From Indian Fisherman to Egyptian Revolutionaries: Disruptive Connective Technology comes of Age

April 15, 2011

One of the turning points we are exploring at GPF 2011 is connective technology. On a scale previously unimagined, the expansion of connective technology has enhanced communication within and among societies and empowered individuals previously isolated by geography, poverty or politics. This has enabled many to engage in commerce and to access information and services, improving their lives and livelihoods. But technology also can be a force for ill depending on the choices that we take. We explored this duality over several conference sessions.

There are five billion mobile phones globally and approximately one billion are smart phones. Mobile telephony has become the primary means of communications in the developing world, providing an infrastructure to reach those who were previously invisible. With this connectivity we have a vast untapped platform for creating employment opportunities, advancing economic activity, and building wealth.

The adoption of mobile telephones is altering markets in unforeseen ways. Reuben Abraham, Executive Director of the Center for Emerging Market Solutions at the Indian School of Business shared with us how Indian fisherman are using cell phones to monitor prices across markets, make production decisions based on real time information, and manage their fishing practices to reduce time spent idle. As a result, high price dispersions have been reduced.

But Abraham cautioned that the majority of the benefits in this example are accruing not to the fishermen but to other supply chain actors—the boat owners and the commission agents. The technology also has enabled those at the top of the supply chain to coordinate attacks on the fishermen.

Leila Chirayath Janah, founder and CEO of Samasource, explained how connective technology is enabling her organization to bring dignified, digital employment to otherwise marginalized people around the world. Samasource disaggregates large contracts for content moderation and data entry into smaller tasks that can be executed by workers anywhere. Janah posits that micro-work is the reinvention of economic development and digital work centers are the factories of the future, enabling us to regard marginalized people as producers for the first time. To date Samasource has received contracts for more than $1.5 million in work from high profile companies, 85 percent of which goes to the workers themselves.

We also have seen the tremendous power of connective technology to provide a platform for the expression of popular discontent and political mobilization, unsettling and even helping to topple governments. Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, noted that the use of technology in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere has enabled the modern human rights movement; access to information has been essential for advancing change. Facebook and Twitter made an enormous difference in these cases, permitting “leaderless” revolutions and creating the opportunity for people to stand up and be counted, but with a sense of safety in numbers.

But in the face of the challenge to authority this technology allows, some governments have sought to limit access to information.  The Libyan government closed access to the Internet, but soon discovered this thwarted communications among its own security forces.  The Syrian government welcomed Facebook to allow for a higher level of monitoring of individual and collective behavior. The Chinese government is cracking down on access to information in ways that have not been seen in over a decade and it is clear they have the resources to overwhelm any uprising.

Is access to information itself a right and what is our responsibility as the connective network grows ever stronger? Social norms have not kept pace with technology. As a result, the rights and expectations of users are unclear.

Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, cautioned that we are giving up more and more information about ourselves, whether through our mobile phones tracking our movements, voluntary “check-ins” via applications such as Foursquare, or an ever-expanding presence of surveillance cameras. He warns that technology is becoming ubiquitous and inescapable, and repressive regimes will use this information to their benefit.

Throughout these discussions at GPF 2011 we have seen that connective technology is both a goldmine of opportunity and a potentially powerful tool for harm. This is truly a turning point for philanthropy and the choices individuals make will dictate whether technology is a driving force for good or for ill.

Jane

Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum

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