Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

The drawbacks of new technology

Woman in Africa on mobile phone
New technology has been a real boon to many third world nations

How can we be sure new technologies won't have a negative impact, asks Bill Thompson

Coming up with ideas for new digital products and services is hardly difficult in this world of rapid technological development and increasing access to computers and the network.

Anyone with a vague grasp of the capabilities of internet-connected devices should be able to think of two or three innovations over an overpriced latte, in their nearest 'third space' coffee shop.

Having ideas may be easy, but deciding which to pursue and turning them into reality is difficult work with a low likelihood of success.

There's a lot of support for entrepreneurs in business, and the recent announcement that 35 UK companies will be going to the South by South-West interactive conference in Austin, Texas as part of government-sponsored 'Digital Mission' is a good demonstration of how to help growing companies.

Non-commercial ventures need help too, and it can be hard to find. Yet when it's available it can make a real difference, as I found out at a conference in Cambridge last week.

Digital divide

Two years ago, the EPSRC - one of the UK research funding agencies - offered money to four development projects that were concerned with bridging the global digital divide, and last week they held a review meeting where all the project teams could come together and talk about their experiences to date.

Bill Thompson
In this increasingly connected world, we are, at some point, going to have to discuss the ethical dimension of our innovations
Bill Thompson

Because I'd been involved in the very early stages of the project, I took the opportunity to find out how the ideas that we'd discussed so long ago were progressing.

Project update

Storybank is helping rural communities in India to create and share audiovisual material, the Village e-science project helps farmers in sub-Saharan Africa develop their agricultural practices, and the Rural e-services work offers support for Indian villagers to help design ICT systems that serve their needs.

The fourth project, Fair Tracing, is trying to make it possible for consumers to find out more about Fair Trade goods they buy, perhaps even being able to tell precisely who made them.

The meeting also provided an opportunity for the project teams to hear from some of those working at the sharp end of ICT use in development, like Paula Kotzé from the Meraka Institute and Gary Marsden from the University of Cape Town.

Marsden was the highlight of the meeting for me, partly because of his engaging style but also because he is able to blend an astute understanding of what technology can do with a profoundly empathetic appreciation of the needs of real people in their daily lives.

One of his recent projects is the 'Big Board', a large flat-panel screen that he installed in a community centre in a Kenyan town.

The screen has several images on it arranged in a grid, and it is used as way to transfer information to and from mobile phones in an area of the world where high network charges mean that downloading content is too expensive and access to PCs and the internet is too limited to be an option.

Big Board uses the combination of Bluetooth and a cameraphone to help people get data onto their mobiles. A user takes a photo of the item they are interested in and then uses Bluetooth to send it back to the computer that is driving the board.

The image is analysed, and if it is recognised then the relevant data is sent back to the phone - on the demonstration system, available options included music, images and text.

It's not fast, but it works. And it is a two-way service, as users can register with the board and send their own content for other people to download.

Unexpected results

In the trial the two most popular types of user-generated content were completely unexpected. Young people used the board to upload T-shirt designs which a local printer then downloaded and manufactured, and local choirs used it to swap recordings of their gospel choir performances.

Gary Marsden
Gary Marsden presents the Big Board project at MobileActive08

As Marsden pointed out, these were activities which came from the community and served its real needs, but they could only emerge because the technology was not constrained.

The Big Board allowed things to happen, without limiting what those things were, so much so that Marsden finished his talk by admitting that he has given up trying to predict the ways new tools will be used by communities.

He believes evaluating technology projects is almost impossible, because there are so many different factors to take into account, and often the really significant outcomes are not ones that were anticipated.

The Big Board is a fascinating idea, although Marsden doubts it would catch on in the West. He reckons the downloads take too long and in our busy and media-saturated lives, few of us would bother to wait for the latest Beyonce song to be sent to a phone via Bluetooth.

Sticky wicket

However, it also raises a few questions. Some users were blocked because they were using the board to share pornography, but it's not clear who should make decisions about what content is appropriate on a community service like this.

And what happens if new tools or services disrupt established community practices, as with the use of mobile phones to allow young men and women to contact each other freely in cultures that normally segregate the sexes?

These are not exclusively issues that affect development projects, of course. And I doubt that many of the technology entrepreneurs at Digital Mission will sit down and consider the wider social impact of their new products or services even when, like the microprocessor or the mobile phone, they threaten to overthrow the established order.

But in this increasingly connected world, we are, at some point, going to have to discuss the ethical dimension of our innovations.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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