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Technology gets rid of dictators, but not social classes

By Jeffrey Swindle on August 5, 2011

Since the Arab Spring uprisings, human rights activists worldwide have championed the power of technology, mainly the Internet and mobile phones, as tools for democracy and change. Evidence shows that they are right, social media played a role in bringing down dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. But other evidence shows that technology actually often reinforces social inequalities in other instances, giving more voice to the powerful, further drowning out the meek cries of the politically weak.

Social media has been successful when all social classes unite to take down the big bad evil
dictators. The Arab Spring is the contemporary poster boy for this movement. The proletariat united, rose up, and took down the bourgeois in Tunisia and Egypt, and is still fighting in Syria, Libya, and other nations. Twitter hashtags and facebook groups were large players in mobilizing protestors, who came from all backgrounds—rich, middle-class, and poor—and simply communicated with their mobile phones to organize mass movements.

It seems logical, then, to assume that social media and technology penetration will lead to more democracy and social justice. The more blackberries in a country, the less the economic disparity. The more rural telecenters, the less political corruption. Or at least so goes the thinking.

Studies show otherwise. To the extent that inequalities between social classes are affected at all by the increase in ICT usage, they often became stronger and disparity increases. In a DFID study in 2005 on telephone use in India (Gujarat), Mozambique, and Tanzania, researchers found the most wealthy and educated people used phones more and with greater frequency, in both urban and rural areas.

Other studies show that not only do more educated and wealthier people have greater access to ICTs, they also value them more, and use their for more development related activities as opposed to entertainment than poorer populations. Furthermore, the rich and smart are far more likely to produce digital content, solidifying the stronghold of the elite in societal knowledge production.

The relationship between ICT penetration and social inequalities, then, is more complex than the Arab Spring would suggest. The difference with the Arab Spring is that the people united to take down one leader, whereas daily life features far more social classes and political opinions, halting social change, or at least considerably slowing it down. While technology helped bring social justice to entire nations, it did not eliminate social classes within the nations.
In order to decrease social inequalities in ICT usage, then, ICT designers and national policymakers should consider stipulations to favor usage of their technology by marginalized social classes.

Whether it be reducing costs to allow poorer classes to buy the product or developing voice recognition technology to engage the illiterate, extra effort will be needed to reduce the social inequality of ICT usage. Preliminary efforts by USAID’s Women in Development initiative show promise; other agencies should mimic their efforts to increase ICT usage among digital minority populations. Without these extra efforts to assist marginalized populations, ICTs will only further embed developing nations with social and economic inequalities, leading to future instability and lower quality of life.


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Researcher for USAID Global Broadband & Innovation Interested in ICT4D, M&E, Sen's freedoms, and development side affects.
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2 Comments to “Technology gets rid of dictators, but not social classes”

  1. Ross says:

    This subject matter is quite complex but fascinating.

    I am a great believer in technology acting as a liberator both politically and economically. The mobile revolution of the last 15 years in Africa has ‘coincided’ with a reduction in dictatorships and an increase in democracies. I have no doubt that the current “internet ” revolution that is sweeping the continent will continue the trend.

    Does this all lead to economic growth and most particularly a trickle down to the bottom of the pyramid. I would say yes – but this can be and is being hijacked by the elites particularly in placed like SA and Zim. So in order for the technology to truly be effective it needs to be implemented in conjunction with appropriate economic policies and democracy ( true democracy ).

    Re the Arab Spring – this was a revolution about citizenship and rights – which happened to be turbo-charged by social media and the underlying economic malaise. Technology played a role in that the rapid penetration of mobile over the last 15 years saw the youth ( the majority ) being empowered and willing to take risks that their parents would never have dreamed of.

    It is still playing out and who knows what the end game is. But of the power of technology as a force for change – there is no doubt – but it can be used effectively by the elites too – to suppress – but only for a limited time. So yes social stratification will remain for now but may evolve slowly through policy and even cultural changes but – a much much longer process.

  2. jeffreyswindle says:

    Thanks for your optimism. Let’s hope that ICTs in places like south africa and zimbabwe do make their way down the totem pole to the middle and lower classes (whether economic or social). You may be right that with time, ICTs will gradually become a part of culture in those countries and be used by all. However, it is my opinion that without government intervention, the rich will always have access to the better technologies. For example, the majority of people in South Africa may have a cell phone, but really it is the rich who have a high speed broadband connection in their own home. And it is the rich who are creating more content online.
    This is obvious, right? Rich people have access to better goods, regardless of whether we are talking about ICTs or whether we are talking about air bags in automobiles.
    However, I think countries can take a progressive stance and make policy decisions to bring the ICTs to those underprivileged. Take for example, Mozambique’s recent announcement that they will use their tax money to bring mobile and Internet services particularly to the rural poor. I wrote another post on this yesterday, here – http://connectivity.gbiportal.net/2011/08/03/mozambique-social-invests-in-icts-for-rural-development/
    That’s the purpose of Universal Access Funds and I think that countries need to be more proactive in making these policy decisions and carrying them out.