Image from Dan Hodges blog on

When I read this news the first time, I read it with little discomfort. I realized there is nothing much I can do to change it so it didn’t bother me. Till I read it again this morning when it appeared on my feed. This time I read it while I was reading the recent debate going on between Sen-Bhagwati, here’s a good piece to get updated on whats happened so far. In a nutshell its about two views on India’s economic reform policy from two leading economists. Amartya Sen’s view is more investment in social infrastructure boosts the productivity of a nations people and thereby raises growth, Bhagwati on the other hand views that only a focus on growth can yield enough resources for investing in social sector schemes. Both may disagree on what is more important but it cant be denied that Sen weds his conception of enhancing the poor’s capabilities to the presence and expansion of capitalist markets. Lets leave this thought for a moment, and come back to why the gmail news bothered me today.

I adopted gmail because it was free (well not really, but you know what I mean), new and the invite was a birthday gift in 2004. So I dropped all previous email clients, (yahoo, rediffmail, hotmail) and moved lock stock and barrel to gmail. The adoption came easy, everyone who was internet savvy at the time had a gmail address. I joined in the exclusive category, even offered to forward invites when I was bestowed with them to my select few. This modus operandi can be applied to adoption of other free internet based platforms to meet various social needs, to name a few: facebook, orkut, twitter etc. Disguised as free these are all fruits of capitalism. They are funded by venture capitalists, though they may have been started by young innovators in their dorm rooms initially but they all have very deep pockets behind them that want them to make their pockets deeper. In our society today, capitalism defines every aspect of our social being and that applies profoundly to the internet. In fact this gmail news was a huge reality check of sorts and that bothered me.

I, like many others am interested in social change and social good. I like many others have seen the potential benefits of technology in changing power dynamics for the better. Not naive about it, I have also been aware of the negative implications. But at the same time the crude capitalistic undertones had not become more obvious than now [partly because am slow :)]. But the complete unfazed profit motive of today’s corporates is a matter of both grave concern not just for those online but those offline as well. When Herbert Marcuse wrote in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man: “The traditional notion of the ‘neutrality’ of technology can no longer be maintained. Technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put; the technological society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques.”

As I ranted in my other post, “The effects of a technology are a product of the interaction of its components with other components, where each component has a purpose and is a technology in itself.” the Internet and the companies that provide services on it are shaped by how we as society opt to develop them. When we as a society are driven by our capitalist, profit driven agenda then it is no wonder that the Internet itself becomes a capitalist’s ultimate tool. So whether one agrees with Sen or Bhagwati economic reform policy in either cases seems to lead us to greater presence and expansion of capitalism.


Illustration by Ming. You can find him on twitter @24hashtags

Of late in my conversations with fellow development professionals I have begun to realize that we are becoming more and more “comfortable” in the slowness of the social change process and I would go on a limb to say that we are guilty of slowing it down further. It almost makes essentialist, that the positive change for whose agents we claim to be is slow because those who are the beneficiaries of this change are hard to convince. While simultaneously the same colleagues are eager to adopt new social media tools for bringing about social change. So why this contradiction. At one end the slowness of social change is being taken as a given but at the same time this euphoria around social media as a way to leapfrogging social change? Grasping at the straws are we?

Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the way we are going about the business of international development. Traditional approaches to international development place greater emphasis on planning and strategy development relying heavily on ex-ante analysis, projecting an image of certainty and control through detailed fore-planning which often places penalties on deviations from plans during implementation. This approach though tries to break away from “one size fits all (OSFA)” by being consultative in its design at the on-set but repeats the draw backs of OSFA approach by assuming that on going lessons from implementation are irrelevant to planning. So now we have a situation where the plans no matter how well planned from the outset are being followed rigidly and monitoring is done only to ensure that they do not diverge and compliance with planned activities or outputs is controlled. As an international development worker this would offer little opportunity to be creative or flexible in responding to information emerging from implementation. Which is where the euphoria for new tools such as social media provides a release for jaded development workers. It provides this appearance of being able to change course, appear to move quickly in face of new information. This in my opinion creates an illusion that ‘improvements’ to plans can be executed in a way that lead to positive change in “real time” which traditional development approach cannot.

The idea of social media has seemed to promise answers which are attractive both to who espouse the traditional approaches and to those looking for non-traditional ways of social change – because social media is associated with those committed to ideas about participation and grassroots empowerment. Since a lot of the people who are adopting social change may or maynot be directly connected in their day to day functioning with the grassroots they think because social media connects them to a certain kind of grassroots, that seems to be solving the connection issue. But this impatience in my opinion does more harm than good, it is IMHO what sensational journalism is doing to investigative journalism.

Impatience for seeing change happen is important but it should not be overtaken by illusion of change. It provides international development actors ways to network, find supporters, fundraise, inform and lobby online. But real meaningful change in lives of individuals, poverty alleviation, improve program implementation – it does not. As long as that is clear we can justify the % of resources we spend on it.

Update 25 July 2013:

When I saw this in xkcd I had to add it here! It makes sense here. I do not like how every programme implementation conversation ends up having someone always ask but what about how we use facebook, or twitter.

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