The ICT Iceburg

July 15, 2009

We too often view information and communication technology (ICT) as a fix-all for solving society’s problems. There is a lot about the impact of ICTs that isn’t immediately visible – without looking we don’t always know what’s happening below the surface: what the impact of a given technology is, or how it interacts with various other human, technological, and environmental factors in a given context.

This situation is not ideal: it’s a problem if we’re designing infrastructures, services, and products without understanding their impact, users, the public interest, etc.

People are starting to recognize that information and communication technologies can have negative as well as positive impacts – new computers in a classroom may help students learn, but what happens to the computers that they replace, and to the health of communities that process them as e-waste? Wal-Mart’s use of ICTs helps the company to effectively source its products from around the world, yet this global model may ultimately have a negative impact on local communities.  Telecommuting is expected to reduce pollution and increase worker satisfaction, but does it really do so?

The MIT Broadband Working Group’s paper Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Deployment (.PDF)
is a good example of how research can help illuminate the fact behind the rhetoric. The paper explores whether broadband has had an impact on economic growth in the United States (it appears that it has, to some extent), and discusses some of the difficulties in measuring this relationship.

Critical evaluation of communication technology is especially crucial at this moment. Right now the United States is planning to do a major upgrade to our ICT infrastructure.  It remains to be seen if the upgrade will create more durable, sustainable development across the U.S.  Will the infusion of several billion dollars over the next few years into ICT development create more resilient, more durable local economies? Will localities receive a net increase in social capital and economic growth?  Or will these systems simply make it easier for dollars to flow out of the hands of local economies?  Under what circumstances does ICT support better education outcomes?  Higher quality of life?  More letters home to grandma?  Does ICT really deserve all of the credit for its role in supporting positive social outcomes?  Is it possible to measure its influence?  If so, how?  When measured, what do you find?

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Social Impact