a call.” The second dictator starts blinking on and off, and the other ask, “What's going on with you?” He responded, “I'm receiving a video.” The third is Yasser Arafat, notorious for mumbling and for his quavering lips. The other two asked, “What are you doing?” Arafat answered, “I'm receiving a fax.”

More live-blogging by Ethan Zuckerman

- Day 1-
1) Update from the Harvard Forum on ICT4D
2) Markets, Mobiles and the ability to make culture
3) The complex world of ICT and gender
4) Are we satisfied with what we've got?
5) ICT4D and, and, and

- Day 2 -
1) What do we need to know?
2) Faith and focus

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