I was lucky enough to be included in the proceedings of WCIT. It’s a gathering of technology policy people, NGOs, and the private sector talking about everything from the latest 3D display technology, to redesigning cities, to technology for social inclusion. There were ties and people well above my pay grade.
So what I have to say will invariably sound ungrateful for the opportunity to be invited at all, and I’m not. But what disturbed me was that I had difficulty finding any actual content. I was taking notes–copious notes as anthropologists are prone to. Yet after a while they became mostly a record of platitudes.
“You need to collaborate to innovate.”
“We can use ICT for improving public services, mitigating impacts of climate change and educating rural students.”
“Our call for action sets ambitious, yet attainable goals.”
Sometimes these were mutually contradictory, like:
“The ICT revolution means that for the first time, children are teaching the older generations.” and, later, “We need to teach our children e-skills so that they can be included in the digital revolution.” Huh? Who is teaching whom what exactly?
There were some people who did actually say some things. Dr. Neelie Kroes of the European Commission made an actual argument for IPR reform to support remix in new media and the culture industries. For this she received applause, yet further substantive claims remained elusive. I was not the only one who felt this; it seemed to be a topic of conversation. Ultimately, I ended up collecting these platitudes, hoarding them even. I plan to make a bingo game out of them.
So what gives, then? It couldn’t be that 2000 smart people who show up to an elite event enjoy not speaking about anything in particular. Sure, most were there to do business of some kind–make contacts, do deals and so forth. But that the real business takes place behind the scenes doesn’t explain why so many smart, clued-in people could only speak in strings of platitudes for the onstage bit. Surely they cared about what they had to say, and put effort into those talks.
Having just completed the Social Viability Measure, which we’re touting as a framework for anticipating the long term social effects of ICT4D projects, what I can say is that these are highly uncertain, complex efforts. The complexity of actually making a tech project work, and bring together the right interested parties, is staggeringly difficult and uncertain. Perhaps, then, these just so stories are necessary to convince ourselves that progress is indeed being made? Maybe it speaks to the mess of it all if we need to create this overly tidy version of things, where technology always mitigates against global warming whilst creating economic growth, empowering the poor and while it’s at it might as well cure cancer.
As these things always do, it reminds me of an anthropology from elsewhere. In this case, Alexei Yurchak’s work on official talk in Russia during the late Soviet period. Intriguingly, he says that official Soviet speak only became rigid after Stalin’s death. Sure, the consequences for getting it wrong were more dire under Stalin than Brezhnev or Kruzhschev, but there was an authority figure against which to check what kind of speech was right and what would send you to the gulag. Later, authority was more diffuse. No one really knew what would make for ‘bad’ talk, so it became more platitude-filled and ritualistic.
The tech industry and policy world, with its distributed network of partnerships, similarly has little to go on in terms of assuredly convincing speech. Except, of course, the sentiment that technology will cure all our ills if just applied in the right way. (There was a platitude for this too, which was that “it’s not the technology alone, but the implementation and usage of that technology.”)
Perhaps being scared, confused and overwhelmed, I had more in common with the other attendees than I realized.