Yesterday my grandfather turned 83. There he is in the picture below. The incredible half century gap between the before and after nostalgic snaps are shot next to his lifelong toy and companion: His Morse Code radio.
According the International Amateur Radio Union, more than two million amateur radio lovers just like my grandpa surf the radio waves in search of making connections with others all around the world. I am constantly reminded of the global popularity of this as a pastime when the conversation between us always and inevitably turns to his radio activities and latest certificates he gained. Take his mastery of the “200 world islands” credentials. To receive them he had to touch base with another electron tube enthusiast in each of the two hundred designated islands. Where there are no inhabitants, expeditions were organised that set up makeshift accommodation and a radio shack for a week at a time to allow people to make the needed connection. Upon contact, using the universal language of Morse Code, they swap calling numbers (UA6FQ is my grandpa’s) and send each other a postcard with the date and location of their virtual meeting. He has thousand, literally thousands, of postcards going back to the mid fifties from every nook and cranny of our planet. In return, his radio-buddies receive one from Stavropol—his home town, my birth place and a city nested in the heart of the Northern Caucus range of South Western Russia, between the world’s largest lake that is the Caspian sea and the world’s, well, blackest Black Sea. .
It is amazing that something that seems so archaic to most of us still plays a huge part in connecting strangers across the globe, even if only fleetingly. It is like the Social Network of their generation; Millions of users hopping around hundreds of their radio friends only to touch base briefly, with a handful becoming lifelong radio-pals worth a quarterly ten minute update of short-long-long-short-long index finger tappings. Through their unrelenting chase of radio connections, his generation of innovative social networkers—born out of Space Age technological curiosity, catalyzed by Sputnik’s success and perpetually fueled by the Cold War—and their more hobby driven contemporaries have provided us with endless hours of conversation topic; keeping me and my 83 year old grandpa close.
Had my family emigrated to the U.K. eighty years ago instead of seventeen we would have counted ourselves lucky to hold a conversation via such a device. Instead, with him being in Russia and me in Thailand, Bolivia, France, Australia—and all the other faraway places my life and work take me—we speak for over an hour over Skype at least once a month. Always with the usual wonderfully charming difficulty of his being unable to see or hear me properly for his deteriorating senses and my occasional struggle to understand his diction through his almost entirely toothless smile. Not to mention the Skype call quality problems we have all become inured to that are tolerated by millions of users for the benefit of free global voice and video chat—a tiny price to pay, especially compared to the expedition-size efforts of radio lovers.
We are part of the last few decades’ transformation of social relations and communications between members of a global digital diaspora. On the one hand, for individuals, this serves in the building and maintaining of identity and personal roots. In fact, academics are recognizing that such technologies “are increasingly used transnationally to link migrants and homelands in ways that are deeply meaningful to people on both ends of the line”. For society, on the other hand, online organization of scattered diaspora can help in spreading vital on-the-ground information of major events, pushing a cause and even in the reconstruction and development of nations, as has been witnessed most recently across the Middle East. Although the sad events of the mostly mindless looting and violence in the UK in the summer of 2011 remind us that spontaneous, internet-driven organisation does not always have an admirable purpose and does not always lead to positive action.
Social connections and better family communications are not the only applications of modern technologies that—for those that can access and use them correctly—can have a positive impact on development. Initiatives like the Khan Academy and Coursera—that offer free classes ranging from basic middle school math to university level courses in nutrition for health and disease management—are leveling the playing field of access to education (at least for those with an internet connection).
In this way, ICT (information communication technologies) are increasingly heralded as vital to increasing access to health and education, improving opportunities for employment and income for the poor and pushing breakthroughs in social freedoms such as those of uncensored media and free speech. Nothing tells the story better than the example of mobile cellular devices. Mobile telephones are increasingly used by farmers in the most rural of villages to get the latest city market prices for their goods, which ensures that they get more of the pie from intermediary traders and wholesalers who purchase their products. In some cases, the added advantage elevates the standing of women and other under-privileged groups within communities. Mobile devices have also revolutionized monetary transactions; People are able to send and receive remittances from their family abroad through texting each other pass codes for banks and other institutions that hold their money. Others take out and maintain small micro-loans from local and international lending organisations via their cellular devices. All these uses have meant that the growth of mobile phone industry in developing countries has been nothing if not explosive, with DFID reporting 25% annual growth in subscriptions in Africa alone. Meanwhile, in Guatemala, NGO workers joke that there are twice as many mobile phones as there are citizens in the country.
These developments help speed up and reduce the cost of communications, but they are not without their own problems. In China, for instance, many are calling for corporate liability to be established for companies that sell the government internet tools that it uses to restrict human rights. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, spread of mobile phone usages has ushered in changes in social expectations: Increased connectivity is accompanied by higher obligations on out-migrants to support those left behind. Importantly, not everyone can afford modern devices and many remain simply beyond the ‘coverage’ zone. This inability to access internet and ICT technology can further alienate and impoverish the most vulnerable people across societies, causing skeptics to criticise what they are calling the contemporary ‘ICT fetishism’.
Nevertheless, the wonders of technology never cease to amaze: Electron radios have shortened the distances between strangers for decades, a role now taken over by social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; Skype brings a Russian granddad close to his globally nomadic granddaughter every single month; Twitter and other internet sites are playing an important role in social movement organisation of rebellious youth; and mobile phones are now simultaneously many people’s banks, price-transmitting mechanisms and powerful spreaders of other market, social and political information. As a result, there is room to remain optimistic about the role that ICT can play not only in popular resistance, development and poverty reduction, but in keeping strong family connections, such as my own, across our world’s borders. Issues of changes in social expectation are outside state responsibility and ensuring corporate and government technological responsibility are perhaps better addressed through international pressure. However, in order to silence the critics on inequitable spread of ICT benefits, countries can and need to address inequality in access to guarantee that the most vulnerable groups are not left behind.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were agreed upon and put in place by the leaders of 193 nations at the 2000 Millennium Summit. None of the eight global objectives explicitly included a role for internet and other information and communications technology, perhaps because their widespread use in advanced nations had only been around for a decade or so. However, subsequently, ICTs’ importance has been increasingly internationally recognized, not least by the United Nations. As the 2015 MDG deadline approaches and we begin to imagine a post-MDG future, the framework enacted will surely need to be a more vehement promoter of ICT and other technologies for development. Inevitably, as with all development solutions, they are not a panacea for development. In order to steer technologies in the direction of reaping the highest development rewards they will need to be devised with the local context in mind and be accompanied with a strong effort on ensuring equality in access across all social groups, especially the most disadvantaged.
What role do you think technology should plain in a post Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework and why? Reply with your thoughts below.
Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
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